India and China must leverage their political, social and economic might to make Asia the driving force of the rest of the world.
Viewed from whatever standpoint one chooses — civilisational greatness, cultural heritage, geopolitical environment, economic prospects and inherent complementarities — the destinies of the India and China are intertwined, and the case for putting Sino-Indian relations on a soaring new trajectory comes out trumps. Why, then, are both countries on a perpetual roller-coaster, wasting time and energy struggling to decipher each other's intentions and plotting to counter each other's moves?
The answer is not far to seek. There is a paucity of politicians at the helm of affairs who are endowed with the necessary grasp of issues of consequence and leadership capabilities. The vacuum has been filled by conventional bureaucratic thinking lacking in both capacity and courage to get out of the rut.
In the case of China, it is seldom that one comes across instances, whether in government, think-tanks or the academia, of persons who are able to shake themselves off the 1962 debacle syndrome or who feel comfortable with China being a purportedly communist, ‘authoritarian', monolithic, ‘one-party' state.
Thanks to the 1962 debacle, China and the PLA still give jitters to the Indian governing class, the academic community and the intelligentsia and anything that China does is taken as a direct or indirect threat to India.
As regards the communist ideology, the realisation is yet to dawn that there is precious little left of it in China. Actually, its priorities and policies in regard to trade and investment, imports and exports, currency reserves, new technologies, global competitiveness, and overall economic management, are not perceptibly different from what characterises a capitalist state.
China may be under one-party rule, but much of the sting on that account can be said to have been mitigated by an institutionalised consultancy process at all levels and the coming into being of a surrogate of an industrial democracy through the medium of a broad-based international council for development in which all the stakeholders from the members of the presidium to heads of domestic and foreign firms participate frequently and freely. Notwithstanding these features, traditional phobias against communism and authoritarian state colour the perception of policy planners and intellectuals who bristle at the very mention of any entente cordiale with China. Conditioned reflexes combined with obsolete assumptions befoul the decision-making process.
Just one illustration will do. Even seasoned policy wonks cannot help looking at the world in ‘either-or', ‘black-and- white' or ‘we versus they' terms. In their eyes, the choice before nations must be nothing other than either cooperation or competition; that the two can be woven together into what has come to be known as a co-opetition matrix is beyond their ken.
Similarly, their notion of hard-nosed diplomacy is the one predicated on the realpolitik of zero-sum games, balance of power, concircling (containing and encircling), capturing and expanding spheres of influence, and practice of one-upmanship.
I believe that these archaic postulates are at the root of all the confusion and contradictions in the relations between India and China. They need to be replaced by a majestic vision that will inspire them to sink their differences and rise hand-in-hand to unmatched peaks of achievement befitting their past glory.
United States of Asia
That vision, in my conception, is for both countries to leverage their political, social and economic might to make Asia the driving force of the rest of the world in the years to come.
It goes without saying that such a vision can be fostered only on the premise of complete equality and total transparency in their dealings which, in turn, will have to be founded on mutual trust and confidence.
With wisdom and imagination, it may even be possible in the not-too-distant future to make Japan, and eventually the rest of South-East Asia too, integral parts of a pan-Asian vision, ushering in a United States of Asia, rich in resources, talents and skills, as a beckoning beacon of peace, stability and progress.
The biggest challenge is to make the vision acceptable. Breaking with the past and betting on the future does not come easy to official and academic establishments. Among politicians and public figures, the species of bold thinkers of the likes of Rajaji, C. Subramaniam and Jayaprakash Narayan who spoke and acted according to their conscience and conviction are extinct. Tremendous efforts will have to be made to break the inertia and resistance engendered by the fear of the unfamiliar.
Even so, the situation is not beyond retrieval. But, first, both China and India must realise the unwisdom of bumbling along a bumpy road as they are now doing and summon the determination to infuse the relations with a compelling, mutually reinforcing, overarching pan-Asian vision that will be the lodestar of Sino-Indian relations, propelling them towards an era of unbounded prosperity. The way forward, to my mind, is for both the Indian and Chinese Prime Ministers to set in motion a joint exercise at the officials' level to work on the content and scope of the vision statement for their consideration and adoption.
Will an agreed vision statement alone achieve a turnaround? The answer is that it constitutes a psychological stimulus. Vision moulds thinking, thinking shapes attitudes, attitudes influence policies, and policies lead to action. The immediate benefits of India and China bending their energies in pursuit of the vision of collective leadership to put Asia on the centre-stage as the pivot of a new world political and economic order will be:
The synchronisation of policies through a constant exchange of views on matters of mutual interest and concern;
Reduction of conflicts and tensions;
The raising of the confidence level on both sides and lessening of misgivings and suspicion;
The resolution of outstanding issues, disputes and differences in a spirit of accommodation;
The cultivation of an approach whereby the world is not looked upon as an arena for jousts to elbow each other out but as a seedbed for productive co-opetition;
The replacement of the temptation to carve out fiefdoms of power by a rational framework for promoting common good and sharing responsibility to that end;
The use of their combined weight to reorient the working of international bodies to suit the needs and aspirations of the developing world;
The ultimate triumph of that vision will be when it brings into being a vibrant new world to make up for the inequities and incongruities of the old world dispensations of yesterday.