Nations are often ranked in order to determine their place in the world, but this ranking often differs depending on who you ask.
One idea that is often bounced around in the West is that India will be the next economic powerhouse to replace China. It is an idea that is quite similar to the noise surrounding the so-called “Asian Tigers” in the 1990s, with this turning out to be a mini-bubble in the currency carry-trade that quickly exploded. However, in India’s case at least it can be argued that there are stronger foundations to support rapid growth.
India will host the G20 Summit in September, capitalising on the trend of trying to become the “China 2.0” of the world economy. The country was also a founding member of the BRICS group of countries in 2009, along with Brazil, Russia, and China. As a result, in many ways India already has a secure place amongst the more influential states in the world.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been working since coming to power a decade ago on forging ties with various partners to improve the country’s economy. It has also been strengthening the central government’s grip on power and wielding more control over regional authorities across the subcontinent.
Looking at the role of the West, US policy has been focused on curtailing China’s rising economic power and global outreach. It has been pushing its allies to follow its path in exerting pressure on Beijing. Washington has been trying to lure Western businesses out of China and to shift their operations back home to the US and Europe. Failing that, at the very least it would like to see corporations move to alternative destinations like Vietnam and India. So far, very few businesses have heeded the US call, however.
A few years ago, an Emirati academic wrote a book about what he called “the Gulf moment” in the Middle East, suggesting that the centre of power in the region was moving to the Arab Gulf States with the decline of traditional centres like Egypt. Though the financial might and new policies adopted by the younger generation of Gulf rulers might justify this suggestion, one could also easily argue that the “centre” of power in the region cannot be clearly defined.
Arab politics and the Middle East regional order is in a fluid state. Even within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of the Arab Gulf States, the centre of power is being competed for by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It would be more plausible to say that at present it is “no one’s moment in the Middle East.”
Similarly, in the global arena, it would be a forced conclusion to say it is India’s moment. India is developing and rising, but so is China, and so are the rest of the BRICS countries. The world as a whole has been in a transitional state since the end of the Cold War and on a quest for a supposed New World Order. With the US and the West in relative decline – at least in terms of influence beyond their proper spheres – it might also be more appropriate to say that in the global arena it is “everyone’s moment.”
It is fair game for all the participants to rise up the global food chain at this moment in time. Clear leadership is not a given or a must, and it can almost be said that no regional or international superpower need necessarily emerge. Instead, what we might see could be more of a broad spread of influence, with multiple power centres existing simultaneously.
China, Russia, and other countries have recently been pushing for a “multi-polar world,” one that is not marked by US hegemony and representing a sort of collective world order. On the other hand, the new world order that the US seeks is likely to be one that will be dominated by a US-led Western alliance that will reinforce the sole superpower status that Washington has claimed since the end of Cold War. Whether either of these is achievable is very much an open question.
This current fluid state of world affairs justifies the present rhetoric about the “moment” of other countries. However, when it comes to the possibility of India surpassing China to become the second largest global economy alongside the US, there are important doubts. Both countries are densely populated, with roughly 1.4 billion people in each. Both have fast-growing economies compared to other countries, with the potential for more. But there are several pitfalls that need to be addressed before India can climb the ranks.
The Chinese economy is more than four times the size of the Indian economy. According to World Bank figures, per capita GDP in China is more than five times that in India. Moreover, China is ruled by the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, and this retains tight control over the country’s policies, including its economic policies. India’s diversity means there are divisions on a political, religious, and even factional level. Though Modi’s rule has strengthened the grip of the central government, this is not a sustainable strategy.
Even more importantly, China started its economic revival decades ago and is still building on it. India, on the other hand, has only just started. Suggesting that competition from India implies Chinese decline is not a prediction that can be made with any certainty. In some respects, such competition might be good for both rising powers and for the world as a whole.
Floating the idea of “India’s moment” in the world economy is not meant to encourage positive competition. It is a modern version of the British colonial policy of “divide and rule,” and it keeps the US in pole position even as it loses its global influence. Fuelling the rivalry between India and China aids the US strategy to put pressure on China and as a by-product weakens the rising BRICS group as a potential competitor on the global stage.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly