T N Ninan – This is an edited extract from The Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future published on October 9.


Hainan Island lies off the south-western coast of China, jutting into waters stirred by controversy. At its southern tip, China has built a massive naval base with subterranean hiding places for nuclear submarines, and long piers for parking the aircraft carriers it will build. The South China Sea stretches from there into territory claimed controversially by China and contested by other South East Asian countries. Hainan is also touted as China’s answer to Hawaii, another sunny spot where a key naval base exists side by side with sandy beaches and palm-fringed holiday resorts. Flights land at Hainan’s Haikou airport from all corners of the region. Bullet trains speed you from the airport in the north to the holiday resorts in the south.

Midway lies Boao, which boasts broad, carpeted roads, lush tropical greenery, a large conference centre and sundry hotels in which uniformed hostesses move around in single file and clap in unison whenever a VIP enters or leaves. In 2002, Boao began hosting an annual conference called the Boao Forum for Asia. At the second such conclave, in late 2003, Zheng Bijian spelt out for the first time his thesis on ‘China’s peaceful rise’. Zheng had been a long-time adviser to the Chinese leadership, holding a variety of posts attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He said the previous rise of new powers had resulted in changes in global political structures and war, because they ‘have followed an aggressive path of war and expansion. Such a path is doomed to failure.’ He said China should rise peaceably, never seek hegemony, and help maintain a peaceful international environment.

The talk of a peaceful rise or development came not far from the site where the new naval base was under construction, and from where naval ships set sail for Somalia in 2008. Before long, China’s rise threatened to be anything but peaceful as it claimed virtually all of the South China Sea which Hainan abuts. Underlying the claim is the potential for oil and gas offshore, but economics is only one reason. Chinese foreign policy is manifestly dictated by an irredentist nationalism, fed by memories of unfair treatment and territorial loss in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The western hope has been that China would mature into what Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative and later World Bank president, described as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ (which begs the question how responsible western stakeholders have been during their period of ascendancy). Still, the western powers have been leery of China’s mercantilist trade and currency policies, its brazen violation of intellectual property rights, the repeated hacking of government and defence websites, and the treaty-violating support given to rogue friends like North Korea. Martin Jacques asserts in a forcefully argued book that China will never be a normal power, in the way the West understands the term. The Chinese civilizational view includes the Confucian idea of harmony as a hierarchical order, with everyone accepting his or her place in that hierarchy — which means that China does not deal with other countries as its equals but as tributaries.

A Comprehensive National Power
China measures power and national security through a matrix that it calls Comprehensive National Power. Among the factors taken into account are the economy, technological development, natural resources, military power, population and diplomacy. A 2014 ranking put the US at the top, with Russia and China next. After that, in a lower league, came a clutch of four countries bunched together: India, Britain, Japan and France. Germany, Brazil and South Korea followed lower down. Another ranking that used a combination of population, urbanization, steel production, energy consumption, military expenditure and military strength put the top three as China, the US and India, in that order. Earlier rankings, in 2006, had put China in only sixth place and India in tenth. The changes in rank since then show the rise of both China and India, naturally with China as the superior power.Arvind Subramanian compiled his own Index of Economic Power, with the index of all countries in the world totalling up to 100. India in 2010 scored 3 per cent, while China and Japan were level at 11 per cent, and the US at the top of the list with 14 per cent. Subramanian and Martin Kessler also argued in 2013 that China’s yuan was already challenging the primacy of the dollar in East Asia. Perhaps, and perhaps not, because China still holds the bulk of its vast foreign exchange reserves in dollars.

So is India on its way to becoming a Great Power, as these rankings on national power suggest? Or has it begun an inexorable slide into China’s shadow because of the growing imbalance of power between the two? The subject came into focus in March 2005 when Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to New Delhi as the new US Secretary of State, told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the United States would help India ‘become a Great Power in the twenty-first century’. A somewhat different thought came from Martin Wolf, who characterized China and India as ‘premature superpowers’, potentially front-ranking nations because of their size even as they struggled with the stubborn challenges of widespread poverty and inadequate economic, technological and institutional development.

