Global South is looking up to China and India: We cannot afford to confront
Published: Jun 20, 2024 07:00 PM
Photos: VCG

Photos: VCG

Editor's Note:

What does a third term for Narendra Modi mean for China-India ties? How can misconceptions among people from both sides be addressed? What are the possible trajectories for the China-India-US triangle? In the latest Global Times' Global Minds Roundtable (GT) hosted by reporter Li Aixin, Mohammed Saqib (Saqib), founder and secretary general of India China Economic & Cultural Council, Vijay Prashad (Prashad), Indian historian, journalist, author, and executive director of Tricontinental, Hu Shisheng (Hu), director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, and Zhang Jiadong (Zhang), director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University, shared their views. 

GT: After the election, Prime Minister Modi announced that he would make major economic decisions in his third term, while observers and the media are discussing the persistent ailments in India's economy. What can India do in Modi's third term to address its economic challenges? In this process, what role will economic and trade relations with China play?

I think India's economy will continue its current trajectory with no significant changes. In the past 20 years, Indian National Congress governed India for 10 years and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for 10 years, and the economic growth rate has been similar. This indicates that India's economic development is not influenced by political parties but is based on India itself. 

India is in the early stages of economic development with a unique economic model. An Indian friend of mine believes India has a hybrid economy, blending various factors, unlike East Asian countries or China, which focus more on the manufacturing industry. Given this, I predict that India will continue to follow its current economic model.

Regarding China-India economic ties, it's quite interesting - despite some Indian government officials and people wanting to reduce economic ties with China, trade between the two countries has actually grown over the past three years. India's economic dependency on China has not decreased and sometimes has even increased. For example, as India's pharmaceutical exports increase, China's exports to India of pharmaceutical-related goods are also rising, benefiting both economies. This means China and India can enjoy each other's development. 

I think after this election, India's economic and trade policies toward China will become more pragmatic. The reality is that India needs Chinese goods and materials. Therefore, economic and trade relations will continue to be a foundation of China-India relations.

Even though the Indian government has put up many obstacles for Chinese companies and people in India, bilateral trade persists. Many Chinese companies continue to operate in India despite challenges such as visa issues. India is important to China, and vice versa. I believe that in the next five years, when China is the second-largest economy and India becomes the third-largest economy, there will be more opportunities for cooperation.

Saqib: As Zhang said, the trajectory of economic development in India won't change much. Privatization of public enterprises was an important part of policy under previous Modi governments; it was possible due to the BJP's significant majority in parliament and minimal opposition. However, in the future, this process might slow down as consensus is needed for decisions.

I foresee potential delays in implementing infrastructure projects due to the complexities of land procurement and ground-level approvals required. I also anticipate some bias in allocating central funds, projects or schemes potentially, favoring states where the BJP or its coalition partners hold power, such as Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.

India needs more reforms and opening-up, particularly in labor, land, and bureaucracy. It probably won't happen so fast.

Hu: Since the 1990s, when India opened up to the world, especially through large-scale reforms, its economic performance over the past 30 years, not just the last decade, demonstrates that the Indian economy has its own logic. It's not easily swayed by changes in the political structure of the central government. 

Additionally, I believe that maintaining trade, economic, and industrial cooperation with China is increasingly becoming an unwritten political correctness in India. This cooperation helps the central government stabilize prices and subdue inflation.

In the future, India will likely continue to adhere to market rules, maintaining economic ties with China, possibly by learning from the just concluded election - daily life matters. Food inflation really can destroy the expectations of elections. So bilateral economic relations may even strengthen, potentially expanding into some areas like industrial cooperation, where there had been too much decoupling disturbance from Modi's government. This growth not only helps control domestic inflation but also boosts New Delhi's export capabilities in global markets, which is vital for job creation.

Therefore, I am optimistic about the future of China-India economic relations.

Prashad: India sees a staggering 45 percent youth unemployment or underemployment rate. This means young people can't be absorbed into the modern economy. The informal economy remains extensive, but the formal economy is tiny, which doesn't improve the general conditions for the masses. People suffer from a lack of income, underemployment, and unemployment, compounded by food price inflation. This creates a scissors effect: Prices rise while incomes stagnate or fall. This is a major problem.

