With the ongoing war in the Ukraine, it seems as though the main longterm beneficiaries will be China and India, although not necessarily in that order. Both China and India are already benefitting from trade on more generous terms with Russia than President Putin would otherwise be minded to give, and from a renewed interest in how the diplomatic axes in Asia really work.
No-one would argue that these two countries are the regional powers in Asia writ large, Japan and South Korea existing still largely as satellites of the USA. And, although in recent years China has gained more of the press as the next likely Superpower, recent population trends argue that in the later 21st and early 22nd centuries, it might instead be India that actually takes on that mantle.
India has several things going for it that China doesn’t.
First, it’s a genuine bridge between east and west. No question, India is firmly rooted in Asia, and its own multiplicity of cultural identities are uniquely its own. But it also had superimposed on it for more than two centuries the functioning bureaucracy, unifying language, railway system, economic know-how, military effectiveness and educational system of the colonial English. For good or ill, that means its educated elites can now talk directly and with mutual understanding with Western leaders in a way that’s never been possible for the Chinese.
That ability to swap ideas and merge cultures is now extending far and wide, and from top to bottom. There’s an ethnic Indian, Vivek Viraswamy, running seriously, although not with any real hope, for the US Presidency. Who Wants to Be A Millionaire sold directly into India with almost no format changes, and was then re-exported to the West in movie format as Slumdog Millionaire. The UK has an ethnic Indian prime minister.
Cricket, a game invented by idle aristocrats in England, but played now in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and multiple other countries is now the second-most popular sport in the world. And guess which country is the cricket superpower? – India.
China can’t quite do any of this.
There are parallels. The NBA is popular in China. Chinese martial arts are popular in the West. Hollywood and China seem joined at the hip. But you can see the joins. China has the reputation of being more of a closed culture, and more of a racist culture. Yes, there’s a lot more racial violence in India, but there are also a lot more races.
Is there a deeper explanation for these differences?
Maybe it’s because China has always been more of a daunting proposition for the West than India. After all, the British and the French were fighting the Seven Years War over parts of India before they’d even got into China. Clive of India virtually walked in at Plassey, and after that Western domination spread steadily and with only a few mutinous setbacks.
But China couldn’t be rolled over so easily. Suspicion goes back at least to the days of the famous stand-off when Lord Macartney’s diplomatic mission refused to kowtow to the Qing emperor in 1793. After that, gunboat diplomacy came in, writ large first at Hong Kong and then on the Yangtse River, and mutual antagonism built. The West participated in the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest wars in history, two Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Then, the media went electric and along came Fu Manchu, the archetypal Bond villain, invented in the early 1900s by a man at a Ouija board, the “Yellow Peril”, and Dr No himself. Is it coincidental that Fu Manchu was a diabolical scientist or that a lot of Bond villains created deadly viruses in their attempts at world domination?
Old tropes die hard, especially in this strange world where media fictions tend to become reality, they turn out to be true. US public opinion has now turned against China, in a way that it never will against India. For one thing, the US doesn’t yet know enough about India. The most controversial Indian issue the US has faced relates to Apu from the Simpsons.
The problems it has with China, though are legion. One of the first things the US did when it took over world domination from the British was to lose China to communism. Since then, the relationship has been tricky to say the least, with the wars in Korea and Vietnam providing a context for a later capitalist relationship which seemed to start well, but which has now soured.
The same is not true of India. Maybe the average American worker doesn’t like it that call-centre jobs are going to India. But the weapons systems that shot down a family member a generation or two ago didn’t come from India. And India is not the country that supplied the missile launcher that Hanoi Jane manned in the late 1960s.
How much of this matters?
Perhaps it’s all in the ebb and flow of international relations. It’s been reported this week that AstraZeneca will create an independent listing in Hong Kong for its Chinese operations. Anti-Chinese rhetoric is ranting up in the US political and cultural scene, as patient number one for Covid was at last – apparently – revealed.
On the other hand, the Chinese and US economies have become inextricable intertwined. They won’t easily be separated. The Americans funded the lab that Covid allegedly came from, which blunts the force of other attacks. Elon Musk does a lot of business in China, and it looks like China is actually leading the world in electric vehicles.
Yet, for all the huge and ongoing growth in both the Indian and the Chinese economies, innovation remains the exception rather than the rule.
And so the world turns, but it changes only slowly.