China has substantially emerged out of that duality, having become the world’s largest manufacturer and merchandise exporter, with its eyes set now on mastering advanced technologies. India, in contrast, is still caught in old dualities. In purchasing-power parity terms, India’s per capita income in 2014 ($5855) put it noticeably out of line with the other BRICS economies. China was at $12,880, Brazil at $16,096 and Russia at $24,805. South Africa, an afterthought addition to BRICS, was at $13,046. A Great Power India might hope to become, but it has the chains of poverty around its ankles. India has the world’s largest number of absolute poor, the largest number of malnourished, and an overall score on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index that makes it feature well below most other large economies.

Yet, India is undeniably the world’s third-largest economy in PPP terms, and the seventh largest in nominal dollars.  In seven years since the western financial crisis of 2008, its economy has averaged 7.1 per cent annual growth — which probably places it second only to China. China has now slowed down, and may slow down further, even as India steps up the pace and entrenches itself in its new position as the fastest-growing among the large economies. This adds to the weight of the country’s land mass and population (including a growing middle class), while its geographical position gives it a strategic value that is hard to ignore.

It is inevitable, then, that countries looking at the emerging Asian picture should view India as a possible counterweight to China, the ‘default option’ if you look for balance of power. The problem with such a view is that India has been falling short of what is required for such a role, in terms of overall economic, technological and military performance — becoming a defaulting power, so to speak, rather than the default option. Still, it is remarkable how the country’s relations with the other leading powers of Australasia have been transformed over the past decade — in part because of its growing importance as a market, in part because of the rise of China and in part because of the Indo-US nuclear agreement of 2008. As Manmohan Singh once told me, many doors open once you are seen as America’s friend.

India’s choices
On the long-range evidence since 1950 a reasonable conclusion would be that the Chinese ascendancy has and will continue to put India’s rise in the shade, placing the two countries in different power orbits — China a global power, India only a regional one. Will this constrict Indian plans? Almost certainly yes, even if by 2025 India has become the fourth-largest economy and third-largest military power.

Even in testing situations, though, the natural instinct for a country of India’s size is to rely on its own economic and military strengths; that is the logic of the country’s desire for strategic autonomy. In 2015, with the prospect of improved economic performance and  more active diplomacy under Narendra Modi, strategic autonomy still is a viable policy framework. But should the power imbalance with China grow, and create a sense of increased vulnerability in India, it would make the attractions of greater alignment with the US, Japan and perhaps Australia shine brighter. And yet, India will always be held back by nervousness about provoking Beijing and the desire to avoid a fresh border conflict with China in a mountainous terrain that is not to its advantage.

Whenever China has taken a misstep (as with its aggressive posture in the South China Sea), India’s diplomatic options have expanded in the region. New Delhi could do with American support for its objectives, like breaking into the missile and nuclear technology clubs, but the larger challenge to Indian diplomats will be complex. How can they exploit the growing alignment with the US and Japan without making China see red? And how do they sidestep the potential pitfalls of a policy that might be defined as ‘nobody’s ally, everyone’s friend’?

And yet, there may well be no conflict. Henry Kissinger writes about the difference between chess (which originated in India; each player seeks the other’s capitulation) and the Chinese game of wei qi where a player seeks relative advantage, with the goal being strategic encirclement. If China can manage the encirclement of India, it will have contained India without the risk of hostilities.

Troubling as these thoughts are from the Indian perspective, there is a more sanguine view, that Chinese ascendancy needs to be understood in the context of the key constraints it faces: the simultaneous rise of other powers around the world; the existence all around China of semi-hostile powers who might increasingly coordinate their actions on the basis of shared threat perceptions about a new hegemon (as a senior Australian diplomat put it, ‘China invites containment’); the vulnerabilities of a system that is a one-party autocracy; and finally the fact that growth must slow down as its productive population shrinks.

Can China be contained? Almost certainly not. But, India can count on more soft power, more friends, a natural zone of influence in South Asia, and in much of East Asia general goodwill with regard to its non-threatening ascendancy. All of that helps to explain why it would be the default choice as the main balancing power in the region — if it measures up, that is.

Rapid economic growth remains the best foreign policy. If India gets its economic act together, it will strengthen its position vis-à-vis China and also provide the ‘balance’ for which other countries look to it. If India falters economically, China will encroach on its space more than it has already — just as a wei qi player would. The prospect of that unpalatable choice should help focus India’s mind more sharply on achieving rapid economic growth.