Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

Rolling the Dice: India and China in 2025

Dr. Vishaka Desai and Dr. Robert Oxnam rolling the dice at the round table

Over the past two months, ORF Mumbai has been promoting a series of events to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India-China Diplomatic Relations. Our aim is to actively contribute to bringing our two great nations, both emerging global giants, together by promoting dialogue, better understanding and greater cooperation on socio-economical, political and cultural issues.

 ORF Mumbai was privileged to have two illustrious speakers on 18th January 2011 to discuss India-China relations ─ Dr. Vishakha Desai, President and CEO of the Asia Society, New York, and her husband Dr. Robert Oxnam, a noted China scholar and former President of the Asia Society. The roundtable discussion, which was organized in collaboration with the Asia Society India Centre, had an interesting title ─ ‘Rolling the Dice: India and China in 2025’.

 Dr. Desai and Dr. Oxnam started the roundtable by having a riveting half-hour conversation between themselves, which was later opened to the public. This format provided a highly educational and intellectually vibrant reflection on India and China: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

 Making accurate predictions about a nation’s future is a very difficult exercise. In a globalised world, there is a serious degree of unpredictability about how a nation would evolve, simply because of its complex multidimensional intertwined relations with other nations. Nevertheless, future-gazing is a useful exercise for it allows framing today’s realities and projecting their likely shape in the years ahead. In doing so, this exercise opens relevant subjects for discussion and brings along new perspectives and ideas. It enables reflection on past events and making of educated guesses and recommendations.

 Both scholars acknowledged right at the beginning that predictions about India and China are very hard to make. In the late seventies, no one could have predicted that China would emerge as the second most powerful economy in the world in 2010, with a year-on-year GDP growth rate of over 10% for nearly three decades; that it would lift 400 million people out of poverty; and achieve a literacy rate of over 95%. Even so, in view of their rapid economical growth, where will both countries be in the next 20 years? Will the next 20 years be as transformative for them as the 20 last ones were? Both discussants opined that the socio-economic development of India and China in the coming decades would depend much on political developments in the two countries.

 On India

According to Dr. Desai, India will witness for more transformative changes than China, in part due to the fact that it opened its economy 15 years later, and therefore is more behind. India has no choice but to grow, keeping its GDP growth rate above 9%. She recommended a shift of priority from rural focused policies to urban policies because “India is urbanizing very rapidly”. She felt that India’s multi-party democratic political system might slow down structural changes “due to too much debate and too little consensus”.

 Dr. Desai underscored that the most serious challenge before India in the coming decades is to address the widening rich-poor divide, as well as the divide between developed and developing areas. “These gaps have the potential to create internal instability if not properly addressed, as illustrated by the Naxalite movement in some of the less developed states,” she said.

 On China

According to Dr. Oxnam, the relationship between politics and economics in China has dramatically changed over the past 20 years. “I have been to China at least 80 times since I first visited it in 1974. China is by no means a democracy, but it is also true that it is far less authoritarian than it was previously,” he said. “The Chinese Communist structure has evolved. Public opinion has entered the system and debate is allowed even inside the party. As a result, public opinion has an impact on policy development. Most significantly, as China has grown prosperous by shedding the communist dogma, the clout of the business class in policy making has risen dramatically.”

 Dr. Oxnam said that the Chinese rulers’ commitment to economic growth is what has been holding the political system together. Growing prosperity has guaranteed political stability in China for the past 20 years. China’s GDP growth rate is likely remain high between 8-10% in the foreseeable future. The political system is therefore not likely to change.

However, Dr. Oxnam drew the participants’ attention to some serious economic challenges that China is facing: lack of safety nets; poor infrastructure and economic opportunities outside the major eastern seaboard; and the country’s graying population due to the one-child-per-family policy. He cautioned that these, if not properly addressed, have the potential to create some instability.

Importance of promoting social stability by caring for minorities

A common theme in the remarks of both Dr. Desai and Dr. Oxnam was the status of minorities in India and China. According to Dr. Desai, India has to continue to pay attention to the developmental needs of its minorities by creating adequate opportunities. Dr. Oxnam pointed out that, contrary to popular perception, China also needs to pay priority attention to developing smooth relations with its minorities. Minorities belonging to different ethnicities constitute only 5% of China’s population, the remaining 95% belonging to the majority Han ethnic community. Often this gives rise to a mistaken notion that the issue of minorities in China is not a serious one. However, the 5% minority population occupies nearly 70% of China’s territory, which is very rich in mineral and oil resources. Therefore, maintaining social stability in these areas should be a social as well as economic priority for China.

 Will India and China become money-driven cultures?

Another common theme that both scholars discussed was the growing importance of money in social life at the cost of traditional cultural and ethical values. Dr. Desai expressed her concern that both India and China might develop in such a way as to become pale reflections of the West. “Both countries are incredibly rich in their millenary cultures. Both have the potential to develop in much more creative ways. Sadly, in India very little importance is being given to the study of humanities and social sciences. These areas are not considered to be lucrative future careers for bright young students. India needs to ring its alarm bells, or it will pay a high price. “Future leaders should be provided with serious training in Indian history, India’s culture and India’s role in the world.”

