Why China’s rise is manageable

Long-term trends and India’s enduring advantages can work in its favour

Published:September 14, 2012 3:36 am

As we have argued in the first essay in our series,the growth of Chinese power poses serious challenges to Indian territorial integrity,to the autonomy of India’s domestic politics and intellectual property and to India’s free access to the seas,to space and to the global economy. Reasoning solely from past trends,something close to resignation,if not despair,may set in — surely the balance of power will only get worse,absent discontinuous change in China,such as the collapse of one-party rule. Our central contention in this piece is that for several reasons this pessimism is unwarranted. There are important long-term trends in operation over the next decades that,together with India’s enduring advantages,will work in its favour. Indeed,if India plays its cards right the present time will turn out to be the high water mark of Chinese power,and India’s China problem will become increasingly manageable going forward. Let us turn to these long-term trends and enduring Indian strengths.

The first favourable trend for India is demographic. China shifted abruptly to lower rates of reproduction favouring men 30 years ago,following decades of rapid population growth. Millions of men and women who would be reaching the prime of their lives today were not born,and that dearth will persist. Their parents,however,are present in large numbers,and are reaching old age. The number of working age people available to support old people,either by means of traditional family structures or by government programmes supported by taxes,is going down. It is no wonder that Chinese workers save so much. It should also be no surprise that the Chinese labour force will shrink and that internal consumer demand will be limited. The supply of young Chinese people in rural areas who can move into manufacturing jobs to fuel economic growth has been depleted. India faces no such demographic crunches. If it can educate its young people,it will have a young,productive and growing labour force that will contribute to a high rate of economic growth.

The second favourable trend relates to India’s economic position. Economic growth is easier when you are catching up to richer countries. There is a world of foreign technology and business practices for you to acquire and use to increase your productivity rapidly. After a few decades of catching up,you have taken advantage of most foreign know-how. At that point,economic growth means inventing your own technology or acquiring new foreign technology as it is invented. This means slower growth in productivity. China is perhaps 25 years ahead of India in its economic development,which means that it is 25 years closer to hitting these limits. So India’s potential rate of growth going forward is higher. When we combine this with demography,it is possible for India’s rate of growth to overtake that of China in the near future and thus to begin to reverse the accumulation of Chinese advantage.

The third favourable trend for India involves developments in military technology and how they intersect with India’s military posture. Technologically,the price of precision strike weapons,weapons that have very high accuracies based on information technology,has been coming down,and these weapons’ reliability and ease of use has been going up. Taliban and Hezbollah fighters can use advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles effectively. Smart weapons cost the US $500,000 a round in 1990. They cost $10,000 or less today. While this empowers non-state actors,the main effect is to make the defence of territory against incursions by conventional military forces more effective and less costly. This trend is continuing and growing in importance as countries around the world adjust to it. China wishes to use conventional military forces to extend its influence. India only wants to defend its sovereign territories and proximate maritime regions. Precision strike weapons favour countries with defensive strategies and their growing role thus favours India.

The fourth positive trend is the growing importance of the cyber domain. Here India has a globally competitive industry and a deep pool of talent.

The fifth major trend in India’s favour is the persistent and continuing spread of democratic norms. There is little reason to expect that two decades hence authoritarian states will seem more legitimate to people around the world than they do today and recent history would predict that they will seem less legitimate. This gives India a long-term advantage in “soft power”.

Sixth,as China grows in power,it uses that power sometimes skillfully,but often not. Either way,the Chinese use of power to increase its influence in Asia interacts with another powerful trend: the growth of nationalism in other prosperous Asian societies,including Japan,Korea,and Vietnam. China’s growth does not automatically call into being the forces that will limit its further growth,but it does create sentiments that can become the basis for actions that safeguard the sovereignty of Asian states. India’s rise,by contrast,is not perceived as a threat by other east and southeast Asian states.

Finally,the balance of power in the subcontinent has turned decisively in India’s favour with Pakistan increasingly struggling to compete. While we do not wish to minimise Pakistan’s capacity to make mischief via support of terrorist activity,strategically India is in a position to focus on China much more than it has been in the past.

The favourable trends involving military technology,“soft power,” and nationalism complement an enduring Indian geographic advantage. The subcontinent straddles some of the world’s most important sea lanes,rendering India “the roof” of the Indian Ocean,to borrow the formulation of a recently retired Indian naval chief. On its land borders,India sits at the pivot between the energy-rich Middle East and energy-hungry east Asia. With the two notable exceptions of China and Pakistan,India has a history of largely positive relations with Himalayan neighbours,the central Asian states and Russia. China,by contrast,has a history of border disputes and outright war with many of its continental neighbours,from Russia to Vietnam. China’s access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans,moreover,is blocked by a network of democracies along the mainland’s maritime flank,from Japan,South Korea,and Taiwan to the Philippines,Indonesia,and Singapore.

The trends and enduring strengths described above are not controversial. Together,they suggest that the imbalance in Chinese and Indian national power can decline over the next 20 years,if actions based on them are taken. If India provides education and jobs for its young people,uses cheap military technology that blunts conventional military incursions and works with other democratic Asian states and Asia’s democratic offshore balancer (the US) to safeguard their collective sovereign rights,Asia will be a different place in the coming decades. There is no reason for India to be resigned or complacent given its current position. The real question is what to do now. That is the subject of our final essay.

Jacqueline Deal is president and CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group,a Washington DC-based defence consultancy. Stephen Rosen is Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University and senior counsellor at LTSG. Shivaji Sondhi is on the faculty at Princeton and directs the India and the World programme at its Centre for International Security Studies.

The three-part series concludes tomorrow

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