Wednesday, June 03, 2015

India, China and The Nature of The Future

There is a view that India and China are rivals. It indeed seems so, as the two countries compete for resources and influence. That is how the world systems work, countries, delineated spaces marked off by separate colours and thick lines on the map, compete against one another. It is a zero-sum game, one must lose in order for the other to win. Great theorists have laid out their wisdom regarding these strategies for winning and losing, and we know of different kinds of power too, as in Hard Power, which is about muscle and money, and Soft Power, which is about culture and commerce. International conferences, studies and lectures continually explore whether India is winning or China is winning, national leaders on both sides worry about their findings and seek ways to mend things if it is going bad for them. So, China sends help to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and India remembers its old friends in Mongolia, in order to encircle the other and limit their influence.

Must it be that way?

All the above is common sense, indeed, and that is the way we think about countries. All these strategies and theories of power are taught in great universities, where the leaders - who become leaders as they attend those universities - of these countries (and of other countries too) are taught these ideas. This is the language spoken by the media, and taught to our children in schools. 

But have you ever been to a border? They are not thick lines or gates or places of pomp (indeed, we make it that way at certain points, such as Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah) but just spaces like any other. Just as the New Year is just another day, and the passing of the year is our making, the countries do not break off from one another, with black lines running through the fields and soil on the other side being of another colour. In fact, people across most borders speak the same language, eat the same food, and when, others from distant capitals are interfering, visit one another's house.Yet, the division is treated as common sense and continuity of people a mere utopia indulged by weak hearts!

The other is, of course, despite our pretensions on the contrary, it was not always been that way. Most borders, as we see them now, came about within the last hundred years, and in some cases, within the last seventy-five. And, however much we try to give all of it an air of permanence, some of these borders will change within our life time. In any case, the idea that we work with that there are those borders and therefore we have the theories have things backwards. We have the theories and therefore, we make the borders.

So, the divisions that mark our world are really divisions among the powerful, and there is nothing obvious or natural in it. One can fret about Hard and Soft power, but the entity of a nation is only built around Hard power, which is exercised within rather than without. An identity built around hard power is projected outside once the Hard Power achieve a level of sufficiency (or the illusions of it) to project it outside, often as it starts to treat the essential human continuity as its field of soft power. One may argue that power is natural and inherent in all social being, so its projection at this grandiose scale, of making nations, is natural too. But, one knows from history the unnaturalness of such constructs based on power, and this is perhaps why all such arrangements come gradually unstuck.

These ideas are imposition everywhere, but a real tragedy in Asia, particularly between India and China. Here are two countries with common problems and aspirations, thousands of years of shared history, and barring a nationalism-aggravated war in 1962, generally peaceful coexistence. The media in two countries were indeed venting fire at each other for many decades, and the two countries have been at odds in several international issues, but all these could be counted as the zero-sum theory creating a competitive reality than the other way around. The only successful invasion recorded in history (the inconclusive war not being one) was that of monks walking the silk road.

Indeed, the Western powers changed China, and Westernised Japan unleashed unspeakable violence on it. Indians were complicit to some of that violence, particularly in the Opium War, when Indian merchants financed some of the gunboats and profited from it, and the Indian soldiers manned the invading army. The Chinese developed the historic impression of Indians as a subject nation from the Indian coolies and policemen ubiquitous in the British concessions in Shanghai and Canton, something that the newly nationalist Chinese treated as an abomination. But, all this, all the competition, abhorrence,  hatred of one another, were framed in the zero-sum ideas of western power struggle, the exclusive concepts of European inspired nationalism. The ideas of being exclusively Chinese or being proudly Indian are, paradoxically, neither Chinese nor Indian.

So, onto the future, one that is supposedly going to be Indian or Chinese future, why must one think in terms of those exclusion-centric nationalist terms? It may be the only concepts we have right now, but is it not a contradiction of terms if we think the Asian leadership will come within the bounds of an European idea? And, why must future be shaped just like our past, with two preeminent nations locked in a zero-sum competition for resources and influences?

This is not to deny the reality of national competition, but to understand the nature of such competition, a dynamic defined by our current structures of power and vested interests. Future does not become one till we continue to operate with our old, tired assumptions, till we are able to imagine anew. The point that India and China will lead the world with the old ways of doing things is basically hoping that India and China would never lead the world. This is something that the Indian and the Chinese must think about, and re-imagine. They must find their own principles to organise the world, the brave new world that most of the humanity hope to live in one day.


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