Monday, April 6, 2009

The Emerging Importance of China, India

(Originally published in The Athens NEWS, April 6, 2009)

Conference focuses on emerging importance of China, India

Written by Mike Barajas

Why are China and India so important? Since the recent collapse of the world’s financial systems, the news media have dedicated a plethora of segments, articles and features on this very question – namely, what role do China and India play in this new world of global financial interdependence? In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, the magazine dedicated the cover feature to China’s path forward after the global economic downturn, as well as another key article on the developing political and economic structure in India.

Clearly, this area of the world, home to one-third of the global population, is important, and increasingly so, said Steve Miner, director of Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. The United States, for example, is currently one of the largest consumers of Chinese goods, as well as China’s biggest debtor. The rise of China, Miner said, “Is affecting virtually everything we do.”

That’s why the Baker Peace Studies Program and the Contemporary History Institute made China and India the focus of this year’s Baker Peace Conference. During the conference this past Thursday and Friday, an intellectual powerhouse of scholars, authors and former U.S. policy advisers descended on Athens to discuss national security, as well as social and economic stability issues related to China and India.

Thursday night, the conference’s keynote speaker, James R. Lilley, spoke in Baker Theater, giving a comprehensive historical context of U.S. involvement and interaction with China.
Lilley was part of the first U.S. mission to China under the Nixon administration and served as a high-ranking national intelligence officer for China in the ’70s. He served on the National Security Council staff for East Asia during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations before becoming the American ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991. He witnessed firsthand the crisis in Tiananmen during summer of 1989.

Throughout his time in China, Lilly said he experienced a changing, shifting China, moving toward free markets and participating in joint economic ventures with the U.S. This, he said, began to change the very nature of the Chinese economic system.

“What you have in China is probably the most revolutionary economic growth recorded by a single nation in probably the (history of economics),” he said.

“Our broad economic interaction [with China], my God, we can’t get away from that,” he said, citing how integral it is to both countries’ economic systems. Lilley said that’s something the last Bush administration recognized, as well as the new Obama administration.

U.S. relations with China, Lilley said, are shifting toward financial and economic interests, beyond merely strategic dialogues.

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL STABILITY in China are essential to helping revive the global economy, William Overholt, director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, said during a reception before Lilley’s keynote address. Overholt has written several major books on the rise of China as an economic power, and spoke during Friday’s panel discussing social and economic stability in China.

Overholt said that the conventional view most Americans have of China is dead wrong – a country with developing free-market economy, but oppressive and lacking in human rights.
“There’s this image people have that China is a reforming economy but stuck in the Stone Age politically,” he said. According to Overholt, China is step by step heading the right way, far away from the oppressive Maoist regime of the ’60s and ’70s.

“China has undergone an enormous political regime change,” he said, adding that China’s leadership knows that its political system needs to shift in tandem with the country’s economic system.

Citing an example of a changing China, Overholt recalled an art exhibit he saw at China World Hotel in Beijing, where the face of Mao was painted on giant yellow pigs, the type of expression that simply couldn’t happen 50 years ago, he said.

“People who see politics as black and white… just don’t get what’s going on,” Overholt said.

DURING A PANEL ON Friday, James Mann, the Foreign Policy Institute author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University, disagreed with Overholt’s more optimistic view, saying China’s social and political structure poses a real threat to the country’s stability, and in turn, the stability of the global economy.

Mann was previously the Beijing bureau chief, national security correspondent and foreign-affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and has authored several books on U.S.-China relations.

Mann said he’s afraid China might be “building up a pressure cooker” by not changing its political structure in ways that give the Chinese people more political freedom and human rights.

Alluding to Overholt’s example of the Chinese art exhibit, Mann said he’d recognize real political freedom in China when such examples of artistic expression could happen throughout China. “To me the signs of change will be when there can be a group of five or 10 people who can similarly characterize the current leadership of China… when it’s Hu Jintao’s (China’s president) head instead of Mao’s,” Mann said.

ON FRIDAY’S PANEL focusing on international security issues, Sumit Ganguly, chair of the Indian Cultures and Civilizations Department at Indiana University, and Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for political affairs in the U.S. State Department, spoke of security problems associated with India’s political and economic rise.

Both men cited the current tensions between India and Pakistan as a potential destabilizing force in the region, with Ganguly saying that the dispute between the two countries over the Kashmir Valley “still remains an extremely fraught situation.”

Ganguly also cited the rising inequality between the rich and poor in Indian society after their economic boom, which he said could pose a destabilizing threat to India’s politics in the future. Because of developing media and information technology in the country, Indians are growing more aware of the widening economic gap separating classes and regions of the country, he said. “This does pose a significant international security challenge.”

Tellis called the economic rise of India, like China, an indication of a “transformation of the core of the global system itself.” A growing, more powerful India, he said, shows a “very substantial power shift of global politics.”

Francine R. Frankel, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, expounded upon much of what Ganguly and Tellis said of the political strife inside India and the changing political climate inside the country. The tech boom that India underwent in the past decades has led to an “enormous divide between the affluent within the country and the poor,” she said, leaving many Indians to feel they have been left by the wayside during the country’s period of major growth.

Though the country is integrated, and integral, in the global economy, India still needs to solve the underlying causes of its socio-economic inequality, Frankel said. “India,” she said, “is on the scene to stay as global economic player.” Inequality, she added, is what could destabilize India down the road.

At the Baker Peace Conference this weekend, all the panel participants agreed that India and China have undergone major shifts in the past half-century, with both becoming major players in global politics and the global economic system.

The recent global financial crisis, Overholt said, is stark confirmation that the economies of major powers like India and China are intertwined with the U.S.’s, showing how interdependent the new global economy really is.

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