Speak truth to Dragon

WUHAN: In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Saturday, April 28, 2018. The leaders of China and India

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan last month, many spoke of the informal summit as an attempt at “resetting” bilateral relations. India and China have had several differences in recent times, including an extended military stand-off along the Himalayas at Doklam last year.

The summit was meant to achieve some level of personal chemistry and transparency between the two leaders, in order to avoid future skirmishes along the border and find common ground on international issues. Yet, the key to stable relations between India and China might well lie in recognising the fundamental differences in the interests of the two emerging powers.

This is a complex relationship like no other; on most economic development issues, India and China have converging interests — both of them suffer from environmental pollution, both of them have been beneficiaries of free trade and globalisation, and both of them have similar philosophies on issues such as intellectual property rights. These common interests have seen New Delhi and Beijing on the same side of the table during negotiations over trade, finance and climate change, even while their armies faced off along the border.

Political issues, however, are a different story. In recent times, China has laid out its aspiration for global leadership. Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “the China of today should play a more active role in resolving hot issues in the region and the world,” adding that “[the] development and rejuvenation of China is irresistible.”

China has already begun putting together the tools for a new world order. It has opened big-ticket infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, established new financial institutions along with other members of the developing world, and — just as importantly, although less visibly — China has now become the first country ever to feature among both the top financiers and the top troop contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions.

All emerging global powers need an international constituency of support, and China has already begun building its ideological appeal. Take Africa, the world’s latest state-building workshop. In recent years, Beijing has been hosting leaders from various political parties in Africa — including the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and South Africa’s African National Congress. The aim is to train them in the Chinese style of governance: a centralised one-party state model, capable of long-term planning.

In 2016, one China scholar at Brookings, Yun Sun, wrote a revealing paper that detailed out what these trips typically entail: African party leaders and bureaucrats attend lectures at the Central Party school in Beijing, undertake field trips to smaller Chinese towns to study Chinese solutions to development problems, and participate in Chinese cultural programmes. Each year, China expands these programmes further. In 2016, Beijing announced that it would host 1,000 young African politicians through scholarships, after taking in just 200 leaders a year during the four previous years.

China seeks to highlight its state model as an alternative to liberal democracy, in a bid to challenge Western hegemony abroad, while further legitimising the Communist Party’s hold over power at home. In 2017, the state-run People’s Daily articulated just as much after the 19th Party Congress: “With its unique road, unique theory, unique institutions and unique culture,” it said, “the Chinese road that has been enriched and developed by Xi Jinping’s New Era Socialism with Chinese Characteristics transcends ‘West-centrism’.” In Africa, at least, China has started to win some points.

A 2016 survey showed that the Chinese model of development is now just as popular as America’s, if not more, in southern, northern and central Africa.

But China’s ideological push is not just aimed at the West; it also has implications for India’s own global aspirations. In many ways, China’s direct ideological competitor in the developing world is India, not America. For years, Communist Party ideologues have maintained that liberal democracy is easily given to corruption and does not create economic growth in poorer countries.

Yet, India did manage to almost double its economy from 1980 to 2007, recording growth rates of over 9% a year from 2005 through 2008 — an achievement that was previously unheard of in developing world democracies. It has also managed to remain relatively stable through multiple financial crises in other parts of the world, without needing the state to clamp down on political freedoms.

Triumphs of democracy

India, too, has sought to showcase these achievements of its democracy in recent years, as it seeks to build its own global vote bank. In his address at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014, Prime Minister Modi named three major factors as the cornerstones of India’s national power; one of them was democracy. Almost a decade earlier, India and the United States had established the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) to promote democratic norms around the world. India has so far contributed nearly $32 million to the fund, with more flowing in each year.

Democracy also features prominently in India’s annual summits with African leaders, most notably in the Delhi Declaration of 2008, whose language regarding democratic principles was in stark contrast to China’s ideological party training for young African leaders. The Election Commission has now served as an independent and credible foreign observer for elections in as many as 10 countries around the world, including Egypt, Venezuela, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Cambodia.

The race for leadership in the developing world is on, and India’s ideological rivalry with China has led to several symptoms: Cold War-like posturing in South Asia and the Far East, China’s deliberate outreach to Pakistan, and frequent irritations on the border. The key for India and China is in recognising that these are symptoms of an underlying clash of interests, rather than isolated issues. A reset would need to address the inevitable ideological clash more honestly and seek to manage it in the years to come.

(The writer is a scholar of international affairs at Columbia University and a foreign affairs columnist) 

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