China and India’s Shared Pathway to Great Power

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China and India’s Shared Pathway to Great Power

The two rising Asian powers have points of contention, but they also have much in common.

China and India’s Shared Pathway to Great Power
Credit: Flickr/ MEA photo gallery

With both countries displaying world-leading economic prowess, along with mounting military expenditures, as well as their increasingly heard – and sought after – diplomatic voices, China and India are determinedly on the rise within international affairs. Their collective ascent is a fundamental element within contemporary global politics. Furthermore, it is the shared emergence of these two colossal countries that is of additional significance, specifically their physical presence within the same – and extremely intricate – domain that is modern Asia. Their concurrent rises offer us a valuable opportunity to identify their essential similarities as they attempt to achieve a common goal. It can also aid our understanding of what great power can be said to represent and epitomize in the 21st century – a century that looks set to be mainly Asia-dominated and Asia-centric in designation.

With the present manifestation of fervently nationalist leaders in both China and India, in the form of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, respectively, the attainment of great power status, and the respect and admiration that it brings, is being directly sought after. Through frequent exhortations, these leaders (and their many predecessors, if in a more reserved manner) have professed their countries to be in the world’s top ranks, with a global weight that cannot be overlooked. They also contend that their countries – just as other great powers have done before them – will shape the very contours and dynamics upon which our world rests, as their emergence gains strength.

Critically, and notwithstanding the tensions often pervading their own bilateral relations, the emergence of China and India as Asia’s great powers underlines ways in which their respective rises have demonstrated core elements of equivalence and overlap. First, in terms of their contemporary personifications, the two countries materialized at the same time after World War II and within a post-colonial and post-imperial environment through which they had both experienced external antagonism, control, and (in the case of India, full) subjugation. Such a footing engrained in both states a joint and persistent wariness of the international system, and the intentions of its foremost powers toward them (especially in Western-centric and Western-created multilateral regimes), along with a mutual yearning for full national self-sufficiency and autonomy.

At the time of their realizations into the People’s Republic of China (in 1949) and modern India (in 1947), both entities were also extremely poor countries. This shared basis served to enshrine a shared foundation for the long-standing desires of their leaders to accomplish wide-reaching national development and modernization – objectives augmented by both countries having enormous and world-leading populations. The  renewal of past status – primarily to again become, and to be acknowledged by others as, great powers – is likewise a mutual motivation that unfailingly pushes forward the domestic and foreign policy preferences of each country. Over the last decades, such aims have become the hallmark of both their domestic and, by extension, foreign policy proclivities that no political grouping in either country can now ignore.

Concerning the wider international system, Beijing and New Delhi also further subscribe to the same set of core ideals. The “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence” that emerged in the 1950s concerned respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty; non-aggression; non-interference in another state’s internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. These values remain as a key marker concerning the essential basis of India’s and China’s conduct in international politics (notwithstanding some caveats), as they have both pursued ways to ameliorate their comprehensive national strength. Improving the position of Asian countries (and Asia more generally), as well as seeking to lead the non-Western world (even if they dispute who will be the ultimate leader of it), is another fundamental source of inspiration for generations of elites in both Beijing and New Delhi.

Militarily, both sides are also increasing their capabilities, as part of shared modernizing drives to augment the skills of their various armed forces. Modernization also pertains to common aims through which to protect their borders, along with essential trade and energy security routes, which demand an expansion of their capabilities in terms of physical reach and presence. In the latter regard, both countries require more and more oil, gas, and raw materials to continue their economic growth. Such expansions are leading to heightening tensions with their neighbors (more so for Beijing), as well as with each other, and they both face significant internal security threats via separatists, insurgents, and terrorism, although this factor is far worse for New Delhi.

Amassing economic proficiency is correspondingly a common component for both Beijing and New Delhi. The necessity of rapid growth has now been embraced by both sets of their elites and peoples, and their trade strategies are equally characterized by a non-ideological approach to discovering and exploiting new markets, investment, and energy supplies. Mutual transitions toward leading global economic eminence have, additionally, exacerbated shared domestic problems concerning corruption, societal inequality and very high levels of environmental degradation – solutions for which are not immediately apparent despite their negative impact. As the focus on economic growth continues, these issues will only worsen for both India and China.

Within their regions in East Asia and South Asia, Beijing and New Delhi also each have to contend with a key contestation (China with Japan, and India with Pakistan) concerning who is the regional leader or at least the region’s undisputed dominant actor. Both these contestations are premised upon historically embedded animosities and conflicting status/recognition issues that are so culturally embedded as to be in many ways intractable and zero-sum. They thus also seemingly appear to have the potential to prevent either of China or India from gaining hegemony in their neighborhoods, which is often seen as a sign of being a great power. Notably, in addition, China and India have a considerable longstanding unresolved territorial dispute with each other.

Finally, with regard to the basis of the international system, India and China both foresee a multipolar world order of several great powers.  Such a vision seeks a greater voice for developing states either in existing multilateral bodies or by creating new challenger regimes of their own making (such as their shared consecration of the China-led Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank). This understanding deviates from the common Western view of there being a dominant hegemon overseeing world affairs, and at its most fundamental, inherently menaces the prolonged global supremacy sought after by the United States as the vanguard of the West. The economic and military rises of India and China will continue to question the legitimacy of this view.

While their policy behavior and preferences may not, and frequently cannot, necessarily replicate each, China and India share a similar trajectory toward the attainment of great power status as the 21st century progresses. Shared historical experiences, mutual economic and developmental needs, and joint global perspectives personify this twinned ascent, and act as the common foundations structuring their ascents to the highest echelons of global power. Their collective goal of attaining an Asian Century undergirds this commonality, and confirms the importance of our understanding and acknowledgement of their shared basis and significance.

Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in Asian Security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. His latest book, China and India: Asia’s Emergent Great Powers, is out now.