China, India and the shifting global order

On 27 September, the LKY School held a dialogue session on “Emerging Powers: Shifts in the Strategic Balance in the Asia Pacific”.

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On 27 September, the LKY School held a dialogue session on “Emerging Powers: Shifts in the Strategic Balance in the Asia Pacific”. The panellists included Mr. Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, Dr Kanti Bajpai, Visiting Professor at the LKY School, and Dr Huang Jing, Visiting Professor and Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the LKY School. Two days later, Professor Bajpai and Professor Huang discussed China- India relations at the Kent Ridge Campus of the National University of Singapore.

Consequences of ascendency

G12.inddSpeakers at the dialogue session agreed that emerging powers such as China and India will transform the global order from a unipolar system to a multi-polar one where no single nation has primacy of power in the international arena, and such a shift will bring both uncertainties as well as opportunities.

The growing economic power of China and India “will inevitably translate to military power” and both nations could be expected to become more ambitious international players and ultimately change “existing institutions, norms and international order”, predicted Bajpai. China, in particular, will become more assertive in its foreign policy, posing a challenge not only to the US but the latter’s strategic allies such as Japan, Australia and India, noted Rachman. In his recently released book entitled Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety, Rachman predicted that China is likely to overtake the US as the world’s superpower in the longer term, heightening rivalry between the two nations. Huang said the original power balance in Asia built around U.S. dominance, US-Japan and US-Australia alliances, and strong economic relations had changed fundamentally with the rise of China and India, and countries will “have to realign their strategic policies and devise Plan B” since the decline of US power seemed inevitable.

Turning to the rivalry between China and India, Bajpai said both countries were already jostling for resources and infl uence in Asia, Europe and Latin America. He cited the example of India recently shortlisting European military aircraft over non-European models to upgrade its air force as a symbolic and strategic move aimed at “keeping a geopolitical footprint” in the region.

Contending theories of rising powers

G12.inddBajpai applied the various schools of thought in International Relations and Indian strategic thinking to analyse the rise of the two powers and the nature of their rivalry.

Despite the Realist school’s contention that emerging powers are likely to collide with each other in their pursuit of power, nations possessing equal power “will also be prone to maintain cold peace by deterring each other”, said Bajpai. Furthermore, confidence-building measures, such as arms control pacts, can enable great powers to clarify each other’s perceptions, reassure each other and avert “accidental wars”, he said.

According to the Liberal paradigm, nations sharing common democratic values and institutions and extensive trade relations have an interest to uphold peace and promote stability, said Bajpai, noting that China and India did not share many common institutions. However, Constructivist thinkers would argue that China and India view one another not as contenders, but as nations with a long history that have great potential to cooperate. This, according to Bajpai, is evident in India’s “internationalist outlook” in foreign policy, and China’s affi rmation of its “peaceful rise”.

Bajpai outlined the three schools of Indian strategic thinking. The Nehruvian internationalist school recognises the presence of mutually binding forces between China and India, such as trade relations spanning centuries, a common history of being victims of Western imperialism, the spread of Buddhism from India to China, and the absence of war until the early 1960s. Both countries also view the US as “the destabilising force in the international order and globalisation”, he said. The Neoliberal camp in India believes that neither the US nor China is an enemy. What matters is growing trade, investment and transfer of technology. Indeed, China’s economic success in the past several decades is something that India can learn from. Most importantly, the two nations stand to gain more by developing closer trade relations, Bajpai said. Differing fundamentally, Hyperrealism posits that China is the main threat to India, and “unless India builds fast, and constructs security alliances with other nations, it will be hard to counter a growing China”, he said.

Divergences and similarities

Huang analysed the sources of confl ict and cooperation between China and India. There are lingering tensions over the border issue with neither willing to make a compromise, but each state understands that it is “a matter of management to ensure it does not escalate”, said Huang. Pointing to China’s “good track record” of solving territorial disputes, as its history with the former Soviet republics demonstrates, Huang was hopeful both powers would reach a solution eventually. He said the 1962 Sino-Indian war had poisoned relations and though it has largely been forgotten, it remains a stain in their history that has at times been exploited by the rightwing media in India. China’s past political and material support to Pakistan in its war with India is yet another source of friction. However, both powers are concerned about growing Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan since 2001 and are trying to work in concert to “integrate Pakistan into regional mechanisms”, said Huang.

Huang said that though China and India are using trade to “integrate into the global economy to drive their own growth”, the fear is that they may become “revisionist” after building strong military forces and competitive economies.

Huang noted that the creation of an Asian market and Asian international currency has become more viable after the 2008 global financial crisis, and both India and China “will have no choice but to collaborate in this matter”. This has been driven by necessity, since both have a “fundamental economic problem and don’t have fi nancial arrangements to sustain their current growth rate in the longer run,” Huang said.

One area that concerned Bajpai and Huang was the rise of nationalism among the Chinese and Indian middle classes. They said that if the middle classes in both countries felt that their views on international issues were ignored and their countries’ greater role in world affairs was not acknowledged by other powers, or if economic growth faltered and their needs were not adequately addressed by their governments, this could create difficulties for Beijing and New Delhi. Bajpai said the rise in Indian nationalism towards China has been in part spurred by the liberal Indian media, which at times creates “imaginary and invented stories about China”. For instance, some Indian media reports tend to exaggerate India’s defeat and humiliation in the 1962 confl ict, which the majority of Indians have little knowledge about. However, the more two countries integrate, nationalism will be less of a force affecting bilateral relations, he said.


Uran Bolush is a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the LKY School.