Friday, February 5, 2010

EAGLE FALTERS, DRAGON HISSES, ELEPHANT SLEEPS

Like the British Empire that preceded it, America's journey into sunset, distant yet but distinct, has commenced, as the sun begins to rise in the East again.

When Mukesh Ambani said a few days back that "whatever had to be done in the West, has been done", to highlight the fact India will present more opportunities in the future, it would not have occurred to many attending that panel discussion at the London School of Economics, that the US had decisively moved to the wrong side of not just the economic but also the military power curve. A few significant developments in the following days have, however, driven home this imperceptibly unfolding fact in somewhat dramatic fashion.

The world's biggest power is now not only the world's biggest borrower, but, according to the latest US federal budget, things are only likely to get worse. The projected deficit on the coming year is going to be nearly 11% of the nation's economic output. According to President Obama's own optimistic projections, it is not likely to return to sustainable levels in the next 10 years. There is, therefore, real possibility that, like it happened with Japan, as debt grows more rapidly than income, America's influence around the world will get eroded. Unless something miraculous happens. And that, as things appear now, is less likely than ever before.

China, which has for long been consciously working towards reclaiming the leadership position that the West had taken away a few centuries back, has apparently already smelled blood as it were. Seeing that the Eagle has got into a dive that will not end in it swooping on a prey and soaring skyward again, but in a hard crash into the ground, the Dragon has begun to breathe fire in a manner that would have been unthinkable before Bush hastened America's slide by getting involved in a costly war in Iraq.

China has not only threatened the US with sanctions if the latter goes ahead with a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan but has already put on hold military exchanges, postponed vice minister-level talks on security and said it will impose corresponding sanctions on US companies that engage in weapons sale to Taiwan. Its official Xinhua news agency has also warned that the deal "will cause seriously negative effects on China-U.S. exchanges and cooperation in important areas, and ultimately will lead to consequences that neither side wishes to see."

It may be recalled that prior to his visit to China last year, President Obama had declined to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington, so as to not annoy his hosts. According to reports, he had, however, agreed to meet him some time later. Now that the meeting is on in May, a senior Chinese official has "strongly warned" Obama that such a meeting would damage relations and that the US would suffer "serious consequences". China has been protesting such meetings with US Presidents since long. Obama is going ahead with the meeting, as did some of his predecessors, but there is now is little doubt that the shift in the balance of power is very real and seemingly irrevocable, and that China's concerns can no longer be arrogantly ignored.

China has a huge trade surplus with the US and one of the reasons for that is that China has deliberately depressed the Yuan to give its exporters an unfair advantage. On Wednesday, Obama said he would get tougher with China on the issue to ensure that it opens up its market so that "our goods are not artificially inflated in price." China hit back immediately saying that its currency is reasonably priced and warned the US that "criticism and pressing is obviously not helpful to solving problems."

The aggression visible in these responses is neither incidental nor isolated. It is part of a carefully thought-out and coordinated plan by China to project itself not just as America's equal but as a nation that has a plot that is not only fully under control but is superior to what the Americans have or can come up with. China is subtly positioning itself as the new and better leader of a new world along a number of dimensions. To do that, it is drawing upon the strength of its ancient civilisational and cultural heritage, to offer the world what it believes is a paradigm that is better and more durable than what the West has ever been able to offer.

The Pentagon's latest Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), 2010, also recognises that power dynamics have undergone a dramatic change and that the US is no longer the world's sole super power. "The distribution of global political, economic and military power is shifting and becoming more diffuse. The rise of China, the world's most populous country, and India, the world's largest democracy, will continue to reshape the international system." This, according to the report, will give rise to an international system that is no longer easily defined - ''one in which the US will remain the most powerful actor but must increasingly work with key allies and partners if it is to sustain stability and peace.''

Look at the irony. India has not even given a thought to what this billion-strong nation's role should be in the rapidly changing scenario in which China, with which it has a long standing border dispute and which has been trying to encircle it, is going to increasingly use its power to influence outcomes and settle them in its favour where necessary. It is the Pentagon, more alarmed by the rise of an opaque and inscrutable China than India is, that is reminding India that, given its size and strength, it should become a "net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond." How can it, when our guys have still not been able figure out even India's coastal security? 26/11 has already been forgotten.

Mukesh Ambani, and others like him, are turning India into a land of economic opportunity. This is despite, let us face it, and not because of the government; a subject by itself. These discrete efforts have not been, and are not likely to be, exploited optimally by a security-blind, strategy-bereft Indian state mired in petty politics, pettier corruption and stifling bureaucratic bungling.

India's vision, as defined by those who have been positioned to formulate and articulate it, is effectively little more than the aggregate of their individual dreams. In that narrow tunnel, aspiration ends at getting their kids into Harvard and then telling India how they - and therefore the US - are superior, and how happy they are to see guys back home and their country remain a distant second. There is simply no strategic vision for powering the country to the top, or anywhere else for that matter.

India is being defeated by Indians. That is why, as the Eagle falters and the Dragon hisses, the Elephant, from which the Dragon has learnt much, sleeps.

Like Hanuman, India seems to have been cursed to forget its power. Unfortunately, this curse is not as mild. All it took Hanuman to recollect everything was a gentle reminder by Jamvant. But the Elephant that has been made to discard and deride its thousands of years old habitat, has become so weak and unsure of itself that even nasty reminders have failed to awaken it to realisation.

A persistent Jamvant is sorely needed and quickly. Vultures don't give reminders.
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Readers may also read:
1. Go India: got to be the best, not second
2. China and India: Competition of civilisations
3. China gets dangerous but nothing can move India