November 16, 2006Foreign Affairs

Reforming our Chinese brothers

A democratic China will level the playing field

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The motivation of states, according to the Realist view, is the maximization of national power; not merely in absolute terms, but relative to each other. The United States, for example, is not just concerned with being stronger in the future than it was in the past. It is concerned with being stronger than its competitors, which because the United States is a global superpower, means everyone else. By the same token, China’s goal is not only to remain the pre-eminent power in Asia, but to prevent anyone else—India and Japan, for instance—from reducing its lead. To assuage fears that the challenge to rebalance the Asian power equation will lead to open conflict, China has articulated its “peaceful rise” philosophy. The validity of which will begin to be tested when the going gets really tough, as it is beginning to.

Morgenthau, the father of the modern western Realist school, holds that relative to democracies, authoritarian states are better equipped to pursue the quest for greater national power. In foreign policy matters, there is often a disconnect between what is popular and what is necessary. Democracies are left with the complex, time-consuming task of reconciling this difference, often at the cost of losing opportunities to maximize national power. Authoritarian states, on the other hand, are less inhibited.

To take Morgenthau’s argument further, even among democracies—presidential governments and those with strong parliamentary majorities have greater leeway in the pursuit of a strong foreign policy. Coalition governments have the least. This partly explains why China, Pakistan and Russia are perceived to be single-minded in their quest for power. It also explains why Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government was able to pursue by far the most robust foreign policy in the last three decades.

What does all this imply for India-China relations? Well, firstly, one-party China can run circles around a democratic, coalition-governed India. Secondly, if only for that reason, that turning China into a democracy should be an important long-term goal for India’s foreign policy. For sure, a democratic China will not abandon the quest for supremacy. But it will not be able to do so with the single-mindedness that it now enjoys, in a way leveling the playing field.

And finally, it’s a catch-22 situation: a democratic coalition-governed India will find it a steeply uphill task to change China. Right now, it’s not even trying.



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