Sino-Indian Relations: The Mahubani Thesis

IITM CSC Article #70
13 February 2014
Sino-Indian Relations: The Mahubani Thesis


In his K. Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture delivered on February 4, titled "Can India be Cunning”, Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, had some startling suggestions to guide Indian foreign policy. For instance, he felt that India should distinguish its government-to-government relations from its people-to-people relations with Pakistan, and deploy "soft power", especially via Bollywood, to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. India should persist with this policy even if its official relations with Pakistan deteriorate. India should also inform the P5 members of the UN Security Council that India might reconsider its acceptance of the mandatory decisions of the UNSC if it remains excluded from its permanent membership. In regard to UNSC reform he suggested a 7-7-7 formula envisaging 7 permanent members, 7 semi-permanent members and seven others. India would be among the 7 permanent members. Since a single seat would be allotted to the European Union in lieu of the veto-empowered UK and France it seems very unlikely that this recommendation would fructify.

Mahbubani's views on Sino-Indian relations, however, were most radical. He emphasized that the United States, Japan, Russia and Europe are all concerned with China's far-from-peaceful rise. Hence, they are seeking other countries to balance China, and have concluded that India is the best candidate to be this balancer. This explains why the United States and Japan are courting India, and also provides the inner rationale for the Indo-American nuclear deal. How should India maximize its advantages in this situation? Mahbubani advised it to be cunning, and accept Japan's proposals for closer trade and investment links, apart from a possible trade agreement with the United States. But, India should not allow itself to be taken for granted. The best way to achieve all these objectives would be for India "to develop equally close relations with China, especially on the trade and economic front. China too has no desire to alienate India."

The simplicity of this policy is truly beguiling. Mahbubani cited with approval the economic historian, Angus Maddison, who has noticed that in 1820 China and India accounted for some 49 % of the world's GDP in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. He might also have noticed Maddison's statistics informing that India's share of global GDP was 32.9 % at the commencement of the Christian era (AD 1)and 28.9 % in AD 1000. It was only after 1820 that China's GDP began outstripping India's GDP; and only after 1970 that it rose dramatically vis-à-vis India. There are several negative factors in China's growth story and positive factors in favor of India that could, not inconceivably, narrow the gap between their GDPs in future. Hence, there is no reason for India to treat China as an emerging superpower in the same league as the United States.

Turning to Sino-Indian trade, it has burgeoned from only $. 2-3 bn. in 2002 to around $ 70 bn. At present, and could reach $ 100 bn in 2015. But, several doubts have arisen about the texture of this trade, which is heavily weighted in China's favor. For instance, in 2010-11 India sold only US $ 20 billion while it bought US $ 40 billion worth of goods from China. This trade imbalance continues. Apart from offering verbal assurances China has not taken any concrete steps to remedy this situation. Indian firms, especially pharmaceutical and IT companies, face huge registration problems, language barriers, and a hierarchical business structure in China. Only a limited range of primary, resource-based and low-end technology products are allowed to be imported into China like iron ore, cotton, precious stones and organic chemicals, whereas China's exports to India are diversified, and include high-value, finished products like machinery. A colonial trading pattern is thus being perpetrated by China, which has occasioned strong resentments in India.

Incidentally, China does not seem to believe that increase in trade and commercial relations forebodes an improvement in political relations, which is the received wisdom. China places them in separate compartments; hence Sino-Indian political and security relations have been deteriorating while trade figures have burgeoned. The list of contentions is also of long duration. The Sino-Indian border dispute has continued over six decades now, and shows no signs of mitigation. Neither is this dispute quiescent. Indeed, the opposite is true. Over the last year the Line of Actual Control has been destabilized by China's cross-border intrusions, and occupation (temporary) of Indian territory. Then there is the issue of stapled visas for persons of Indian origin residing in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, signifying that China believes these are disputed territories that do not clearly belong to India.

Another long-enduring problem is China's blatant transfer of military and nuclear technology to Pakistan in defiance of international norms. China's transparent intention is to bolster Pakistan in its hostility towards India and confine the latter within the geo-political confines of South Asia. Moreover, China's 's "string of pearls" maritime strategy to seek basing facilities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, SriLanka and Pakistan is designed to restrict India's moves in the Indian Ocean region. India, no doubt, has taken counter-measures to protect its interests. But, the overall milieu of Sino-Indian relations is hardly conducive for India "to develop equally close relations with China. " And it is difficult to conclude that "China too has no desire to alienate India."

There is, besides, the overall strategic equation underlying Sino-Indian relations. Both are rising in the international system. The annals of history are replete with examples of established powers being challenged by rising powers, leading to perturbations in the regional and international system; Hence, American-Chinese relations are unlikely to be cordial in future. Given India's several unresolved disputes and problems with China, its so-called 'peaceful' rise will also remain of major concern to India, making it necessary for India to strengthen its relations with the other major powers.

All in all, it seems Mahbubani's radical views on how India should comport itself towards China were designed to startle rather than instruct. Clearly, this important relationship needs to be kept under review, but not within any immutable framework.


PR Chari,
Visiting Professor, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.
Article PDF: