• Hamsini Hariharan

Can India compete with China?

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 20, 2020 and can be accessed here.

On New Year’s Eve, I stood in -8 degrees waiting for my didi which never materialised. Finally, cold and freezing, I managed to hail a taxi at 3 am to the international airport. My driver friendly and curious asked questions about India which I tried to answer to the best of my mandarin capabilities. He knows Amir Khan of course and has seen both Dangal and 3 idiots. He then turns on his music and plays the song Teri meri prem kahani and I didn’t know if I should smile or sigh in resignation.

It is quite evident though that the Chinese think little of India. Bad press has only damaged India’s reputation as a country that is poor, unequal and unsafe for women (all valid perceptions of our nation). Indian soft power has seeped in even through the great firewall is known and recognised for Buddhism and Bollywood. But this perception is limited and only in circles. Even though Chinese tourists are the largest in the world, a miniscule number chooses to visit India because of the lack of civic amenities.

The Indian obsession with China borders on fanatical. The legacy of the 1962 war has led for a national insecurity and China’s rise has done little to assuage it. Whether it is the OBOR, or China’s overtures in South Asia or larger, international system, India wants to be seen as one that can provide alternatives with the Asia-Africa Freedom Corridor or bilateral projects.

On a higher level, India projects itself as a country that can accompany China and act as its counter-weight. India’s GDP, its high growth rate and its large markets are features that optimists can point to. However, by per capita income, India’s PPP (at $2010) is comparable to countries such as Nigeria, Timor Leste and Zimbabwe. On development indicators, we fare low in South Asia and worse than countries in Africa. While India wants to punch above its weight on global affairs, it consistently reminds multilateral and international institutions that it is a developing country (as it did at the RCEP negotiations last year).

However, China’s GDP and growth rate have allowed it to rise above all other countries. China does not consider itself in the same league as India. It too, wants to punch above its weight and be comparable to America or Western Europe.

The idea of India being a superpower by 2020 is laughable. Indian foreign policy seems to be meandering, unable to find a strategic narrative beyond rhetoric. But the bigger problem that the country needs to own up to is that perception is based on fact: the importance of India on the world stage is not due to its moral prowess or its civilizational superiority. It is because of the two decades of high economic growth. Without an economy that does well, India will find it difficult to project itself as a country in the same league as China. After all, no one wants to deal with a large, poor country.