Thursday, 15 March 2007

Security pact all right, but to protect whom?

I just read this news report about a US proposal for Australia and Japan to include India in a four-way security pact with the US. This is believed to be aimed at containing China by getting powerful democracies in the Asia-Pacific region to encircle the evil dictatorship.

Good idea? Bad idea?

As an Indian-born person who grew up in India just after the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962, I might be expected to welcome this development. That's right, we need to contain the Chinese. They can't be trusted. As a democrat too, I should be happy at the increasing pressure being brought to bear on an illegitimate communist dictatorship.

But something gives me pause, and it's not just the fact that Dick "Trust me, I'm a rat" Cheney wants the deal to happen.

Historically, China and India have been rich countries. In fact, for most of the history of human civilisation, China and India have been richer than the West. In the 16th century, Western explorers were not trying to find routes to the East in order to exploit cheap labour for their rich economies. They were trying to trade with rich economies!

Viewed in this historical context, the last 500 years have been an aberration, and all of us have been caught up in the thinking that China and India are poor countries, always have been, always will be. Nonsense! If anything, the next 50 years are going to see these two countries returning to their position of economic pre-eminence in the world.

There is a power shift happening in the world, and it is happening in this generation. It has a lot of people in the West scared. Globalisation no longer means the comfort of sampling Hokkien noodles or Tandoori chicken in the comfort of a multi-cuisine food court. It means that your children may have to learn Mandarin or Hindi, that they may have to relocate for a while to Shanghai or Calcutta to advance in their careers or even to keep their jobs, that their bosses might have surnames like Chang or Chaudhury, or that they may be spending their working hours making Baoding balls or Saris. It could be viewed as exciting, but to many people, that spells scary. Face it, the scariest thing that can happen to you is that you may change! Change cannot be allowed to happen. If it can't be prevented, it must be delayed for as long as possible.

Now look at the proposal for the security pact from this historical and psychological perspective. What I'm reading is that the Waning Powers are trying to drive a wedge between two Emerging Powers. Should India be flattered by all the attention? Should India view this proposal as just the ticket to help allay its fears of China since 1962? In short, should India rise to the bait?

New Delhi would be wise to ask itself some questions. Whose security is this pact meant to preserve? Who gains by pitting one emerging power against another?

Economic development is not a zero-sum game. A richer East means a richer world. It means a richer West as well. However, suspicion is worse than a zero-sum game. It can escalate into a debilitating spiral that will be self-sustaining. After a while, the Western powers can safely disengage from the security stand-off they have created, because India and China will be helplessly caught in an ever-escalating cycle of suspicion and can be trusted to contain each other.

I think the most appropriate response is for India and China to sign a Free Trade agreement. It will be a snub to the West, but not a destructive one. Because economic development is not a zero-sum game.

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