China and India are both touted as potential superpowers of the future. With over one billion people each, both countries boast enormous economic potential far beyond that of the West. However, both countries have been in each other’s crosshairs as geopolitical tectonics have shifted, placing them at the frontline of the 21st century great power struggles with respect to situations regarding the United States and Russia. Is there a way forward for the China-India relationship? Can the two countries work together to transition to a multipolar world?
TIO: How does India see China in terms of short-, medium-, and long-term economic challenges and opportunities?
Aneja: India sees China as part of a new global system that is emerging. It is a country that is going to be one of the major drivers of this new international system that is in the making.
Now, I think the new international system would not only have China but others including India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa—countries that are defining a multipolar world.
So that’s roughly the big picture, which is very different from the international global system that emerged after the Second World War and was basically dominated by the Western powers, which were led by the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.
Then a unipolar moment happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Scholars like Francis Fukuyama said that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of history, which meant that an endless, Western-dominated era, led by the Western democracies, had begun. But contemporary history showed otherwise. New powers soon emerged, which meant that far from the concentration of power, global power had diffused.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the unipolar world has completely collapsed, and a multipolar world has emerged. But new rules of global governance are yet to take shape to anchor this new stage in global history. So, we are experiencing a state of fluidity. And to write the new rules, you’re going to have new players. I think the BRICS countries, the emerging powers like India, China, and Russia, can play a big role in stabilizing the multipolar world. But this can be achieved only if we learn to cooperate with each other to see that this huge opportunity is not missed.
In this context, countries such as India and China need to collaborate fully. And although there are hiccups in the India-China relationship, they should be addressed frontally. Otherwise, we would lose this opportunity. So, to come back to your question, China is exceptionally important. But India’s rapid rise is also important to the overall emergence of a multipolar world.
TIO: Has the Russia-Ukraine crisis accelerated the process of transition from unipolarity to multipolarity?
Aneja: Yes, I think so. I think the Russia-Ukraine crisis is a point of inflection. It is essentially a crisis defined by the West’s attempt to somehow resuscitate a unipolar world by starting a new Cold War, with the aim of spurring regime change in Russia—a process that began in the 1990s with regime change in former Yugoslavia. And the outcome of this crisis is going to be hugely important not only for the future of Russia but for whether a new world order based on multipolarity can emerge.
This is exceptionally important. In India, we see the crisis more as an opportunity. If you look at the broader geopolitical and geo-economic framework, then perhaps this is a time when changes should be taking place, which can be good for non-Western countries and the developing world.
So that is number one. Number two, from a Russian perspective, the crisis is about a decisive pushback against NATO and carving out a parameter that will be central to Russian security and commerce, including access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. NATO had gradually expanded in violation of the 1997 agreement with Russia. By 2008, this had become clear with the NATO meeting in Bucharest. In 2014 a legitimate government in Ukraine was toppled, posing a threat to Russia’s access to the Black Sea via the port of Sevastopol. The West had crossed a Russian red line as NATO’s influence had arrived at Moscow’s doorstep.
So, in response to the 2014 event, Russia took over Crimea because otherwise, the West would have prevented Russian access to the Black Sea.
We all know that NATO activity in the Black Sea had been galvanized in the run-up to the current crisis. The Kremlin had to do something about it, and I do understand the logic behind the Russian moves is actually reactive. So, what has happened since the end of February in Ukraine follows a context. I do feel frustrated that the information war launched against Russia, deliberately ignores the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If you forget the context, you will then paint Russia as an aggressor, as an expansionist power, and build a mythology around it. In India, and I speak for myself, we understand the context and we want this to end quickly because otherwise we would be forced to choose sides between Russia and the West, and we have compelling interests in engaging with countries on either side of the aisle. So, the Indian position is to press for dialogue and push for a fair settlement of the issues where the concerns of each side are addressed through detailed and frank negotiations.
TIO: In the U.S., there are, in fact, a number of scholars or practitioners who are well familiar with the context. People like George Kennan and John Mearsheimer, for example, said that the expansion of NATO into Central Europe was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Do you agree with that statement?
Aneja: I completely agree that this was a huge fatal mistake because you see, in 1991, you had the collapse of the Soviet Union, which means the country fell apart from within. The whole idea of a unipolar world was to integrate Russia into a Western-dominated unipolar system.
