REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Rising China versus rising India

Published on July 25, 2005

How do you cope with the rise of China? Since last week, it has become very clear that a do-able option is to create another rising Asian power. But the chosen country would have to possess distinctive qualities and values that the worldfs most-populous country does not have, at least for the foreseeable future.

The objective is simple: the new rising power would still function in a democratic, transparent and accountable way in the years to come. Well, that is how India comes in.

The Bush administration finally made a bold decision to make India a major power in the 21st century. Of course, that was a far cry from Washingtonfs customary Indian bashings of the past. Strange but true, such an approach was pondered for a long time but never before implemented because India has been hard-headed as a nuclear power, refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and kowtow to the US.

But somehow Washington got over that and is now willing to go the extra mile with the worldfs largest democracy. Bushfs action has immediate and long-term implications, not only for US global strategy, but also for countries in the region.

For the US, the shift will strengthen its Asian policy, which has been too focused on China. From now on, India is a new player that is distinguish from China and Japan. Washingtonfs openness towards India was extraordinary and shrewdly calculated. High-level cooperation in nuclear and other sensitive technology transfers is only allowed between democracies; the reasoning is that democracies will not go to war with one another. That in itself is no longer sufficient. As of now, estranged democracies must become friends especially when they are huge and technological proned. They have to transform into collaborative democracies. Together, they can spread democracy around the world and serve as a bulwark against tyranny.

The new Bush policy towards India is long overdue. Coming as it does, it effectively sidesteps the long-cherished US containment policy towards China since the end of World War II. At present, it is clear no country in the world, the US included, can do anything to cramp Chinafs rise in terms of economic and military power. So what Washington can do is help support Indiafs modernisation and its eradication of poverty, making India a healthy, richer and well-round power. It is hopeful with that kind of India, it can counter-balance China.

For decades, the US showed a preference for Pakistan, even before the terrorist attacks of September 2001. But Pakistan is not a democratic country. President Pervez Musharraf came to power through a military coup in October 1999 and has stayed on ever since. He has supported US endeavours in the war against terror and the war in Afghanistan. Their commonalities end there. Beyond these objectives, Pakistan is considered a liability.

Within Southeast Asia, the growing closeness between the US and India is a rare piece of welcome news. Such a relationship is viewed as an additional countervailing force apart from the US-Japanese alliance. India is perceived as having its own mind, with no historical baggage in the region. It is too premature to predict how the US-India partnership will evolve, but one thing is clear: when the worldfs biggest democracies join hands, they do so for a reason.

That reason is to promote an atmosphere conducive to fostering democracy. India is a democracy since its independence and now its economic is progressing rapidly. This idea is proliferating fast. When Australian Prime Minister John Howard met with Bush in Washington recently, they said they would jointly strengthen Indonesian democracy. Ever since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became president last year, the worldfs third largest democracy has been viewed as the model of a secularised and tolerent Muslim country.

The new US strategy will inevitably put Asean, with which China and India are fully engaged, under the global microscope. By engaging India at the highest level, Washington has already opened a second front to deal with the rise of China.

India backed by the US will have credibility and muscle in the region. Future cooperation between India and Asean will also be altered. At the moment, China cooperates more extensively with Asean in all areas, including science and technological cooperation. Security could emerge as a new area of Asean-Indian cooperation.

From a global perspective, with India as a trusty friend of the US, Washington will be well positioned in the region to checkmate Beijing. Together with Japanfs expanded international role, the US and Asian democracies will rise together, representing a new democratic coalition in Asia.

Certainly, no one in Washington will admit to this being a new non-military approach aimed at marginalising China. US neo-conservatives in the Bush administration know full well that Chinafs soft underbelly is not about the military might but the real issue surrounding regional democratic political transformation.

To deal with these challenges, China has no alternative but to become a more open society and move towards broader democratization, under whatever descriptions the top poliburo members prefer to use.