China and India: New mandalas of power in 21st century geopolitics

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China and India - Asia’s two great civilisational states - are also the world’s most populous, accounting between them for a third of humanity. Both nations are nuclear armed and developing blue water navies. In view of their widespread material poverty, however, neither can be considered a truly great power, not even China whose permanent membership of the UN Security Council confers international influence beyond its economic and strategic reach. Nonetheless, China holds advantages over India in the global perception of power, and it is this perception which contributes to the exercise of power.

Chinese military ambition (as distinct from capability), the strength of Chinese culture, and the much touted market of a billion people, have captivated the global imagination. Even China’s critics are at their harshest when discussing human rights issues, Tibet and Taiwan. India, by comparison, has not commanded international influence by virtue of being the world’s biggest democracy or having a strong computer software industry. Acquisition of nuclear weapons has yet to be translated into genuine power, but rather is seen as evidence of ‘gung-ho’ behaviour.

In short, where China is perhaps unreasonably feared, given its lack of capability or even sufficiently demonstrated intent, India is not feared enough. And while that famed European Renaissance strategist, Nicholi Machiavelli, thought it better to be both loved and feared, he recognised both do not always coincide, and that human experience has taught that it is safer to be feared in an unsafe world. Neither China nor India are sufficiently appreciated for their inherent capacities. China’s are exaggerated in the wrong direction; in China, whatever the appearance, power no longer grows out of the barrel of a gun. Indeed, the military is among the least of China’s assets - unless it is deployed to extramilitary ends - and can be among its worst enemies if it is not. As for India’s capacities, they are underestimated in terms of their diversionary power; it is a case of watch what India says, not what it does. What is India saying it is doing? Interpreting India, and hence its potentialities, is perhaps even more important than interpreting China which is, ironically for a relatively secretive polity, more revealing of itself.

This paper engages in an exploration of the possibilities of new mandalas - or schemas - of power in 21st century geopolitics. The title draws from Indian political tradition (the raj-mandala of Kautilya) as well as Chinese mandala formations during the Middle Kingdom’s height of power. The return of the mandala to statecraft in the 21st century is a fitting tribute to the power of Asian states in transforming, albeit by largely indirect means, the political landscape. The use of mandala in this paper is not directly Kautilyan, but a significantly modified concept to account for 21st century geostrategic conditions. The new mandalas of power are pertinent explorations of the conference theme in its concern for regional relations across the hemisphere: ‘Small and mid-great powers in southern hemisphere and their relations with northern neighbours’. A mandala with a southern sector viewpoint permits a more dispassionate appraisal of northern sector activity. It is easier to delineate the effects of China and India, on each other and on others, when one is not China and India. It is enough, as the Thais would traditionally say, to be near.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEssays on development issues
Subtitle of host publicationIndia and the Indian Ocean region
EditorsR N Gnosh, M A Siddique, R Gabbay
Place of PublicationNew Delhi
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)8126902191
Publication statusPublished - 2003


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