The Dragon and the Elephant

May 1, 2007 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Asian Century

The Dragon and the Elephant

Mini Teaser: China’s relationship with India need not be adversarial in the prc’s quest for great-power status.

by Author(s): Pang Zhongying

THERE IS a near-pathological obsession in China with the question of what defines a "rising power" (da guo jue qi). Last year, China's Central Television created and broadcasted a twelve-episode series ("Da Guo Jue Qi") that analyzed the rise of nine of the great powers of the modern era, from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century through to Great Britain, the United States and Japan. The implications of this program were clear: China wants to achieve its long-held aspiration of becoming a global power, and it is consciously taking as its models the developed states of the West. But the other rising power of the 21st century, India, is rarely discussed as a model for China's own rise. For some of China's strategic thinkers, India is not China's peer as a major power in today's world or as a potential great power of the future.

This is ironic, given that India was China's first exposure to the West. More than 1,300 years ago, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) conducted his famed "Journey to the West" to bring classic Buddhist and Sanskrit texts to the then-Chinese capital at Xi'an. And today, Xuanzang's latter-day disciples-in this case investors, not monks-are again making the pilgrimage to India, especially to New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

When India does figure into the calculations of China's strategic planners, they see India's rise as a challenge, as the latest in a series of powers on the country's periphery with an eye towards encircling the Middle Kingdom. For the first half of the twentieth century, China had to deal with another Westernizing rising power, Japan, which was not only hostile to Beijing but ended up invading and occupying parts of China in pursuit of regional dominance. Now, on China's southern and western periphery, looms "Asia's elephant." In 2004, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a "twenty-year plan" for India to attain great-power status. However, with its nuclear arsenal and its naval capabilities, India's geopolitical influence is already beginning to extend far beyond its traditional limits of the subcontinent.

A number of observers both within China and around the world believe that, for the foreseeable future, China will continue to have the advantage over India. This may be true, but India should not be discounted. India's rise may be slower than that of China, but it is no less real. Whereas much of China's growth has been fueled by foreign direct investment, India can point to growth generated by its own homegrown industries and extraordinary progress in the development of the country's human capital. India's democratic system may suffer from inefficiency and corruption, but it has proven successful in managing the problems of a large, multi-ethnic and diverse country. China's gamble is whether or not delaying political reforms to pursue economic growth is going to be a sustainable proposition over the long run. China's political system is also going to have to grapple with the emerging environmental crisis and the inequitable distribution of the rewards of economic growth.

Some Chinese may want to see their country as a peer of the United States, but while it might be quite fashionable in Beijing and Shanghai salons to engage in the discourse of ge guo jue qi-of finding parallels between China and the developed Western countries-China might be better served by a closer study of the Indian model of development. Like Xuanzang, Chinese today still need to go on their pilgrimages to India to see how the Indians have coped with the problems created by modernization and economic development.

India is also an indispensable part of any solution for managing the changing geopolitics of Asia. For the next several decades, the future of the Asian space will rest on a balance between a Japan rapidly becoming a "normal" power, a "great" India and a rising China.

What role will India play? For some in Beijing and elsewhere, it is very clear that the United States hopes to use both Japan, China's previous peripheral challenger, and India, China's emerging rival, to balance China's growing influence in Asia. China's rise helped strengthen the American-Japanese security alliance during the Bush-Koizumi period (2001-2006). One can conclude that the United States has successfully made Japan its "England of the Far East." As for India, is not the purpose of the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal to help India become a global power in the 21st century? And who is the real target of India's nuclear arsenal, in this view? Not the United States or Russia, and not even Pakistan-but China.

A different approach is to move away from the old balance-of-power framework toward a regional community-building process. India was incorporated into the first East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005 and joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an observer country in 2006. India has conducted a series of military exercises with several east Asian countries, including China. This is in keeping with the foreign policy approach outlined by President Hu Jintao at the 2006 SCO summit: "China will, as always, work with all sides to turn the region into a harmonious one featuring lasting peace and common prosperity."

Since the end of the Cold War, Asia has emerged as one of the hubs of the global economy, and the region's success stories include Japan, the ASEAN states and now mainland China and India. But prosperity and interdependence do not guarantee security. India and China both have strong incentives to progress toward building a more effective Asian community that can help to provide a win-win solution for all Asian states, moving us away from the usual scenarios marked by competition and mutual insecurity. Greater cooperation is the way forward for Beijing and New Delhi to cope with the challenges spawned by their integration into the global economy and to preserve the regional stability necessary for both countries' continued growth and development.

Pang Zhongying has been teaching international relations at the Universities of Tsinghua, Nankai and Renmin in China. His research focuses on regional cooperation in Asia and comparative foreign policy. He is a contributing editor of The National Interest.

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