 Curiously, according to Dr. Oxnam, China is already aware of this. Chinese history and literature are now very popular among the new generation of university students. The damaging effects of the Cultural Revolution have, in fact, created a movement for the revival of Chinese traditional culture. Confucius, who was branded as a reactionary philosopher during the Cultural Revolution, is now officially honoured as the source of China’s ancient wisdom.

 The existence of a strong middle class was identified by the two scholars as an economical and political stabilizing factor. China’s middle class dates back from two generations ago while its Indian counterpart dates from several generations ago. Both are hopeful and confident about their respective country’s future, but only one (the Indian middle class) has witnessed economic ups and downs. So in the face of new contexts, these two middle classes might react in different ways.

 Hesitant predictions apart, both scholars agreed that India and China would in 20 years be very important global players, with the responsibility of managing the world scene in a peaceful and sustainable way.

 ROLLING THE DICE with the public

The roundtable discussion that followed the one-on-one conversation between the scholar-couple was quite lively. On the problem of border dispute between India and China, Dr. Desai affirmed that this sensitive issue has to be solved sooner rather than later since there are too many strategic questions at stake. “It is not likely that the two countries would go to war, as they did in the sixties, so better options will have to be devised.”

 Another interesting question from the audience pertained to the environmental sustainability of 2.5 billion people in India and China aspiring to an American way of life. Dr. Desai readily agreed that this was one of the most crucial challenges before both India and China. “These countries must come up with more creative and innovative solutions, providing a sustainable path of development very different from the unsustainable one introduced by the western powers. China is today a leader in solar technology. India needs to do more to develop cleaner and greener technologies.”

 According to Dr. Oxnam, countries like India, China and the United States of America have to rethink their international relations. The actual scenario as it is bears a significant potential to armed conflict.

 Of all these countries, China has a clearer vision for the future. China projects itself as the new center of the world by promoting very strong mercantilist economy policies. Chinese exports reach many countries in Africa, Europe, The Middle-East, Europe and Russia. This strengthens diplomatic ties. However, opinion on China’s economic diplomacy is divided. Some say it is the most coherent foreign policy in the last 200 years, while others get scared that China will be taking over global commodity supplies.

Another interesting question challenged the vision of India as a powerful country. The questioner pointed out that, despite its high GDP growth, India’s low human development index and high poverty levels place it below certain sub-Saharan countries. His question was: “How can India then be compared to China?”

Dr. Desai addressed this point by clearly pointing out that “India has shameful mortality, poverty and literacy rates. India has not yet made enough progress in the areas of human development and has to seriously focus on these areas. A 10% GDP growth does not solve the issue in itself. Appropriate policy making and implementation in social sector development must follow.”

 What made China into an economic power? Dr. Oxnam addressed the question by explaining that the “Take Off” of a country is always specific to a given culture. However, there are three common points to all economical take-offs:

– Strong political and private sector leadership.

– The existence of a new emerging entrepreneur and consuming class.

– The Improvement of communications and infrastructure to bind different parts of the country.

 China has got these three points right. Additionally, compared with India, China has a huge advantage on four other points:

– The notion of a unified state for over 2000 years.

– One major common ethnic group (95%).

– One common language.

– One common script.

 In his opening remarks, Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of ORF Mumbai, highlighted the need for Asia to show a new path to the world in the 21th century. “India and China as emerging powers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to conduct their bilateral and international relations in such a way as to promote peace, stability and progress in Asia and in the world.” Recalling the words of Mahatma Gandhi, which he had spoken in his address to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March-April 1947, Kulkarni said that Asia should broadcast its message of peace and mutual cooperation to the entire world. “India and China have an obligation to ensure that the 21st century is different from the 20th century. For this, big powers have to conduct themselves in a way radically different from what the world witnessed in the previous centuries.”

 Earlier, Ms. Bunty Chand, Executive Director of Asia Society India Centre, introduced the two speakers.

 About the speakers:

Dr. Vishakha Desai is the sixth President and CEO of Asia Society. She is a frequent speaker at national and international forums on wide variety of subjects that include US-Asia relationships, cultural roots of Asian Economic Development, regional connections within the Asia Pacific region, as well as te arts and cultures of Asian and Asian America.

 Dr. Robert Oxnam is a China scholar and former President of Asia Society. Oxnam has contributed to cross-cultural understanding in myriad ways, including as a tenured professor of Japanese and Chinese History at Trinity College, and founder of the China Council at the Asia Society. He also accompanied former U.S. President George H. W. Bush as an on-the-ground adviser on a goodwill trip to China in the late 1990s.


About the Observer Research Foundation (ORF):

The Observer Research Foundation Mumbai is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan and multidisciplinary public policy think tank engaged in developing policy alternatives on a wide range of issues of local, national and international significance. ORF Mumbai conducts research and advocacy in six broad areas: Education, Health, Inclusive Development, Urban Renewal, Youth Development, and Protection of India’s Priceless Heritage of Arts and Culture.

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For more information, please contact Dr. Catarina F. Correia, Research Fellow, ORF Mumbai, at or 022-61313800.


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This entry was posted on 18/01/2011 by in ORF Mumbai.
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