Now, if you have any sense of history, you don’t treat Russia as your puppet. As one would have imagined, Russia has revolted against the U.S.-led unipolarity. Russia has emerged powerful, though may not be as powerful as the USSR used to be, but it is a strongly nationalistic and independent-minded country. But the current generation of US elites simply doesn’t get it. And for scholars and practitioners such as George Kennan and others, they understand the red lines that you don’t cross in dealing with Russia.
By artificially trying to foist a US monopoly of power and striving to reinforce their hegemony, the Americans are only laying the foundation of what scholars such as Samuel Huntington had feared—a clash of civilizations.
The world is not only multipolar, but it is also multi-cultural. There is no single system alone that is going to rule the entire world however valid that might be for certain geography. You have to accept that global power has diffused. And that includes soft power. It’s not going to be the same world again. If all countries can recognize that, then we can probably have an opportunity to live in a peaceful and harmonious world where there is sustained economic and cultural development.
But if you do not, then you are inviting a second Cold War, which is likely to be worse than the first one because the Russians have learned from their experience. They came out from the first one in shambles and will go all-out to prevent such an outcome again. And then we have countries like India and China, and we have our own stakes in Eurasia. I hope that there are saner voices in the U.S. that recognize genuine Russian interests and come to a grand bargain with the Russians to deal with the crisis. Otherwise, all of us will be in mortal danger, because a conflict between Russia and the West can go thermonuclear.
I wish to add one more point. There are lobbies and interest groups within the United States and the West, including the powerful military-industrial complex. Former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower had spoken about the rise of the military-industrial complex and how dangerous this is for the future of American democracy.
Now, a war is something that satisfies the needs of these kinds of forces. So, it’s not necessarily politicians, but very powerful forces within who are benefiting from this. If you want a solution to this crisis, the U.S. will have to address these questions of internal pressure groups as well.
TIO: International trade and diplomacy require some sense of predictability, but right now, what we have is a situation where predictability is in short supply. Do you think countries have a responsibility and the need in terms of creating this kind of predictability to balance their needs with those of the global community, has it come down to “me and my country first”? And what do you think would create a stable basis for economic relations between India and China?
Aneja: There’s a lot of synergy on the economic track between India and China—and complementarity, as China goes ahead towards Industry 4.0, while India aspires to be a global manufacturing hub based on domestic and overseas talent and investment and relatively cheap labor.
But to realize the full potential of this world-changing partnership, we have to deal honestly, and with mutual goodwill, with the border issue now. I think we are fortunate that we had Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi visiting India. What I heard from the Indian side is that the meeting was positive and fruitful. And if everything works well, it is even possible that we have a meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi for the BRICS summit, which is going to be hosted by China this year.
So, there is a window that is opening, but I think we need to have a very honest and constructive dialogue, which addresses each other’s concerns in a clear and delicate manner, to add an element of predictability on the border. I think we no longer can de-link the border tensions from smooth economic interaction. We need a huge number of confidence-building measures. Again, active dialogues among the leadership are important.
And when I say border issue, I don’t mean resolving the entire border. But there are friction points on the border that need to be addressed, and we have to go back to where we were before May 2020. Simultaneously, we need to be sensitive about each other’s core concerns, including Chinese concerns in Tibet and Xinjiang, and Indian concerns in Jammu and Kashmir. We may also have to simultaneously work on the India-Pakistan track as well. A track-two dialogue on this issue is a crying necessity.
Progress and predictability along the borders will have a meaningful impact on our partnership within BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). We are members of the New Development Bank of the BRICS and of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). So, we have the institutions. There has been a lot of effort. And considerable progress has already been made. Now, we have to fully leverage that and expand and strengthen this capacity by building political trust among member states and addressing tensions, so that we can take our partnership to a higher level. I think both in India and in China, we have to recognize that we have been great civilizations with a long history and a deep sense of national pride, which demands that we should treat each other with respect and equality. This is essential and must be ingrained in the collective psyche of each country.
When India and China strike the right notes, the center of gravity of the world changes. It’s not rocket science. We know it.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the cultural side. India and China have a shared history of art, a shared history of Buddhism, to name a few. Buddhism comes from India. It was brought to China, and China preserved it. The religious texts that were brought by monks such as Xuan Zang and others were eventually translated into the Chinese language and preserved. So, we have the legacy of great interdependence and deep linkages between the two civilizations, which now need to flower in our digital age.
This interview was conducted by Kang Yingyue, International Communications Officer of Taihe Institute.