Panda, elephant, solider, spy

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An Indian-China power couple on the competitive relationship between these two Asian giants.

It’s telling that a recent book about India-China relations was written in part by an Indian-Chinese power couple: Professor Anil K. Gupta, a U.S.-based globalization expert, and his wife Haiyan Wang, founder of the China India Institute. (Girija Pande, formerly with Tata Consultancy, was the authorial third-wheel, so to speak).

“I’m married to a Chinese from Anhui – and a nationalist Chinese – so we have some pretty heated discussions on India and China,” Gupta said.

It makes you wonder what sorts of debates they have over the dinner table.

Speaking at the Asia Society Hong Kong this month, Gupta presented the main themes of “The Silk Road Rediscovered,”published this year by a Wiley imprint. The audience included prominent members of the Indian community, like Consul General Prashant Agrawal.

It’s impossible to tell how much Gupta was influenced by fear of being nagged at home, but he started by lauding China.

“China is a superpower and will be the largest economy in the world in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

Panda beats elephant
He clicked through a PowerPoint presentation filled with all sorts of figures on bilateral trade, exports, foreign direct investment, etc. The trend was pretty clear. While both were rising, China’s line was like a rocket compared to India’s line, which – relatively speaking – was like rush-hour traffic in Delhi.

Gupta was upfront about the challenges facing his native land. While India has some raw materials (ore, cotton, chemicals) and low labour costs, it simply does not create that many products China wants to buy. Shoddy infrastructure gets in the way of the kind of manufacturing boom China has already gone through.

However, he had a positive outlook on India in the long term. “There is a growing acceptance that India will make it,” he said.
Gupta – a man who clearly loves his charts – pulled out another slide showing the world’s largest economies in 2000 (U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain), 2012 (U.S., China, Japan, Germany) and what he predicts for 2025 (China, U.S., Japan, India).

“If I were a betting man, I’d bet that five years from now, India will be the fastest growing large economy in the world,” he said – though, to be clear, he was talking about the rate of growth, not the total size of the economy. In that case, we’re talking three, four decades if India catches up in economic size – if it ever does.”

After his presentation, Gupta held a discussion moderated by Alan Rosling, who is probably best known as the businessman who grew Tata’s business in China.

Gupta responded to a question about border tensions with a seeming shrug: Of course, he hoped it would be resolved, but said it was not an “imperative” when it came to economic growth and cooperation. It did not seem to be on the top of China’s foreign policy challenges.

“The China-India relationship is like a chronic flu – it’s unpleasant, but it’s not going to kill you.” He added that the China-Japan relationship, in contrast, was like “acute pneumonia” (to nervous laughter in the room).

Corruption: dictatorships vs. democracy
Gupta visibly winced when someone asked about corruption. “China and India are competing – on who can be the most corrupt,” he joked.

In response to my own question about how the economies will grow under two seemingly opposite political systems – the world’s biggest democracy vs. the world’s biggest Communist nation – Gupta said it was too soon to tell.

“The jury is still out,” he said. “In the next 10 years, China will very likely grow at a slower rate, and India will very likely grow at a faster rate. So ask me again in 10 years about dictatorships vs. democracy.”

At the end of the day – and despite all the facts and figures – countries are still driven by less tangible influences, like cultural differences and national pride.

“Indians are envious, jealous, of what China has achieved,” Gupta said. “Meanwhile, the Chinese look at India and say – if Indians are so brainy, why is the country so chaotic?”

Gupta ended his talk with a piece of practical advice for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Create an industrial cluster with single-window clearance for companies. Address not only the ease of doing business in India, but also the ease of living. Make a compound with Chinese restaurants, Chinese schools.”

“Yes,” Rosling laughed. “You have to be able to eat together.”