It is fashionable these days, particularly in the West, to speak of India and China in the same breath. These are the two big countries said to be taking over the world, the new contenders for global eminence after centuries of Western domination, the Oriental answer to generations of Occidental economic success.
Indeed, two new books explicitly twin the two countries: Robyn Meredith’s The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us and Harvard business professor Tarun Khanna’s Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping their Futures — and Yours. Both books view the recent rise of India and China as shifting the world’s economic and political tectonic plates. Some even speak of “Chindia,” as if the two were joined at the hip in the international imagination.
Count me among the skeptics. It is not just that China and India have little in common, save for the fact that they occupy a rather vast landmass called “Asia.” It is also that they are already at very different stages of development. China started its liberalization a decade and a half before India, hit double-digit growth when India was still hovering around 5 percent, and, with compound growth, has put itself in a totally different economic league from India, continuing to grow faster from a larger base.
Moreover, the two countries’ systems are totally dissimilar. If China wants to build a new six-lane expressway, it can bulldoze its way through any village in its path. In India, if you want to widen a two-lane road, you could be tied up in court for a dozen years over compensation entitlements.
When China built the Three Gorges dam, it created a 660km long reservoir that necessitated displacing 2 million people — all accomplished in 15 years without a fuss in the interest of generating electricity.
When India began the Narmada Dam project, aiming to bring irrigation, drinking water, and power to millions, it spent 34 years (so far) fighting environmental groups, human rights activists and advocates for the displaced all the way to the Supreme Court, while still being thwarted in the streets by protesters.
That is how it should be: India is a fractious democracy, China is not. But, as an Indian, I do not wish to pretend that we can compete in the global growth stakes with China.
But if we can’t compete, can we cooperate? The two civilizations had centuries of contact in ancient times. Thanks mainly to the export of Buddhism from India to China, Chinese came to Indian universities, visited Indian courts and wrote memorable accounts of their voyages. Nalanda received hundreds of Chinese students in its time, and a few Indians went the other way; a Buddhist monk from India built the famous Lingyin Si temple in Huangzhou in the 5th century.
Southwest India’s Kerala coastline is dotted with Chinese-style fishing nets, and the favorite cooking pot of the Malayali housewife is the wok, locally called the cheen-chetti (Chinese vessel).
But it has been a while since Indians and Chinese had much to do with each other. The heady days of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (“Indians and Chinese are brothers”), the slogan coined by Nehru’s India to welcome Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) in 1955, gave way to the humiliation of the 1962 border war, after which it was “Hindi-Chini bye-bye” for decades.