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The India-versus-China debate: Asian giants' common interests outweigh diff


Jan 9, 2012
By Mukul Sanwal, Former Civil Servant

Preparing for the visit of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao is an appropriate time to consider an Asian perspective of the world in 2030. India and China are competitors; but are they potential opponents?

The difficulties between the two emerging powers reflect lingering attitudes rather than conflicting strategic goals. The boundary issue, that has so far defined the relationship, is also moving away from its colonial legacy towards an agreed framework. In the emerging multi-polar world, major powers will have to come to some sort of accommodation with each other shaped by three strategic global shifts.

First, a significant shift of power is taking place from the US to Asia as the driver of global politics. The Indian Ambassador to China recently put this in perspective, stating that "we need a stronger relationship, going beyond national politics, one where we understand each others' interests much better. Both of us need a stronger Asia."

Liu Zhenmin, China's assistant foreign minister, has also called for a "cooperative partnership".

The view from Washington is different. They can no longer maintain their hegemonic status alone and are, therefore, encouraging us to join in securing a military balance of power in Asia, citing the possibility of limited conflicts in the region. Any such understanding would mean acknowledging significant divergent interests with China.

The policy issue before us is whether we can work together with China to decisively shape the future of Asia and become major actors in world politics, or we need to partner with the US to contain China, so that we can become a regional power. For military strategists, the unresolved question is China's intentions towards us.

One way to answer this question is to understand the second major strategic shift taking place in the world. Countries are gaining influence now less because of the size of their armies than because of the growth of their economies. In the future economic growth of Asia, we have a higher degree of complementarity with the other countries than is usually acknowledged.

India's growth has differed from China's and the rest of Asia in its reliance on domestic demand and growth in services rather than labour-intensive manufacturing.

China is now India's biggest trading partner. Trade and business ties between China and India have increased dramatically from around $5billion in 2002 to more than $60 billion in 2010, and the aim is to boost trade over the next five years to $100 billion annually.

The most striking difference between India and China is the demographic dividend, as our youth bulge coincides with the graying of China. While India's workforce will increase by 110 million over the next decade, China's will increase by less than 20 million. This could push Indian growth rates ahead of China's, making it a peer.

The drivers of competition between the two countries will, therefore, be shaped by water and energy rather than by efforts to expand trade. We have the successful experience of sharing the Indus waters with Pakistan.

Similarly, the perspective that energy is a zero-sum game is a western construct, as they are profligate users of energy and see it as an integral part of their way of life. Whereas, both India and China have begun to take rational steps to curb the consumption of energy. The sharing of natural resources can be managed.

No doubt both India and China want to secure their energy supplies, and since the oil supplies for both cross the Indian Ocean, the answer lies in developing a joint strategic doctrine for this zone, rather than construe China's naval presence in the area as 'encirclement', develop a common approach towards resource-rich Iran and work for an Asian oil, gas and transportation grid.

The third strategic shift is taking place within the international organisations, where India and China have begun to coordinate their actions to reshape global rules in climate change, trade and finance. The foreign policy challenge is to work with China to build networks of institutions and relationships that will support a new global order, and our place in it.

The United Nations, and the existing global order shaped by the US after World War-II, have stayed outside the agenda and the decision issues related to redistribution. The ongoing negotiations for defining sustainable development goals provide the opportunity to work with China, focusing on modifying industrialised country consumption patterns, making eradication of poverty and human well-being within planetary limits the overriding global goal.

There is need to review the threat perceptions, security challenges and new opportunities by integrating the military, economic and multilateral spheres, because they interact with each other, and can no longer be considered in isolation, in defining the Asian century.

The India-versus-China debate: Asian giants' common interests outweigh differences - Page2 - The Economic Times

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