November 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Superpowers

The following article appeared in The Asian Age and The Deccan Chronicle on November 4, 2012.
In his charming Beastly Tales from Here and There, the poet Vikram Seth recounts a Chinese parable about the Rat and the Ox. The two animals vie to appear first in the Chinese Zodiac on the basis of their size. So as not to be humiliated by the obvious disparity, the Rat requests that he be made only slightly larger, a request to which the Ox acquiesces. But after onlookers marvel at his remarkable size – for a rodent – the Rat is deemed the winner and granted the exalted position at the start of the Chinese calendar.
I recall this tale frequently – not least because of its origins – whenever the contrast is made between the economic and political stasis of the United States and the vibrancy and growing potential of China. The speed and scale of China’s rise since 1979 is certainly without historical precedent. And the polarizing political theatrics and entrenched special interests in Washington can be stultifying. The United States is often unable to implement relatively straightforward policies due to political bickering, its education system is often considered lax and expensive, and its infrastructure feels woefully outdated. By contrast, China’s decision-making seems swift and decisive, it is churning out large numbers of trained scientific researchers and engineers, and it now boasts state-of-the-art airports and rail networks.

A small cottage industry has sprung up to document and dissect the apparently contrasting trajectories of the world’s two leading powers. The most high-profile example is perhaps Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World in which the author posits that China’s civilizational experience and its resurgence as Asia’s Middle Kingdom promise to refashion the global system. In a very different analysis, Arvind Subramanian’s book Eclipse argues that China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s dominant economic force.

And yet, as both countries appear set for political transitions this year, the contrast between the two processes – and the international interest and attention paid to them – could not be more different. Communist China, undergoing what is only its second peaceful transition, has had to postpone its Party Congress in the light of the bizarre and embarrassing Bo Xilai scandal. The constitution of China’s Politburo Standing Committee – the nation’s most powerful decision-making body – is still unclear and reportedly subject to fierce factionalism. Despite several volumes documenting the life and career of its next presumed leader, Xi Jinping, almost nothing is known publicly about his views on most major contemporary policy issues. Neither Xi nor the expected future premier Li Keqiang is as yet a widely recognizable figure outside China. And recent media reports about the immense personal wealth of the families of Xi and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao threaten popular outrage at home. Hardly an ideal state of affairs for a prospective global hegemon.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are both, by contrast, well known at home and abroad. Every aspect of their personalities – including their backgrounds and assets – and that of their top advisors has been subject to considerable public scrutiny and occasional ridicule. Each of the three presidential debates between the two was watched by an average of 64 million people across the country and countless more around the world. Both candidates have had to make a host of public statements on a variety of social, economic, and foreign policy issues. And the two major political parties determined their nominees for president only after organizing popular state-level elections known as primaries or caucuses, necessitating exacting and occasionally grueling campaigns.

The American system is not without its flaws nor is it exempt from controversy. The Electoral College – whereby candidates win states weighted for population size, rather than individual votes – effectively disenfranchises many voters and grants disproportionate influence to certain key ‘swing states’. Both parties often espouse populist rhetoric in an effort to appeal to their electoral bases. And while U.S. campaign financing is extraordinarily transparent by international standards, it is not wholly so. But the relative success of the two political systems is reflected in how often they are replicated. Over the past three decades, countries as diverse as Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, and Argentina have adopted multi-party presidential systems of governance, and today some ninety countries hold direct presidential elections. By contrast, the only avowedly single-party states, other than China, are Vietnam, Laos, Turkmenistan, Cuba, and North Korea.

Unlike China’s past, present, and future policy toward India – which remain the subject of speculation even among well-informed experts – the United States’ position is relatively clear. Both Republican and Democratic governments have had to adapt to changing global realities over the past decade. China and Pakistan remain significant potential security challenges for the United States even though both exercise different forms and degrees of leverage over Washington. These problematic relationships strengthen the basis for stronger ties between DC and Delhi. India’s large market and human resources, its system of governance, and its links with its diaspora in the United States also contribute to the logic of enhanced relations. With these structural imperatives in place, the forthcoming presidential election is unlikely to significantly alter U.S. policy toward India, other than at the margins.

A second Obama administration can be expected to see a reconfigured foreign policy team, and it may take some time for the new principals to hone in on India’s strategic importance and appreciate its benefits and limitations. Similarly, while a Romney administration can be expected to return several veterans of George W. Bush’s tenure to government – many of whom have extensive experience in working cooperatively with India – it will take some time to reestablish policy priorities. In both instances, New Delhi will have to carefully manage expectations.

The U.S. election is not the world’s election, even though it can seem so. But the transparency and participatory nature of the process instills a certain amount of predictability and comfort in the United States’ global leadership. That remains a critical aspect of comprehensive national power that Beijing – in its current state – will always find wanting.