Big Picture

When Xi Met Modi: Juxtaposing China and India

21 Oct, 2014    ·   4707

Prof Varun Sahni weighs in on how the difference between the two states is not one of degree but of kind

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September, much was made of the personal rapport and chemistry between him and his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Chinese investment worth US$20 billion, although a fraction of the figures (US$100-300 billion) that had been touted before the visit, was nevertheless significant in the bilateral context. It was also noteworthy that the Indian leadership was forceful in highlighting India’s concerns on such bilateral irritants as border incursions, stapled visas and river waters. The relaxed atmospherics and candid conversation presage a developing maturity in the bilateral relationship, which is important for the evolving power relationships across Asia and further afield.

One of the fascinating aspects of the visit and the Modi-Xi meeting was the way in which China and India can now be juxtaposed. When we juxtapose two entities, we place them close together for contrasting effect. From an International Relations (IR) perspective, what happens when we juxtapose the two Asian giants?

China and India can be juxtaposed across three distinct dimensions. The first of them is comparative. China is one of the few countries in the world with which India can sensibly be compared (Brazil is another). In any comparative exercise, the two cases being compared should be sufficiently similar for the comparison to be warranted, yet sufficiently dissimilar for the comparison to be fruitful. A China-India comparison can be undertaken from a multitude of disciplinary perspectives, focus on a wide variety of issue areas and encompass vast historical periods. Almost any sensible China-India comparison would yield fascinating results.

However, when Indian analysts attempt this comparison, it is usually in unidirectional, yardstick terms. By this one means that China is treated as the benchmark against which India is measured: ‘Why cannot we be more like them?’ The more ‘policy relevant’ the study is, the greater this line of speculation is in evidence. In India, China is very rarely studied qua China, in order to understand its dynamics, trends and complexities on its own terms. Much more often, Indian analytical treatments of China are as exemplar, allegory or metaphor.

The second dimension in which China and India can be juxtaposed is relational. Here, the focus is upon the factors that would bring the two countries together, as opposed to those that would set them apart. While conflict between states is relatively easy to explain, there is no single (or singular) explanation of why states decide to work in concert. In IR, different theoretical streams provide radically different answers to the question ‘Why do states come together?’ The three predominant explanations, to simplify theoretical propositions, are as follows. Realists argue that states make alliances to aggregate power. Liberals suggest that states cooperate to solve problems and thereby enhance their opportunities. Constructivists hold that states come together to build community. What is interesting is not only that each of these explanations rings true, but also that each is obviously incomplete and imperfect in the sense that it does not tell the whole story. Each of these - power aggregation, problem solving and community building - will probably play a role in China-India bilateral relations. For instance, the BRICS grouping that contains both China and India could be considered as an example of power aggregation.

If China and India working together seems far-fetched, we would do well to recall that China-India relations have spanned the security spectrum - war at one end, alliance at the other - during the twentieth century. While the two countries fought a war - brief and limited, but war nonetheless - against each other in 1962, they also were allies during the Second World War, before Indian Independence and the Chinese Revolution.

However, the most interesting dimension that emerges from juxtaposing China and India is the conceptual one. It has become quite trendy in IR to put both China and India in the same category of states, usually characterising both of them as rising powers. But doing so is tantamount to making a serious conceptual error. While China is rising, India is emerging.
Although China is an emerging economy, it is a rising power, not an emerging power. This is not a semantic distinction but a substantive one: unlike emerging powers, which could have a systemic impact sometime in the future, a rising power already has a systemic impact today.

Juxtaposing China and India brings out this conceptual point with clarity. It also leads to an important taxonomical insight: the difference between China and India today is not one of degree but of kind, thus making it analytically incorrect to place both China and India in the same category of states. Is there more at play here than the decade-plus lead that China has over India in terms of economic reform? What are the structural factors, domestic and external, that undergird this distinction? Can - and how can - India narrow the gap and become a rising power itself? Most important of all, is China’s lead necessarily a problem for India? Perhaps it is worth reflecting that China’s rise is masking India’s emergence: while the world focuses on China, India has time to get its own act together, inside and out.