Late last week, some interesting insights on how India’s rise and its role in Asia is perceived were presented by Prof. Yang Dali, director of the East Asian Institute, the National University of Singapore, at an international conference on South Asia. The presentation was based on a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs late last year, which had tried to gauge the opinion of the public and scholars in China on issues such as how Beijing looks at India’s economic development model, its competition with China, and its expanding influence in Asia and beyond.
In contrast to Indians’ views on China, Chinese public perceptions of India seem to be generally benign, bordering on neglect. In terms of global influence, the Chinese ranked China second behind the US now, but catching up in 10 years. But they ranked India at the bottom of the top nine countries (US, China, Russia, EU, UK, Germany, France, Japan and India). And Indians ranked India as the second most influential after the US. Further, 56% of the Chinese respondents didn’t consider India as a rival—a far greater proportion in India did. In terms of ability to resolve conflicts in Asia, 69% of Indians feel positive, but only 30% of the Chinese feel that Indian intervention would have any major impact.
Considerable literature comes out of China, with scholars examining India’s growth. At one end, there are analysts who think any rapprochement of China–India relations would be overshadowed by the absence of mutual trust, and by its continued nuclear and missile programmes. There is considerable analysis about India’s military spending. They hold that “India has various strategic suspicions towards China and because of these, is not likely to establish strategic partnership relations with China”. The Indian Navy’s expansion, and its joint military exercises with other countries are matters of comment.
Chinese scholars are conscious of the organic growth of industrialization in India driven largely by domestic companies and indigenous funds. The strength of the financial and capital markets, as well as the centres of excellence in education, has attracted comment and envy. Yet, they also recognize that India’s democratic model has its own weaknesses that may affect growth in the future. They recognize that the Chinese model has been better at providing employment as well as eradicating poverty.
These studies are important as they reveal an active engagement with what is happening in India, on the part of Chinese scholars. What can we learn from all this? First, we consider ourselves more relevant in the world scene than China is prepared to concede, and this recognition will only come from continued growth and trade. As a corollary, the focus on, and contentment with, internal markets alone is likely, in course of time, to make India an insignificant player in merchandise trade: policymakers must take note and change right now.
Second, there is need for a well-articulated strategy towards China—are we friends or rivals, competitors or collaborators? At a recent seminar, a senior Indian diplomat was asked to enumerate the gains to India’s trade and economy from its foreign policy for the last 60 years. There have been slim pickings, but there are lots of opportunities now. Like China, there is need to integrate strategic, economic, trade and military objectives into foreign policy—this calls for dismantling several ministerial silos of decision making, so that there can be a comprehensive strategy.
Next, there is little economy or trade-related work on China from India. Scholars’ concerns here are more with the foreign policy or strategy dimensions of the relationship, but very little analytical work on economic decision-making. For example, what are the successful elements of Chinese strategy in looking for oil overseas, are they relevant for India? Is it possible to earmark an institute for China studies that will go beyond journalistic economics into deeper analysis? There is hardly any international publication on China from scholars in India.
Finally, there is need to ensure that we don’t congratulate ourselves too soon. “India is great up to the quarter finals, and then they lose steam”, is a common international comment. The sustainability of the country’s growth momentum is now dependent less on major policy track changes, and much more on process and implementation efficiency. Yet, very little attention is devoted to these improvements, even though they have very little to do with any politics of coalition.
In short, the time taken for politics is eating into the time required for governance, and there is now ample evidence that it is the failure of processes and governance that is responsible for the slow growth in infrastructure, intellectual property regime tax simplification and the like—not politics or strategy. I would not like to be in anybody’s list of “benign neglect”.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister. We welcome your comments at email@example.com