Regarding India and China, it may surprise people that China, not the US, is India's largest trading partner. Despite political animosity, China is India's biggest trading partner. However, that trade is extremely uneven. 

This has a historical reason related to the nature of India's production. India is not exporting raw commodities to China, unlike many African and South Asian countries. Additionally, there are not many services being sold to China, partly due to the language barrier. Unlike Pakistan, where many students learn Chinese in China and return home to serve the Chinese market, India has not pushed for Chinese language education. There's also a perception in China that Indian goods are not up to quality standards. While this perception might be somewhat misleading, there's some truth to this if you don't pay your workers well, if you have 45 percent youth unemployment and underemployment, if your workers are unhealthy, if there's no social welfare, a proper health system. This has an impact on the quality of India's exported goods.

Despite the nature of the parliament, whoever gets elected, India-China trade is likely to continue to uptick. However, if the trade remains uneven, it could become a political issue, which is dangerous and needs to be addressed. We need a balanced, two-way trade. It will require the Indian government to improve labor conditions. This involves not undermining labor laws but strengthening social welfare policies and improving healthcare, nutrition, education, and transportation. While Modi focuses on high-ticket infrastructure projects like freeways, that's a 20th-century approach. What India truly needs is a 21st-century approach with high-speed rail for transporting goods and services. We don't need more trucks on the road, we need more trains on the road. 

GT: Let's talk about another crucial factor in China-India ties - the border dispute. India emphasizes resolving the border issue as a prerequisite for the normalization of bilateral relations, while China believes that China-India ties should not be defined solely by the border dispute. During Modi's third term in office, given the relative constraints in domestic politics, where do you think the border issue is headed? 

We have the McMahon Line and other lines drawn in Ladakh and so on, all drawn by British officers. We need to be mature about our relations. The British are gone. The US might be poking around, but they are not in charge. We are two great Asian countries. And Asian integration is being held back by these disputes between India and China. These small political disputes should be overcome.

If India and China are able to overcome these political disputes, imagine the levels of integration that could occur within Asia. There are many complementarities between these two large countries. India is a major country in South Asia, and China is a major country in all of Asia. We could collaborate much more in Central Asia. For instance, both India and China are in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and could play a joint role in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Imagine the role we could play together in Southeast Asia, building trade corridors and so on. Right now, you have Chinese north-south corridors into Southeast Asia. India could provide east-west corridors for Southeast Asia. The potential is immense, but it is held back by a very small percentage of our border, which remains disputed.

It is part of a broader issue of India-China relations - the US has been trying to utilize India in its strategy to encircle China. India was brought into the Quad. Very interestingly, in the last few years, due to India-Russia relations and the war in Ukraine, India has been less enthusiastic about the Quad proposal and the Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China.

Just a month and a half ago, the US government formed a new platform with Australia, Japan, and the US, three members of the Quad, but replaced India with the Philippines, calling it the "Squad." This is an interesting sign. Does this mean that the Squad with the Philippines will set aside the Quad, making room for India and China to start a dialogue on security that doesn't include the US? I think that would be an excellent development. If Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar went to Beijing and started a broad dialogue about security and economics, including perhaps the Russian government, another major Asian power, it could be very beneficial.

These three large Asian countries could have a trilateral dialogue on development and security in Eurasia. India, China, and Russia share a common position on Ukraine. It would be very interesting to have an India-China-Russia summit on Ukraine and invite 100 other countries. This would be a way to build confidence. Let the border issue come later. Build confidence between these major countries first.

Hu: I'm glad to hear your suggestion, Mr. Prashad, to kick off an economic and strategic dialogue between the two countries and hold trilateral meetings among China, Russia, and India. However, I'm not sure if New Delhi and Modi's team will agree to that.

