The race of two Asian giants

China and India will shape Asia in the next decade, but likely in wary opposition to one another

Updated - August 15, 2022 08:24 am IST

Published - August 15, 2022 12:45 am IST

File photo of Indian Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi (left) shaking hands with Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, in 1988.

File photo of Indian Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi (left) shaking hands with Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, in 1988. | Photo Credit: AFP

Last month, a United Nations population survey estimated that a milestone may be passed in 2023. For the first time in over two millennia, China will not be the most populous society on earth. Instead India will have the largest population, and China will be second.

It’s a rare example of a global ranking where India sits higher than China, and it’s an ambivalent victory at best: a larger population does not have merit in itself, unless it is well-fed and endowed with economic prospects. China has other number 2 rankings which may raise its standing, such as the second largest economy in the world. It is not second to India but the U.S. This is a reminder of how far the two Asian giants have come since their moments of profound political change in the late 1940s: independence for India in 1947, and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. In global power terms, China now looms above India, but the fluidity of geopolitics in the 2020s may give India advantages in the world now being shaped.

Different directions

The world of the late 1940s was one where global order was just as much in turmoil as in the present day. India had become the first major British colony to gain freedom, and its new leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the fate of India as important not only for his country’s own people but also for the other, still-colonised peoples of Asia. Although the violence of Partition cast a bloody cloud across the landscape, the establishment of India as a multi-party electoral democracy with a free media was a foundation stone of the secular politics that Nehru embodied, and wanted an independent India to represent. China’s fate at that time was also marked by violence, but it had a very different result. China had fought Japan from 1937 to 1945 during World War II, but was then plunged into a civil war between the ruling Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. Mao’s victory saw the establishment of the PRC, which leaned heavily on the Soviet Union for its economic model. China was kept out of the United Nations for another two decades, and did not open diplomatic relations with the U.S. for three. The years of Mao’s rule saw immense domestic turmoil, with events such as the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, an experiment in self-sufficient socialism that went horrifically wrong and starved millions of farmers to death, as well as the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, in which China went to war with itself. Mao’s China also, of course, went to war with India, in a border conflict in 1962 whose after-effects are still very evident today.

Common concerns

Yet, in the later years, the thawing of the Cold War saw both countries change path, and even share some common concerns. By the 1990s, India’s highly protected economy was producing limited growth, and controversial reforms under figures including P.V. Narasimha Rao opened up the economy in various ways, creating a new class of millionaires as well as increasing inequality. In a sense, China had been there first, with the astonishing economic experiment begun in the 1970s with the blessing of Mao’s ultimate successor, Deng Xiaoping. Instead of the command economy that Mao had favoured, China’s senior leader allowed the development of a market economy. This did not follow the model pioneered by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Bob Hawke, of removing the government as much as possible from the workings of the market. Instead, the Chinese private sector was given space to develop within a framework controlled by the party. But it worked astonishingly well. China became a manufacturing hub for the world, regularly posting 10% growth rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, China’s per capita GDP rate is around $9,000 a year, as opposed to around $2,000 for India.

Today, geopolitical tensions mean that China and India mostly sit on opposite ends on major global questions. There are some areas of commonality, to be fair; both are nervous about climate change commitments that may hamper their growth, and both abstained at the United Nations this year rather than condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Lessons to be learned

Yet there are also elements behind their rise that mean that both sides can learn from each other. One of China’s most powerful engines for growth has been its stress on education: 2.4% of GDP goes on research and development broadly defined, and in international university rankings, which mostly rate hard sciences, China has a group of institutions in the top tier, many more than India. Education is not evenly distributed, with urban centres obtaining much more of the pie than the children of the countryside. Yet, there is no doubt that China’s stress on building human capital has had results.

However, China’s current political system runs the risk of losing its gains as it become narrower and more authoritarian. In the last few years, technology entrepreneurs, academics and lawyers have all become victims of political crackdowns by the party, which is concerned about any voices that do not simply follow the line sent down by Beijing. However, societies that suppress questioning voices find, in time, that their capacity to innovate is damaged. India has long had a pluralist system with a variety of voices; the flexibility and capacity to change that such a system can provide should give both China and India pause for thought if neither wants to fall behind in the next stage of global development.

Challenges ahead

The 2020s will provide a set of challenges for both India and China. On the international stage, both countries need to think where they can find new friends. In the case of India, there are plenty of suitors, as the establishment of the Quad naval agreement with the U.S., Australia, and Japan suggests. Yet independent India has always been reluctant to become too entangled in disputes beyond its borders. The growing strength of China has become a source of alarm for India, but it is not yet obvious that New Delhi wants to accept the invitations of the U.S. to become a full-blown ally against Beijing, nor what New Delhi’s reaction would be, say, to a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan in the near future. China is likewise wary of formal alliances, but that is in part because its potential partners are ambivalent ones. Russia and China declared a “friendship without limits” in February this year, but it seems unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the full extent of his ambition to invade Ukraine with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he met him at the Winter Olympics.

There is little doubt that the actions of both China and India will shape Asia in the next decade. But it is likely that they will continue to do so in wary opposition to each other, and not as part of a wider Asian power bloc of the sort that Nehru might have imagined back in 1947, even if they continue to remain the first and second most populous societies on earth – in whichever order.

The 2020s will provide a set of challenges for both India and China. On the international stage, both countries need to think where they can find new friends.

Rana Mitter is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford

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