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India’s Israel relations, the Middle East and China

International politics are in flux. Power relations between the main actors on the  international scene are changing. Grasping and exploiting these changes in a timely fashion is an essential prerequisite of successful statesmanship. This paper addresses India’s movement into the Middle East, as see in the broader framework of India’s changing position among the world’s great powers. The most salient international changes include the new tensions between the United States and both Russia and China, the growing assertiveness of China, the relative decline of Europe and the turmoil in the Middle East and wider Muslim world. Less noticed but perhaps no less important is a perceptible change in India’s view of its own future since Prime Minister Modi, the head of the centerright Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. His was called a “landmark victory”.

Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister born after independence (1947) and the first in 30 years to enjoy an absolute parliamentary majority that does not depend on smaller Muslim and left-wing parties. In fact, India’s tiny Communist and Marxist parties are now irrelevant. New BJP victories in Indian state elections in 2017 leave little doubt that Modi is likely to stay in power for a long time. His rise is not easily reversible because it represents deeper socio-economic forces: it is the growth of a more Western oriented young professional middle class, together with a nationalist, right-wing Hindu resurgence that brought him to power (Hindus and Sikh are estimated to represent approximately 80% of the Indian population). Modi indicated more openly than his predecessors that he wants to turn his country into one of the world’s leading great powers. By 2050 India will have the largest and youngest population of any country in the world. India’s current GDP is approximately a fourth of China’s. India will not reach China’s economic power in any foreseeable future, although India’s economic growth has outpaced that of China for the past two years. According to an OECD forecast (below) by 2060 India could become the second largest economy of the world. Thus, the encounter between a newly assertive India with an already assertive China was perhaps bound to lead to friction. As China increases its military and economic ties with India’s arch-foe Pakistan and acquires assets and influence in all other countries surrounding India, Modi is slowly moving away from India’s erstwhile refusal to ally itself with any great power against any other great power.

Since the end of the Soviet Union (1990) with which India was at least partly allied, one of the guiding principles of Indian foreign and defense policy was to not support one great power (meaning the United States) against another (meaning China). Furthermore, Modi himself was free of the anti-Chinese animosities and fears that bedeviled the old leadership of the Congress Party that formerly ruled India. In contrast to the Congress Party, he and his young voters were no longer obsessed with the Indian army’s 1962 defeat by China. And yet it is Modi who led India into what seems to be a closer strategic embrace with the United States and its main Asian ally, Japan, rather than Indian leaders who preceded him. Historians will discuss whether this was inevitable. Did China plan from the outset to begin a policy of containment of rising India, or did the present situation result from misunderstandings and mistakes from either side? Should it not be a Chinese policy objective to befriend India, its most important neighbor, so as to keep it out of the American orbit? Foreign observers cannot answer this question. They do not know how China views its long-term interests and opportunities in Asia, nor how the Chinese judge the future stability of their Pakistani ally compared to India’s strength, cohesion and staying power.

As to the current incidents at the Sino-Indian borders both China and India assert that the wider world supports their position. But the international community does not take a clear position for one side or the other because nobody seems to understand the complexities of these ill-defined borders and few if any have read the old treaties and agreements. One is inclined to think of a crisis in mid-19th century Europe when an extremely complicated border conflict between several north European states almost triggered a war. A British diplomatic observer quipped that only three persons really understood these border problem: “The first has died, the second is in a mental asylum and I am the third but I have forgotten all about it”1 It is important to not let these incidents obscure the larger, long-term picture. In 2012, the Paris-based OECD, the West’s largest policy thinktank, predicted dramatic changes in the distribution of global economic power by 2060. These are the estimated percentages of the world’s GDP attributed to the US, China and India for the period 2011 to 2060:2


USA China India
2011 23% 17% 7%
2030 18% 28% 11%
2060 16% 28% 18%


The predicted steep rise of India is particularly impressive. So far, the six years that have passed since 2011 have confirmed the trajectories proposed by the OECD. This is partly due to Modi’s vigorous economic reform and modernization policies that the OECD could not foresee in 2012, two years before Modi came to power. If these forecasts are realistic, China and India together would by 2060 control half of the world’s economy. Economic historians have calculated that in the 18th century China and India dominated about half of the world’s trade before they came under the control of Western powers. Trade is not the same as economic production, but the statistical similarity might confirm the OECD evaluation that the two powers are on the way to reclaim the place they occupied in the world economy of the 18th century. In any event, even if the two countries together do not reach the 50% mark, their ongoing swift growth means that trade and cooperation between the two largest economies could be essential for prosperity and stability not only in Asia but in the world, and will also increase the individual power of both.

The historic precedents for their cooperation in many sectors are good. According to Henry Kissinger’s well-sourced narrative, China’s leader Mao Zedong spoke to his generals in October 1962, a few days before he ordered his army to attack the Indian army. He said that China and India are not destined to permanent hostility, on the contrary, they enjoyed hundreds of years of fruitful economic and cultural exchanges. In almost two thousand years they had fought only “one and a half” wars (with the “half war” Mao meant the 1398 invasion of India by the Mongol ruler Tamerlane who also ruled China)3. Indian scholars have similar thoughts. The Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has devoted many pages to documenting the close trade, religious, cultural, artistic and scientific links maintained by the two civilizations over the centuries. He quotes the 7th century Yi Jing, a student of Buddhism and medicine, who wrote after returning from India: “Is there anyone in any part of India who does not admire China?”4 It is unlikely that Buddhism or medicine alone will again bring these two countries closer to each other. Nonetheless there is no reason why need, common interest and reason could not achieve the same result in the long term.


[1] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, London-New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994, reports this story in his chapter on Napoleon III and Bismarck.

[2] OECD Economic Policy Papers 03: Looking to 2060 – Long-term global growth prospects: a going for growth report. OECD, Nov. 2012, 22.

[3] Henry Kissinger, On China, London-New York, Allen Lane, 2011, 1 f.

[4] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian – Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, London-New York, Penguin Books, 2006, 161-190.