Commentary | 11 December 2013

The big question: Which country will emerge as the leading power?

In this special issue of the World Politics Review, Face Off: China/India, Rory Medcalf and other experts debate whether China or India will emerge as the leading power.

  • Rory Medcalf

In this special issue of the World Politics Review, Face Off: China/India, Rory Medcalf and other experts debate whether China or India will emerge as the leading power.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

The Big Question: Which Country Will Emerge as the Leading Power?

An Asymmetrical Contest

Rory Medcalf

World Politics Review

Winter 2013/2014

 

Who would win a geopolitical power struggle between China and India? In the short to medium-term, the answer is simple: China. But in the long run, the answer is more complex. In economic heft, military clout, and the sheer ability to harness all elements of national power for a strategic purpose, China wins hands down. Despite a burst of optimism about Indian double-digit GDP growth a few years ago, the gap between the two economies has begun widening again. Both economies may be stumbling, but India’s near-term problems are worse—the country desperately needs a new wave of economic reform and business confidence.

But sensible Indian strategists know the contest between the two mega-states is not symmetrical. India does not need to coerce China; just deter it. A modernized navy, nuclear-armed modern submarines, and partnerships with others, especially America, may help it do just that. And in the long run, India still has some internal advantages. Its young population–if only it can educate and employ them–and its resilient, if messy democracy are both shock absorbers for political discontent.

The crucial question for global peace and prosperity is not who will win between these giants, but can they coexist? Neither is looking for a fight, but even their most profound point of commonality contains the seeds of competition, and perhaps conflict. Resource demands and the geographic expansion of their interests across a shared Indo-Pacific region means that new frictions will arise beyond tired issues like the unresolved border dispute or China’s military assistance to Pakistan. The world has yet to see what happens if a 21st century version of Chinese and Indian nationalism truly collides.

 

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