Studying Sino-Indian relations or comparing the two Asian giants across multiple indicators and themes is today a veritable industry for scholars, analysts, publishers and policymakers. Most published works deal with the conflictual aspect of China-India relations and are produced by policy wonks and analysts in think-tanks who by the nature of their profession need to publish frequently in order to remain relevant and/or in the limelight. But many scholars in universities or research establishments also have found publishing such books a lucrative exercise, egged on, no doubt, by the publishing industry that sees a large public interest and hence, market, in the fraught relationship between the two neighbours. In the case of Indian books on China or Sino-Indian comparisons, most are shoddily-researched and poorly-produced and while Chinese and other foreign publishers certainly have higher publishing standards, they too cannot necessarily claim original insight.
Works comparing India and China are considerably fewer in number and would be substantially more useful, but given simply the small numbers of Indians studying China full-time and professionally, it is difficult to find much published work along these lines. The situation is more or less the same insofar as Chinese academic study of India is concerned—even though there is now some substantial attention and resources being devoted to South Asian studies as part of China’s greater world awareness and interest in playing a global role commensurate with its economic rise.
As such, therefore, comparisons of Sino-Indian internal political processes, economic development, history, literature, environmental issues, labour, health sectors, education policies, minority problems all deserve immediate and sustained attention but remain understudied and unexplored in a large measure and if at all they exist, usually come from the stables of western academia. The book under review attempts to compare India and China across a broad set of indicators—historical, economic, environmental, natural resources, technological and geopolitical—and tries to draw some lessons for the rest of the world. Given that the author Carl Dahlman is an academic in an American university, the ‘world’ is necessarily limited to the West and the book too reflects some of the predominant western concerns with the rise of Asia’s two preeminent powers. This, no doubt, explains the rather alarmist blurb that the two countries’ ‘unchecked growth has the potential to ignite trade, resource, cold and conventional wars.’ Despite the title and proclaimed aim, the emphasis on China far outweighs that on India, which is pretty much an accurate reflection of American emphases in general —the United States is today at multiple levels more involved in and concerned about China than it is in or about India. For instance, in the seventh chapter on implications for the global system and the United States of the rise of the two Asian nations, the two final sub-headings deal with options for the US to ‘Counterbalance China’s Rise’ —one is to ‘Seek Alliances with Other Countries’ and another suggests engaging with China ‘Together with the European Union and Other Powers, to create a Viable Global System’ (p. 208). Neither, in the sub-headings nor in the text does India find mention and this is a tendency evident throughout the book. The last table in the book is another case in point—‘Positive and negative contributions to the global system by the US and China’ (Table 8.2, pp.215-16). So also this statement towards the end of the book—‘The United States and China, in particular, must recognize that they need to work together to ensure the emergence of a workable system’ (p. 233).
Why presume that India’s rise will not create either the same political challenges for the United States as posed by China today or perhaps entirely different ones? While both the Washington Consensus and Beijing Consensus find mention in the book, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that a third way, a ‘Delhi Model’, if you will, of political and economic development will not develop in the future and which can challenge both these paradigms. The author highlights some of the oft-repeated fears about the decline of American power and its causes—fiscal insolvency lack of investment in education, research and physical infrastructure—but falls prey also to some equally frequently-repeated shibboleths about China—that it ‘has a longer-term vision’ and that it ‘has a unique culture and economic and political development model’ (pp. 43-44). This tendency to believe that the Chinese can somehow get over their own massive internal problems—mounting local debt and non-performing assets in the banking system, problems in centre-local coordination, massive environmental damage, and suspicious smaller neighbours, to name just a few—without change in its political, economic and social systems is the result of lack of sufficient intellectual application or ignorance of how China works (or doesn’t).
Again, India is missing from the discussion. True, it has not invested nearly enough in critical physical and social infrastructure as China has but what about the strengths of its own ‘unique culture and economic and political development model’ that might set up India too as a competitor to the United States, as well as to China? India’s weaknesses are no doubt galore but they are not substantially more serious than those of China’s on some of the indicators that Dahlman uses. The gap with China on some other indicators is rather large and will possibly remain wide for several years more, but that alone does not guarantee that China will necessarily be a more successful global power than India or that its political system will survive. To be fair, the author does point out that many believe, despite India’s lack of success in comparison to China across a range of indicators, that its system is ‘more resilient than China’s in the long run’ (p. 90). However, this position too, is often taken to the level of dogma both in academic literature and political rhetoric, and is equally problematic. As the author points out elsewhere while talking about the American political system —‘hampered by vicious infighting, and… short election cycles [that] have resulted in an orientation toward the short term’ (p. 43) —so can it be said about India. Plus, India’s perceived resilience is based on some specific socio-cultural systems such as the caste system and other communal prejudices that are in fact undermining the foundations of the Indian Republic. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether China’s political system without popular democracy is any less vicious or capable of surmounting its problems through an authoritarian political system.
What most observers—Indian, Chinese or from elsewhere—miss is the balance between the traditional and the western in the political systems of these Asian powers. In the case of China, while there is still a desire for a uniquely Chinese model, not enough credit is accorded to China’s western heritage in terms of both its domestic political principles (Marxism and the ‘Beijing model’, for example) and foreign policy precepts (the stress on sovereignty for instance, that is at the heart of China’s assertiveness on territorial disputes with its many neighbours). In the Indian case, meanwhile, there is a tendency to believe that democracy gives India a sheen of the ‘modern’ without acknowledging that tradition and culture are not just museum or tourist exhibits but part of the everyday of Indian thought and action from foreign policy to welfare measures. It is this that explains the ‘education paradox in comparing the export structure of India and China’ (p. 61). The monopolization of education, especially higher education, by upper castes in India at least partly explains why India’s attainments in the high-skilled services export sector are much more pronounced than in either the manufacturing or agriculture sector. China under Mao Zedong meanwhile, broke the back of feudalism, to ensure equality of opportunity and access to basic human development requirements—including education and health—that in turn created the skilled labour force required for its rapid economic growth beginning later in the 1980s.
The above shortcomings aside, the book under review is a useful, one-stop resource for a variety of interesting and important comparisons between India and China for both layman and scholar. The author’s experience as a teacher and economist for the World Bank is evident in his marshalling and presentation of the facts. The broad sweep of history is presented lucidly and the several tables and figures are extremely useful and informative—these are a highlight of the book and for this reason alone make this a work well worth having in one’s bookshelf.
Dahlman’s comparisons between India and China are the sharpest on economic indicators. From export strategy to labour productivity, from technological capability to competitiveness and from patent filings to energy consumption, the author is able to present his facts clearly and persuasively. Equally interesting and bold are his attempts to compare the two Asian powers across indicators for global governance. While the author’s fears of a trade war between China and the rest of the world or of a water war between China and India are overstated, these are merely reflective of what the prevailing perceptions are both in these countries themselves and elsewhere. At the very least, this suggests that there is much work to be done by policymakers on the one side and by analysts and scholars on the other, to educate and inform, before these turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Jabin T. Jacob is Assistant Director and Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org