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India must get its house in order before it can counter China

India needs more than rapid economic growth to match China in the ‘Asian Century’

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Indian schoolgirl wears face mask of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Chennai, India, in 2019.

Indian schoolgirl wears face mask of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Chennai, India, in 2019. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The narrative of the 21st century as the so-called Asian Century, so often evoked by political pundits in need of a simple yet grand vision of the future, rests on the dual rise of the region’s behemoths — India and China.

Epic future-gazing aside, though, the two states have not shared a pleasant past, despite being born around the same time.

China has been a major source of concern for India’s external security environment since the two clashed in their 1962 war. Today most Indians believe China not only poses a danger to their country's sovereignty and territorial integrity but is also determined to block its rise to superpower status.

Before toying with the possibility of a Sino-Indian battle for dominance though, it is worth asking whether India will really burst onto the international stage as a superpower anytime soon.

In a recent podcast with Policy People, Aparne Pande, research fellow and director of the India Initiative at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., laid out the path India must walk if it is to ever match the economic, military and political might of China. Pande affirmed that China is an “existential threat to India” yet said most Indians believe they will be able to equal China in two decades, though that seems unlikely by current indicators.

South Asian tiger?

Realistically, for India's GDP to match China’s, “the country will have to grow at 6% for the next three decades consistently,” Pande said.

There are only three countries that sustained such miraculous growth in recent times — China, Taiwan, and South Korea. India has little chance of repeating its success unless it finishes the deep market reforms it began in the early 1990s. The reforms are what fueled the country's growth during the early 2000s, she said.

“Even before the pandemic hit India, the country’s growth was about 3%. The pandemic hit India, and India’s growth was negative.”

“Manufacturing output has slowed down for the first time in three decades, poverty levels have gone up, unemployment levels are high, and the government doesn’t seem to be implementing any long-term reforms,” she added.

Pande said making small tweaks to policy will not boost growth and that the government needs to initiate structural reforms to two sectors — real estate and the labor market.

The former would lighten the bureaucratic burden of purchasing property, while the latter would enable companies to hire and fire staff, making industries more competitive, she said.

India also needs large-scale manufacturing centers instead of the scattered small clusters it currently has. Only then will it be able to reach economies of scale and generate export surpluses.

Democracy in trouble

India’s democratic credentials, tolerant values, and advocacy of world peace have historically made it an ideal partner for Western countries hoping to counter China and the spread of authoritarianism throughout Asia.

Recent years, however, have brought India’s international role into question as its divisive domestic politics threaten to drive its foreign policy in a different direction.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy activism during his first term earned him much praise, with some even comparing him with Nehru, in his second term he has strikingly dismantled many of his earlier achievements and tainted India’s image in the process.

A number of domestic political concerns have been at the forefront of inducing new foreign policy challenges.

By making religion a criterion for citizenship through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the government egregiously undermined India’s ideals and the domestic roots of India’s foreign policy, including pluralism and secular values. The move bolstered and accentuated the deepening religious and social polarization — a new normal in India now.

So can India really champion universal values amid calls for Asian countries to play a greater role in the world order?

Unfortunately, a cursory glance at India’s domestic situation shows it sits awkwardly with such a goal, if not completely at loggerheads. India’s advocacy of a “free, open, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific, for instance, is unlikely to find resonance in the international arena if these values are on a shaky foundation at home.

The sharp contrast between India’s recent domestic policies and the spirit of liberal democracy is telling. It compels a probe into what actually represents India’s world view — and whether India has one at all.

India will need to do some soul-searching if it is to ever match China and provide the world with a credible alternative as an Asian superpower in the 21st century.