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China: Through Indian Eyes

(Talk delivered at a joint meeting of the Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies of the University of Madras and the Chennai Centre for China Studies at the University of Madras on May 14,2007)

In 1996, I had written an article for the “Business Line”, the business daily of the “Hindu” group of publications of Chennai, in which I had compared the progress of the Chinese economy with that of India. In that article, I had expressed my optimism that despite India’s slow start, it would ultimately catch up with China and might even overtake it, like the proverbial tortoise.

I had titled the article “The Chinese Hare vs the Indian Tortoise”.

The Indian economy has since picked up speed. The tortoise is moving steadily ahead. It is faster and faster, but the hare is showing no signs of slowing down due to fatigue, enabling the tortoise to catch up with it.

The Chinese economy continues to race ahead of ours. All the Cassandras of the world—-particularly the American Cassandras— who had predicted serious social tensions due to regional disparities, a crash due to overheating and a fate similar to that of the Asian Tigers in 1997 have been proved wrong so far.

10 per cent growth rate year after year, 50 billion dollars plus FDI flows year after year, galloping exports, the foreign exchange reserves already crossing one trillion dollars, without taking into account those of Hong Kong and Macau etc etc. The statistics relating to the Chinese economy change so fast in a positive direction that it is difficult to keep oneself up-to-date. By the time I finish this talk, China might have added another few million dollars to its foreign exchange reserves.

The Cassandras have been proved wrong not only in respect of the Chinese economy.

They have been proved wrong even in their assessments of the Chinese capabilities.

They doubted the Chinese capability to construct the massive Three Gorges dam in time without causing serious environmental damage.

It has.

They doubted the Chinese capability to construct a railway line to Lhasa in Tibet and make it work.

It has.

They doubted the Chinese capability to send a man into space and bring him back safely.

It has.

They doubted the Chinese capability to successfully develop an anti-satellite weapon.

It has.

They doubted the Chinese capability to fulfill all its construction commitments to the African countries in return for their hydrocarbons.

It has.

Have you ever heard of a single Chinese construction project overseas having been delayed or of inferior quality?

After 60 years of independence, India is yet to produce a single world-class athlete. China has produced dozens of them and is determined to overtake the US in the medals tally in next year’s Olympics.

China has not only created wealth and economic and military power for itself. Its record in the field of poverty reduction has been as impressive as its record in wealth and capacity creation.

These are the characteristics of the benign face of China. Is China a totally benign power as it projects itself to be?

No. It is not.

It is an ambitious power.

It is an irredentist power.

It is a power whose need for raw materials to keep its economy moving will keep growing more and more.

Like the US, it is a power which is determined to have its national interests enforced—-through a carrot if possible, through a stick, if necessary.

India has more reasons to be wary of China than any other country.

We still have an unresolved border problem.

The future evolution of Tibet after the Dala Lama is unpredictable. An unstable Tibet after the Dalai Lama could take our relations back to the 1950s.

China, despite its ostentatious modesty, views itself as an Asian power today on the way to becoming a world power tomorrow on par with the US.

It talks of its faith in a multi-polar world, but is hoping and working for a bi-polar world—–with the US and China at the top.

Its policy towards India has been rightly characterised by Brahma Chellaney as a mix of direct engagement and indirect containment through Pakistan.

That has been its policy since 1962 and that will continue to be its policy in the years to come.

China is a power, which needs a constant study in depth. In our justified admiration of the multi-dimensional progress of China, we should not close our eyes to its worrisome aspects—-its ambitions and its equipping itself militarily and economically to make its ambitions a reality.

It is hoped that this Centre, which has already made rapid strides within two months of its coming into existence, would contribute to such a study.

The advent of the Internet has brought about revolutionary changes in the functioning of think-tanks. Data-mining is easier now. Think-tanks have evolved from the paper-rich to the paper-less. Networking is less costly and can be more widespread. One can pick brains without the need for face-to-face meetings. One gets a much wider exposure to similar think-tanks in the rest of the world.

Think-tanks—whether the conventional, paper-rich ones or the online, paperless ones—-need money to function. The Internet makes it possible to invite subscriptions from a large number of small donors provided the donors find the produce useful. Reaching a stage of raising money through subscriptions will take time. To subsist till then, one will need financial assistance from the Government and the private sector. Those of you, who feel this is a venture which deserves to be helped to take roots and grow up, do talk to others who would be in a position to help financially. Any amount is welcome.

As the Centre develops roots, it could explore other sources of funding —-for example, by offering consultancy services to those with interests in China—-whether they are from the Government or the private sector. One could provide different kinds of services—- data mining, data analysis, risk analysis, opportunity analysis, implications analysis etc.To reach that stage, the Centre should develop a reservoir of expertise, which it can tap when needed.

The web site, which is being formally inaugurated today, is the first step to making ourselves known to the rest of the world. Even before its formal inauguration, word has already spread across the World Wide Web of our birth and our aims, objectives and aspirations. Some prominent educational institutions in other countries have already taken note of our existence and the quality of our produce. It is gratifying. We should keep moving ahead steadily and in a comfortable, affordable and sustainable pace.(14-5-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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