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Will China and India grow together or grow apart?

Last updated on: January 13, 2011 08:23 IST

Will China and India grow together or grow apart?


Prof Kishore Mahbubani

Text of remarks by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on January 8

I believe that I have an eminently simple and reasonable argument to put across that can be captured in three simple points. My first point is that one does not have to be a geopolitical genius to predict that the main geopolitical fault line in the next few decades will be the West and China.

When China emerges with the world's largest economy by 2027, or earlier, it will be the first time in over 200 years that at a non-Western power will be the strongest power in the world. It is possible that the West will sit back passively and not try to thwart China's rise. However, it would be wiser for China to make its geopolitical plans on the basis that the West will try, directly or indirectly, to thwart China's rise.

My second point is that when the West tries to thwart the rise of China, it would prefer to do it indirectly rather than directly. The ideal scenario is the one that the West used successfully against the Soviet Union. There the West did not confront the Soviet Union directly. Instead, it unleashed radical Islamic forces in Afghanistan to unhinge the Soviet Union.

That strategy succeeded. Vis- -vis China, the best instrument that the West could find to thwart the rise of China would be the second fastest rising Asian power, namely India. The emergence of a bitter and persistent geopolitical contest between China and India would be an ideal geopolitical outcome for the West.

My third, and I hope most obvious point, is that it does not serve India's interests to be used an as instrument by the West to thwart China's rise. In simple geopolitical logic, the best position for India to take is to maintain a neutral and carefully staked out middle position in the coming struggle between the West and China

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Image: A guard stands beneath the portrait of the late China's Chairman Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Photographs: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

How the West will try to seduce India

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The West will try to seduce India by saying that this is not a power struggle but a struggle over virtue and values: democracy versus communist authoritarian systems.

However, the history of the West has shown that geopolitical interests always trump values. This is why the West supported the Saudi-Pakistan axis over India in the Cold War.

Geopolitical seduction is far more dangerous than sexual seduction because the consequences are weightier.

The best way for me to elaborate these three points is to answer three critical questions: Firstly, will the West try to thwart China? Secondly, will the West look for alternative instruments to use against China? Thirdly, is it in India's interests to join the West in thwarting the rise of China?

In trying to answer these questions, please let me admit that the answers will be complex, not simple. We will have to get out of simple back-and-white perspectives in trying to understand the coming struggle between the West and China.

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So far, China has managed its geopolitical rise brilliantly

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There is, for example, no simple black-and-white answer to the question whether the West will try to thwart the rise of China. Certainly, the West will not launch a simple Soviet-style containment policy. One reason why it cannot do so is that, so far, China has managed its geopolitical rise brilliantly.

Please see pages 219-234 from my book The New Asian Hemisphere. The complex strategy included the following elements: heeding Deng Xiaoping's advice to take a low profile

(Note: the following characters describe Deng's advice: (1) lengjing guancha: observe and analyse [developments] calmly; (2) chenzhuo yingfu: deal [with changes] patiently and confidently; (3) wenzhu zhenjiao: secure [our own] position; (4) taoguang yanghui: conceal [our] capabilities and avoid the limelight; (5) shanyu shouzhuo: be good at keeping a low profile; (6) juebu dangtou: never become a leader; (7) yousuo zuowei: strive to make achievements).

China is using the developing interdependence between the US and China, where the US economy now heavily depends on Chinese purchases of US Treasury Bills and taking full advantage of America's absolutely stupid policies vis- -vis the Islamic world.

Hence, ironically, while the West used the Islamic world to unhinge the Soviet Union, China is now emerging as the prime beneficiary of stupid Western policies in the Islamic world. 9/11 and the Western reaction to it were huge geopolitical gifts to China.

In the geopolitical contest between China and the West, the score is probably 8 for China and 2 for the West. But it would be foolish for China to be complacent.

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China is distrustful of the West

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Indeed, the Chinese believe that they have many reasons to feel distrustful of the West.

This suspicion is well captured in the following poem:

An Awakening Message
When we were the Sick Man of Asia, We were called The Yellow Peril.
When we are billed to be the next Superpower, we are called The Threat.
When we closed our doors, you smuggled opium to open markets.
When we embrace Free Trade, You blame us for taking away your jobs.
When we were falling apart, you marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces back together again, Free Tibet you screamed, it was an Invasion!
When we tried Communism, you hated us for being Communist.
When we embrace Capitalism, you hate us for being Capitalist.
When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers, you said we abused human rights.
When we were poor, you thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash, you blame us for your national debts.
When we build our industries, you call us polluters.
When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.
When we buy oil, you call it exploitation and genocide.
But when you go to war for oil, you call it liberation.
When we were lost in chaos and rampage, you demanded rules of law.
When we uphold law and order against violence, you call it violating human rights.
When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech.
When we are silent no more, you say we are brainwashed-xenophobics.
Why do you hate us so much, we asked.
No, you answered, we don't hate you.
We don't hate you either,
But, do you understand us?
Of course we do, you said,
We have AFP, CNN and BBC's...
What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer...
Because you only get so many chances.
Enough is Enough, Enough Hypocrisy for This One World.
We want One World, One Dream, and Peace on Earth.
This Big Blue Earth is Big enough for all of Us.

