Western and Indian media don’t miss a chance to talk about China's economic investments around the world, whether in Africa or in South Asia. Indeed, South Asia has generally been dubbed a battleground between the two countries, with China inevitably getting most of the attention due to its economic prowess and military power.
More recently, Africa has been talked up by the Indian media as the second battleground for these two Asian powers. Fortunately, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has exhibited greater maturity, dismissing suggestions that India is trying to compete with China in Africa. Singh has instead noted that globalisation presents opportunities to every country and that every nation has the right to avail itself of such chances. He has also stuck publicly to his earlier assertions that the world has enough space for both China and India to grow.
Yet despite such measured rhetoric, a number of sensational stories in the Indian press covering Singh's recent visit to Africa that have focused on competition between India and China have shifted attention away from the more interesting fact that India is now so keen to invest in Africa.
It is, of course, difficult to ignore the huge economic leaps made by China. But regardless of this rapid progress, India should focus on increasing its economic influence and utilising its soft power in emerging regions, no matter what China is or isn’t doing.
Also, while viewing China through the prism of economic rivalry is unhelpful, so is judging it based on relations with neighbouring countries. Doing so is distracting, and makes India look insecure, with a developing country mind-set rather than that of aspiring superpower. So, while India's worries about China's alliance with Pakistan are legitimate, China's entry into other regions should still be looked at with a degree of maturity that allows for more nuanced relations. Economically, for example, relations between India and China have grown closer over the past few years, while on climate change the two were on the same page at Copenhagen. Meanwhile, India must be prepared to cultivate political ties with countries that aren’t necessarily friendly to China, if it is in our national interest to do so.
More broadly, though, it’s important that India abandon its 'China-centric’ mentality or else there will be a tendency to focus only on regions where China is extending its sphere of influence. The dangers of this mind-set among our media were evident in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Egypt has sought India's help in conducting elections, yet our media has been so pre-occupied with covering the Indo-China 'competition' in Africa and the US-Pakistan relationship that only negligible column space has been devoted to this heartening recognition of India's institutions and democratic traditions.
Sadly, Indians are all too willing to ignore the benefits of such institutions. Indeed, these institutions are often presented as one of the pivotal causes of India's relatively slower growth trajectory compared with China. Indian scholars, for example, don’t miss an opportunity to present democratic traditions as an impediment to growth, conveniently forgetting that while China might have all the money in the world, when it comes to institution building, it’s India's assistance that is sought in Afghanistan and now in the new laboratories of democracy in the Arab world.
There’s no doubt that China will continue to race away like a Ferrari, while India will chug along like a truck. But there’s no reason why the truck needs to chase the Ferrari — it should instead find its own route to prosperity and success. To take the metaphor further, the Arab world, for example, sometimes needs rickety trucks that have the capacity to carry the sometimes heavy burdens of public opinion and free speech.
By adopting a pro-active foreign policy in the Arab world, India will hugely enhance its own status. But only if the country’s foreign policy mandarins and media have the wherewithal to look forward, rather than perpetually focusing on India's rivalries.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.