India's Rise Puts China on Edge

By Greg Sheridan

The birth of a superpower can be a strange and disturbing event to witness. There is a lot of screaming, a lot of pain, it's inherently messy; but sometimes something beautiful will emerge.

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal was once, before World War II, governed by an Australian, Richard Casey. As a city, it offers in every aspect the harshest contrasts of Indian life.

Near the airport, in the incongruously named Salt Lake district, sparkling new apartments and IT offices abound. And in the city centre, at the Oberoi Hotel, every sweet fragrance, every self-indulgent elegance of the British Raj is perfectly maintained.

But Kolkata, for many decades under communist rule, has not boomed like other Indian cities. Just a few blocks from the Oberoi families live in makeshift tents on the footpath, mothers washing babies without a shred of privacy. Middle-aged men, homeless and hungry, sleep on the balustrades on the edge of a public park. And on Sunday, everywhere the eye can see, men and boys play cricket.

But don't be fooled by the surface chaos. The elephant is stirring. Even without further slashing economic reform, India's economy will likely grow by 7 per cent or 8 per cent a year for the next two decades or more, becoming in time the world's third largest economy. As Defence Minister Stephen Smith says, in the 21st century there will be three superpowers: the US, China and India. But don't think this transition will be smooth.

Receive email alerts

Casey's successor in the Kolkata governor's residence is a smooth former Indian civil servant, and before that policeman, M.K. Narayanan. He was once India's national security adviser.

This week he opened a conference on the Asian Century sponsored by the University of Melbourne's Australia India Institute. He had two themes. One was that Australia had nothing to be concerned about from India's rise. This struck me as true but a little bit of an odd thing to say. I can't remember the last Australian who expressed any concern about India's rise.

The second notable theme was more blunt. China, he said, was a nation that did not observe international norms. This statement was neither controversial nor emotive. It was matter-of-fact.

Everyone has a certain idea of the likely shape of strategic competition in the years to come. The established superpower will have difficulty accommodating the rise of a new one. Everyone thinks this means the US will have difficulty accommodating a rising China. But in terms of stress, aggravation and in the worst case the risk of conflict, this is likelier to come from China having difficulty accommodating a rising India.

India's attitude to China is many layered and exceptionally complex. But two features stand out. One is that India and China are doing a booming trade, worth more than $US60 billion ($585bn) last year. They each benefit from the other's growth.

Perhaps even more important is that no nation in Asia is more naturally, inevitably and unavoidably a strategic competitor with China than is India.

A good deal of attention is given to their contradictory economic models, and equally to the fact India is a democracy and China an authoritarian, centrally governed communist dictatorship.

Proponents of the Chinese model say the swiftness of government decision-making gives it an economic advantage. Proponents of the Indian model counter that while dictatorship looks stable, it is really brittle, and democracies are built to last. And India's younger population structure means it is likely to be able to sustain high economic growth for much longer than China.

But not enough attention is paid to the hard power and geo-strategic clash between the two rising Asian giants.

From the Indian point of view, Beijing has already taken massive action over decades to try to keep India weak and vulnerable.

1 | 2 | Next Page››

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
Sponsored Links
Related Articles
May 16, 2012
Asia as Global Leader - Not So Fast - Ho Kwon Ping
May 17, 2012
U.S.-India: A Soft Power Tie That Binds - Aparna Pande
May 5, 2012
The Erosion of China's Soft Power - Frank Ching

Greg Sheridan
Author Archive