Image: File photo of US President at the Great Wall of China

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'The West is capable of geopolitically brilliant moves'

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The West did not dominate the world through stupidity. It is capable of geopolitically brilliant moves. Therefore, in answer to my second question, the West will certainly look for alternative instruments to use against China.

Let me suggest two it will try. The first is to focus on the obvious Achilles' heel of China: its political system. The most powerful ideological instrument to use in any struggle is the instrument of legitimacy.

In one way or another, the West will try to delegitimise the Chinese political system, especially by highlighting its lack of democracy. In so doing, the West will deliberately ignore the fact that Chinese society has never been as open as it is today.

Hence, when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a dissident like Liu Xiaobao instead of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century, Deng Xiaoping, it is natural for the Chinese government to get angry because they see it, with some reason, as a Western plan to de-legitimise the political system of China.

Image: A security personnel gestures at the entrance of a residential compound where Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, lives in Beijing
Photographs: Petar Kujundzic/Reuters
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It is not in India's interest to join the West against China

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Please let me emphasise one point: I presume that it is clear that it is not in India's interest to join the West in trying to de-legitimise the Chinese political system, tempting as it may be.

The second instrument that the West can try to use against China is divide-and-rule. Indeed, this is how the West conquered the world. One reason why I published my first book, Can Asians Think? was to answer an obvious question: how did 100,000 Englishmen rule so effectively over 300 million Indians. One obvious reason: divide-and-rule.

This time around the West cannot use radical Islam to unhinge China. However, it will look all around Asia for instruments to use to either balance or destabilise China: from Japan to South Korea; from Taiwan to Tibet; from ASEAN to India. Each of these instruments provides geo-political opportunities for the West. However, the ideal geopolitical instrument will be India.

Why India? The simplest answer is that from year 1 to year 1820, the two largest economies were China and India. However, with the passing of the era of Western domination of world history, there will be an almost natural return of China and India to the number one and number two slots in Global GNP ranking.

From the point of view of Western geopolitical interests, with China and India returning as the number one and number two non-Western powers in the world, what better geopolitical scenario could there be for the West than for the number one and number two to struggle against each other as they are rising?

And if they both succeed in slowing down the rise of each other, won't the prime beneficiary of this be the West?

Image: File photo shows China's Premier Wen Jiabao walking past India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ahead of a photo opportunity as part of the 5th East Asia Summit in Hanoi
Photographs: Rungroj Yongrit/Pool/Reuters
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For India, it is better to be courted by both sides

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The third and final question is this: is it in India's interest to join the West in thwarting the rise of China? I presume that the answer is no. There is a simple rule of geo-politics. In any three-way contest of power, the best position to occupy is the middle-position.

To put it simply, it is better to be courted by both sides rather than to be taken for granted as an instrument by one side and as an adversary by the other side.

However, to be honest, it may be difficult for India to maintain this middle position. The West is now geographically far away. There are no immediate pressing issues dividing India and the West (except perhaps climate change and the American position on Pakistan).

By contrast, China is near and getting nearer. Several bilateral issues are clouding China-India relations: Pakistan, Arunachal Pradesh, the stapling of visas for Kashmir related passports. It is easy to get aggravated on a daily basis.

In geopolitics, it is a mistake to allow emotions to determine when to get aggravated. Getting aggravated should be a rational choice, not an emotional choice.

Hence, when China had fishing boat incidents with Japan and South Korea, it chose to get aggravated with Japan but not with South Korea. Similarly, when both Lee Teng Hui and Chen Shui Bian were clearly pursuing pro-independence strategies for Taiwan, China did get angry but it also controlled its anger and continued to court both the Taiwanese public and Taiwanese investors.

Thirty years ago, most would have predicted that the China-Taiwan problem was far more difficult to solve than the India-Pakistan problem. Today, the reverse is probably true. The lesson from all this is that it is a mistake to allow emotions to influence geopolitical decisions. Reason must always trump emotion.

Image: File photo shows US President Barack Obama shaking hands with China's President Hu Jintao as India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh look on at rear, at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh
Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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If India does it right, there can be enormous geopolitical opportunities

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This is why the best strategy for India to emulate in trying to rise and emerge peacefully is to follow Deng Xiaoping's seven-point advice for China.

If India were to practice this advice, enormous geopolitical opportunities would open for India. I realise that this is difficult advice for a country with a boisterous free media, which works on 24-hour news cycles and requires instant sound bites.

Yet, at the same time, most of the Indian journalists I have met have also tended to be very thoughtful and conscious of India's long-term interests. Most Indian journalists, I believe, would also agree that India is better off pursuing an independent policy rather than one that serves the interests of others.

There is one fundamental common interest that China and India share. Both have suffered foreign invasions and foreign humiliation over the past two hundred years. Both have also understood well the price they paid for being weak. Both have also suffered the most in the period of Western domination of world history.

It would therefore be hugely ironic that at the most propitious moment in both their histories, they allow the geopolitical interests of the West to trump the common interests they have in seizing the best moment to re-establish themselves as the two most powerful countries in the world. And, if both can follow their common interests rather than Western interests, both can grow together, not grow apart.

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