My personal view is that in the coming five years, the border issue will not become a bigger disturbance. The reason is that the gray areas between the two countries have been significantly reduced after the Galwan incidents, and each side now understands the other's red lines. Additionally, in most of the disputed areas, they have created a kind of buffer zone, or a belt of actual control, with 5- to 10-kilometer-wide zones. This indicates that in the future, general tranquility and peace can be managed, as both sides realize the heavy costs involved.

But another alarming development is the disturbance from third parties. On the one hand, China's relations with South Asian countries and other countries in the Indian Ocean are being regarded by Modi's government as becoming more challenging, or even the biggest challenge to India's strategic autonomy. This will likely lead to more tense competition and rivalry between China and India, as well as among China, India, and the US in the subcontinent, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Smaller countries will face pressure.

On the other hand, China will become more sensitive to India's strategic cooperation and closeness with the US and its allies, especially as they become more aggressive and involved in sensitive issues like the South China Sea, the Taiwan question, and Xizang. This will emerge as a significant disturbance to bilateral relations.

In summary, while border issues may not be a major disturbance in the future, there will be other emerging disturbances on the horizon.

Zhang: I'd like to divide the China-India border issue into three stages.

Pre-2020 and the Galwan conflicts: I call this stage the "Cold Peace" stage. During this time, both sides had the capability to control and monitor the border. The Chinese and Indian armies, along with other border protection forces, had limited deployments in border areas. 

2020: This is the second stage, which I call the "confrontation stage." This stage was brief.

Post-2020 to today: We are now in a new stage, which I call the "stage of psychological warfare and logistic competition." Both sides focus on psychological warfare and logistical competition. After two years of this competition, both sides understand that their opponent has strong intentions and capabilities, making it unlikely for either side to retreat automatically.

After the election, it is very likely that China and India will take more pragmatic measures. While they may not solve the border issue entirely, they will find new ways to control it. Personally, I am optimistic about this.

Saqib: The most important thing, which we are probably ignoring, is that we are on the cusp of a new world order where India and China will play very important roles. Both countries are aware of this, but sometimes, due to domestic considerations or personal reasons, they do not move forward.

Many things are happening globally. The use of the dollar is going down, and India and China have become the fastest-growing economies. The whole Global South, which constitutes more than 80 percent of the world, is looking up to India and China. We cannot afford to fight and let the world, especially the Global South, suffer over a few hundred kilometers of barren land (for which the two sides have had fierce wrangles). 

The border is not the main issue. The real issue is that India and China still do not fully understand each other, and this requires much more engagement. To move forward, we need many more initiatives like the Wuhan and Chennai summits.

GT: Based on your understanding, do ordinary Indians hold any misconceptions about China? If so, what are they? 

Generally, yes, a lot. These misperceptions are created by Western media. I also think China hasn't done enough. China's soft power still falls short compared to its Western counterparts. China needs to project the truth about China and counter the anti-China rhetoric from the West. Most Indians' opinions about China are from Western media. Recently, Indian media has also become hostile toward China, especially after border skirmishes.

People in India are realizing the importance of moving past border disputes and focusing on economic growth. Recent reports highlight the alarming rate of unemployment among Indian youth. Recently, a newspaper article here talked with trade associations, who have gone to the government and advocated for an open business relationship with China. They believe that if the relationship is not open, we are going to suffer. Prime Minister Modi will realize this. 

Despite the misconceptions, I hope our relationship with China, given its importance, will improve over time.

Prashad: Let's be frank. We're having a discussion at a Global Times roundtable. When it comes to media, the Global Times team knows well that despite all the efforts from the rest of us in the Global South to express our viewpoints on the world, the dominance of Western media persists, even long after the end of colonialism. I'd like to ask each of us who joins the roundtable today - what media outlets do you read? Do you read newspapers from Africa or South America, or do you read the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal? Do you watch CNN? 

In a sense, we're victims of a colonial communication order. Professor Saqib is correct. Our views of each other do not develop from India to China or China to India. They often develop from India to Washington to China. Ideas about India are also filtered through Washington before reaching China. 

