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When leviathans rise

Vikram Johri  |  New Delhi 

At a time when the world is teetering on the brink of recession, a book chronicling the familiar story of China and India’s collective rise may seem out of place. Particularly when it also promises to show what this rise “means for all of us,” meaning, primarily, the USA. Given it’s celebration time there just now, I am unsure whether a rather sermonizing tone will find many takers.

Jairam Ramesh’s egregious-sounding catchphrase “Chindia” is routinely quoted in world capitals and by well-informed commentators to denote the rise of the two Asian powers — in fact, so frequently is it cited that one may well get the impression that the two countries are a joint entity hurtling past former giants, hungering to remove them from their pedestals.

Robyn Meredith, Forbes’ Hong Kong-based foreign affairs correspondent, adds her two cents in The Elephant and the Dragon. She begins by citing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, during which the former prime minister came face-to-face with the shockingly fast-paced rise of China’s capital city. “As the prime minister and his delegation drove into Beijing on a smooth new highway,” Meredith writes, “shiny cars zoomed past endless construction sites as the silhouettes of hundreds of cranes loomed over the cityscape.” China, she imagines Vajpayee noting, had left India behind.

Meredith’s explanation is the lazy refrain of India opening its economy a decade and a half after China, and the valid one of India’s system of governance forestalling the sort of projects that China, with its no-questions-asked government fiat, can implement. As evidence, Meredith adduces the resounding success of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Just the scale of displacement at Three Gorges — 1.2 million people — boggles the mind of an Indian commentator, accustomed as he is to protracted, and often failed, negotiations at rehabilitation.

To her credit, Meredith is balanced in her reproach of India’s crumbling infrastructure, taking pains to point out that China’s much-vaunted model of growth is not all that desirable. We may lambast the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Medha Patkar all we want, but the success of their agitations testifies to their resonance with the poor. It is this consensus seeking from various constituencies in India that frustrates the most well-laid out plans of government at all levels.

Meredith’s training as a journalist stands her in good stead — such as in coining eye-catching phrases to drive home her point. Speaking of the seminal contribution of globalization, she attributes the rise of India and China to the “disassembly line”. As against Henry Ford’s assembly line for automobile manufacturing, modern economies have perfected the art of disassembly; in other words, companies “rushing to break up their products into specialized subassemblies to drive down costs, ratchet up quality, and reduce the time it takes to get the product to the market.”

Meredith articulately puts forth her opposition to that great bugbear of international commerce — protectionism. China’s recent readiness to let the renminbi rise against the dollar has, at any rate, diluted the protectionist canard that the undervaluation of the Chinese currency was responsible for filling the world’s coffers with cheap Chinese exports.

Even so, continental Europe, especially France, continues to delay the finalization of the Doha round. Meredith says this is in spite of evidence that legislation to protect jobs can inadvertently contribute to unemployment. Thanks to government efforts to protect jobs, companies are reluctant to hire new workers for fear of trouble when they are no longer needed and so fired.

Meredith’s argument is the most robust when she broaches the similarities between India and China in their pursual of economic interests in preference to human rights concerns. It is no secret that the foreign policies of both countries have come to be dictated by their energy needs. China’s indulgence of Tehran, and support of the Sudanese government even as the latter perpetrates genocide in Darfur, closely mirror India’s refusal last year to reprimand the Myanmar junta for its treatment of pro-democracy Buddhist monks.

Written ostensibly to portray the effects of India and China’s rise on the West, The Elephant and the Dragon ends up clubbing the two and comparing and contrasting one against the other. So, who wins? The Elephant or the Dragon? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s quote is instructive: “We are a relatively slow-moving elephant economy, but when the elephant does move, it makes a sizable difference.” Perhaps in that hope lies our redemption.


Robyn Meredith
W W Norton
252 pages; Rs $15.95

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First Published: Fri, November 14 2008. 00:00 IST