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India v. China v. Everyone Else: The Battle For The Future Begins (And Ends?) In Asia

Two Asian giants are facing each other: China, whose economic and military power is no longer in doubt, and India, whose weapon is demography and who dreams of being the equal of its Chinese rival. The effects will reverberate everywhere.

People shopping in Kolkata

People shopping in Kolkata, India.

Dominique Moïsi


PARISThe 21st century will be Asian. There's a virtual consensus around this statement. But which Asia are we talking about? For some time now, the question has been raised: Chinese Asia or Indian Asia? Does the rivalry between the two Asian giants risk jeopardizing the prospects of the Asian continent?

At the end of June, during an international conference held in a big hotel on the French Riviera, I was able to witness first-hand — as a privileged observer — the fierce but nonetheless "muscular" exchanges between Indians and Chinese.

"At the end of this century, given the respective demographic trends of our two countries, there will be 650 million more Indians than Chinese," said one Indian delegate.

A Chinese delegate responded with the same matter-of-factness: "With a simple 2% growth rate, China will create in 10 years the equivalent of India's wealth."

Not surprisingly, the Indians put forward the demographic might, the Chinese the economic one.

Indian dynamism

As witnesses to an exchange that exists, at least in part, only because of their absolute or relative decline, Westerners present could only keep score. In terms of confidence, the advantage was clearly on the Chinese side, but in terms of energy and dynamism, it was on the Indian side.

In fact, it's fair to say that Indians today behave as the Chinese did some 20 years ago. With more sensitivity, however. They are not heirs to the Middle Kingdom, but descendants of the Raj period (the British Empire) and before that of the Muslim Moghul Empire. If the Indians are told that they have a great future ahead of them at the head of the Global South, they get angry, considering this denomination almost insulting.

China is an undeniable reality, India a project still in the making.

"The South means underdevelopment, misery, in a word, failure." How can they be included in this part of the world? They are neither East, nor West, nor South; they are themselves, unique, incomparable, representing a subcontinent whose time has finally come.

The Indians present at the meeting would not accept the slightest criticism either. If anyone raised the idea that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's religious nationalism could be an obstacle to the success of India's ambition, by excluding Muslim citizens from this project, they would get angry.

"These are theses propagated by newspapers, like the New York Times, which understand nothing about India and only convey Western prejudices, as if their only aim were to proclaim, quite wrongly, the superiority of their system, which is nonetheless in decline," said some of them.

Construction site in China

Construction site of the China Hydraulic Science and Technology Museum in Huai an City, Jiangsu Province, China

He Jinghua/DDP/ZUMA

Scars of the colonial past

There are, of course, major differences between the two Asian giants, and not just because, for the time being, they are not in the same category, either militarily or economically. China is an undeniable reality, India a project still in the making. For Westerners, China is at least as much a risk as an opportunity. India is not (not yet?) a threat. The Indians need the U.S. to balance China. China, except in terms of energy, does not need Russia to balance America.

For the Western world — in keeping with yesterday's arrogance, as if the world had not changed radically in recent decades — the only question is whether the Global South will choose to move towards the West and its democratic model, or towards the East and its authoritarian model.

In strictly geopolitical terms, the threat to India comes not from the West, but from the East, from China.

Seen from a Western perspective, India is at a crossroads. The world's leading democracy should choose the West without hesitation. In strictly geopolitical terms, the threat to India comes not from the West, but from the East, from China. But the scars of its colonial and imperial past — because they are still there, and still painful — add uncertainty. India dreams of being for Asia — between China and the U.S. — the equivalent of what Great Britain was for the world in the nineteenth century: the pendulum.

In fact, it's easy to say that China looks at India as America looks at Europe, with a certain degree of condescension: the difference being that, seen from Washington, Europe is the past, while seen from Beijing, India is perhaps the future.

Narendra Modi meets Xi Jinping in India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives Chinese President Xi Jinping a guided tour of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, India, on October 11, 2019

Wang Ye/Xinhua/ZUMA

Passing the torch to Asia

What's clear is that, seen from Asia, the war in Ukraine obviously doesn't have the same centrality as it does for us. The Chinese may worry about strategic errors, if not political confusion on the part of the Russians, but Indians and Chinese alike see in this war the confirmation of the passing of the torch of History to Asia.

And it's a process that, as a result of the war, is accelerating. While the West and the Russians devote most of their energies to fighting each other directly or indirectly, the way is "clear" for Asia's giants, despite their divisions.

In his latest book The Jungle Grows Back, American essayist Robert Kagan deplores the impact of America's decline on the world. As if the rise of Asian giants could not but represent a danger to stability. As if America, through its unfortunate military adventures, hadn't itself largely contributed to world disorder.

De facto, there are many parallels between the China-U.S. relationship and the India-China relationship. For the Chinese, nothing will be possible until Washington recognizes Beijing as an equal, not just in Asia but in the world. In fact, they want a new bipolar world, in which they have taken the place of the USSR.

The Indians, on the other hand, dream of a tripolar or even multipolar world, in which China would recognize them as equals, and Europe would find its place alongside the U.S. and the two Asian giants. One Indian participant referred to it with a new term to imagine the shape of the world's future power structure: The G4.

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