We don't hold misconceptions of each other. What we have is a colonial voice inside our heads, and we need, in that sense, to be slightly more intentionally anti-colonial about how we consume news, understand each other and get to know the capacities of each other. 

GT: Do you have any suggestions about how to promote people-to-people exchanges between China and India?

First, I would say it's important that our media becomes a little more sophisticated and less defensive. It should talk about things that are real and sincere, offering portraits of the limitations and the difficulties. This way, the media becomes more credible.

I published something on Chinese media and my friends sent me some comments. People say that this "curry fellow" talks sense at times. We have strange understandings of each other that we should contest. We need to have a sense that we share a combined culture. It's not just about China and India; we're part of an Asian humanity. 

Many years ago, the great Bengali Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, who later gave back his prize, wrote about the commonalities and the importance of Indians learning about China. Tagore initiated one of the first serious Chinese studies projects at his university. Chinese professors participated, and in fact, the grandson of one of those professors from China now teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University. We need to have more South Asian studies programs in China and more China studies programs in India.

If you visit universities on both sides of the border, you'll see that there's still much more emphasis placed on understanding the West rather than understanding each other, despite sharing a border and being the two largest countries by population in the world.

While it's important to understand developments in the US - I agree - let's not forget that the US isn't the model. We need an Asian perspective. That's why I'm very glad to be here with two professors who are promoting India studies in China, and with Mr. Saqib, who is promoting the thought of China in India. We need more of this collaboration, much more of this kind of seriousness of purpose.

GT: What are the possible trajectories for the China-India-US triangle in Modi's third term in office? And in turn, how will that impact China-India ties?

There's a big possibility of a significant triangular relationship emerging among China, the US and India - it could be a relationship among the world's top three economies - this would be the first time in human history. 

Currently, however, this relationship isn't fully triangular because India is on the American side rather than being equidistant between China and the US. Maybe in the next five years, there could be progress toward a more balanced triangular relationship. The US-India relationship, meanwhile, is likely to remain complex and multi-faceted rather than a simple straightforward bilateral interaction. 

Hu: I think trilateral relations are, and will be, unevenly developed, especially with two bilateral relations, namely China-India and China-US, having hit rock bottom, while India-US relations still hold potential for further development. The US could be the most disturbing factor in the trilateral relations, particularly with the US government persisting with its strategy of outcompeting China over the next five years. Therefore, relations among these three countries may encounter numerous challenges.

Prashad: I have great concerns regarding Modi and his government's political direction. However, I deeply admire Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar. His strength lies in his role as secretary of external affairs at a time when India has to balance a number of different changes in the world. 

For instance, when Russia entered Ukraine in 2022, India couldn't break with Russia and side with the West. If it did, it would have faced a doubling of food and fuel prices. India was getting discounted fuel from Russia. Jaishankar managed this well, with extraordinary skill, maintaining India's relationship with Russia without breaking with the US. 

On the other hand, India is benefiting from a shift in global sentiment within the Global South. For example, South Africa is taking Israel to the International Court of Justice. During the Gaza conflict, India notably did not align with Israel. Instead, India took the same position as China, advocating for a two-state solution. This stance was unexpected, especially considering Prime Minister Modi's personal ties with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. India's alignment with China in this matter underscores its sensitivity to global shifts and its concern for humanitarian issues.

It's not a question of whether (India will lean toward) Beijing or Washington. That's an outdated camp mentality, outdated Cold War thinking. India wants to put its national interest first, and I tend to agree, that's the best way to develop a non-aligned foreign policy. 

Saqib: It is a complex relationship, and India is in a tight spot. The US wants India to align with the US in the South China Sea affairs and against China. China wants India to collaborate on projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other Global South affairs, uplifting Asia and beyond. We are really confused and unsure about what to do. However, to some extent, India has realized that the US is not a dependable partner. I can see India coming back to its senses and toward Asia.

Sooner or later, the US will also realize that it cannot be the sole superpower and that a multilateral system is coming. For that, the US would probably want relationships with India, China, and other developing countries. I believe we should start with Indian civil society to initiate or promote dialogues between China and the US to address certain issues.