Sino-Indian Sound and Fury
India and China are back to sniping at each other. China complained publicly at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting Arunachal Pradesh. India responded by wagging a finger at China building infrastructure in the Pakistani third of Kashmir. Why is this happening?
On closer inspection, the much ballyhooed rivalry between the two countries has a lot less substance than is often made out.
There isn’t any serious competition for natural resources between India and China. New Delhi refuses to subsidize such overseas forays. The Indian private sector is driven by commercial, not strategic, interests. This automatically limits Indian purchases to a fraction of China’s.
India is a reluctant player in Southeast Asia – much of its diplomatic activity there has been either because Singapore has pulled it into the region or, latterly, the Indian private sector has forced the flag to follow their trade. It has not bothered to make its economy part of the supply chains that drive the region’s economy.
India is benefiting from closer relations with countries like the US, Japan, Australia and Indonesia because of the latters’ concerns about China. And there are elements in India that buy into the idea of India playing a balancing role – but they are largely in the military and a few hard-nosed sections of the strategic community. India can’t really play such of a role for a host of economic, administrative and geographical reasons.
Which comes to geography. Take a look at a relief map of Asia. Look at a transport map of Asia. India is forced to look almost exclusively towards the Indian Ocean. About 90 per cent of China’s interests lie in every direction except its southwest. The Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau and whatnot make it that way.
If anything, what is remarkable is how little interaction there is between India and China. Virtually no one from India visits China – or vice versa.
There is trade, largely iron ore, but no investment. Indian experts in China and Chinese experts in India can be counted on two hands in both countries. It goes on. Past polls have shown that the threat perception regarding China among Indians is absurdly low.
Because they don’t really compete neither invests too much in learning about each other. Or invests in building up a more solid relationship.
Which is why the two get their knickers in a twist about pretty minor of things. China freaks out about anything regarding the Dalai Lama. India freaks out about China’s relationship with Pakistan. They both get hot and bothered about the meandering border talks. But these are symbolic, not strategic, issues. Which is why their sounds of fury never last and signify nothing.
The same, I predict, will pass with the latest kerfuffle.
Will it stay like this? It depends.
The change in the Indo-US relationship awakened a degree of concern about India being a potential balancer that didn’t exist before in China. So has the fact India has halved the “growth gap” between the two countries’ economies from about seven per cent a decade ago to about three per cent today.
A senior Western journalist told me how Jiang Zemin, soon after consolidating power in China, went to visit Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
Jiang asked Lee about the world. When he asked about India, Lee said, “As long as your economy grows faster than them, you don’t have to worry about them.” For the first time, there are stirrings in China that this may not be an impossibility.
But this is all still many moons away. I suspect the real rivalry will begin when China completes its present cricket training programme and fields its first international team sometime in the next five or six years.