Friday, April 16, 2010

The Race in the East

China and India, according to many, are two major pillars of the global market economy and potential “trade super powers”. Once enemies, these Asian giants that house two-fifth of the world’s population turned to economic reforms almost at the same time, though the pace of its implementation was not same. However, these reforms, writes Jonathan Holslag in his recent book, ‘China and India: Prospects for Peace’, changed the contours of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The transformation from closed socialist economies to liberal market economies also marked the transformation of India and China from enemy states to “trading states”, argues Holslag.

This change is a radical departure from the “zero-sum thinking that was predominant during the cold war” and led to “new opportunities for cooperation” between the two countries, which had fought a bloody war in 1962 and seen near-war scenarios at least five times ever since. In China, the post-Mao leadership was conscious not to repeat the “failures of the Great Leader”, while in India a reform-minded prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, laid the foundations for “constructive nationalism”, rejecting his mother’s and grand father’s “negative nationalism”. This shift is what set the stage for India and China to emerge as trading states and to enhance cooperation.

Since the opening up of the economies, there is a remarkable improvement in the bilateral cooperation between India and China – trade boomed over the last three decades, the number of top level visits rose, discussions on contentious border issues have been held frequently and cooperation at the global level, bet it WTO or climate talks, also strengthened. The talk of war has been “put to one side”. Euphoric Western liberals lost no time to praise free market economics, claiming more trade will spawn more interest groups, which will lobby for “broader and deeper relations” with other trading states. Did that really happen in Indo-China relations?

Holslag agrees that there are visible changes. But did the enhanced economic cooperation helped India and China put aside the historic rivalry and become ideal trading states? Like many other rational India-China watchers Holslag retains his apprehensions about the claims of “neofunctionalist liberalism”. He discusses in detail why these steps toward a comprehensive partnership between India and China “will not succeed”. According to him, the existing “complementarity between India and China will disappear once they achieve their economic ambitions”. The traditional rivalry will likely spread to the economic sphere as well, challenging the concept of “Chindia”. The still unresolved border issues, the military security dilemma and the suspicion in public perceptions about the “other” power are the other major impediments India-China ties face with. The economic drivers are too weak to reverse these challenges. “In the short-term, we will therefore observe a continuation of the great power contest,” writes Holslag.

The 234-page book is rich with historical facts, economic data and diverse perceptions of experts from India and China. The 13-page bibliography underlines the authenticity and seriousness of the research Holslag undertook to write this comparatively small book. His key argument that strategic rivalry would continue to dominate Indo-China relations irrespective of the improvement in economic cooperation looks rational given the complex history of bilateral ties between the two countries. Holslag could have placed this hypothesis in the larger geopolitical context. The race for influence in Asia is going to be the race for world domination in a changing world. How the love-hate diplomacy of India and China is going to influence international politics? Unfortunately, Holslag leaves this untouched.

Jonathan Holslag (2010), “China + India: Prospects for Peace, Columbia University Press: New York (Reviewed for Business World)

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