A new series of research workshops and webinars, titled Bouncing back from COVID-19: Comparative perspectives from China and India in 2021, was launched in February. Organised jointly by Lingnan University and India’s Flame University, the series will explore the tectonic relationship between China and India, and the differing experiences of the two countries in managing the pandemic.
The first webinar in the series, themed Post-COVID Geo-politics, featured presentations from Professor Shalendra Sharma, Lee Shau Kee Foundation Chair Professor of Political Science at Lingnan, and Dr Roger Liu, Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at FLAME.
Nation’s political system does not determine success fighting inequality or COVID
Professor Sharma drew on the research contained in his 2018 book, A Political Economy of the United States, China, and India: Prosperity with Inequality (Cambridge University Press), to make his case. He began by noting how his own work looked to build on some of the ground-breaking insights contained in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Piketty showed that rising income and wealth inequality, rather than poverty, was the more pressing issue in the world’s major economies. The divide between the haves and have-nots was widening as income tends to vary much more than wealth, and the return on capital has grown faster than the growth of GDP.
“While globalisation has created a lot of wealth, what has happened is that this wealth has not been evenly distributed,” Professor Sharma said.
Professor Sharma went on to examine the relationship between politics and inequality. It has long been argued that democracies are better able to mitigate inequality, because of the role of the median voter. “The problem is, however, you have high levels of inequality in almost all democracies.”
In fact, with high levels of inequality existing regardless of the prevailing political system, Professor Sharma went on to look at the cases of China, India and the United States.
Among the contributing factors to growing inequality in the US are the increasing automation of work, the globalisation-driven shift from a manufacturing- to a service-based economy, the burgeoning power of the financial sector, and the erosion of inter-generational mobility due to the soaring price of education.
Though the roots in China are more complex, Professor Sharma cited two key components. First, though there has been economic innovation, this has not gone deep enough to create sufficient jobs higher up the value chain. And second, are political issues, particularly crony capitalism.
While, in the case of India, the main political parties’ obsession with short-term returns have made it more difficult to slow the growing wealth gap. “But, more importantly, India has not been able to create manufacturing jobs. It still has a largely agrarian economy.”
Professor Sharma then went on to look at differing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. He found that, as in efforts to tackle inequality, the experiences of China, India, the United States and Taiwan, suggest that the prevailing political regime – democratic, authoritarian or illiberal – is not the critical determinant of performance during the pandemic.
Instead, success, as in Mainland China , comes down to competent executive leadership, a high level of state capacity, a robust and affordable public healthcare system, rather than political regime types.
The past, present and future of Sino-Indian relations
The evolution of the relationship between the world’s most populous countries was the starting point for Dr Liu’s presentation, titled From multilateralism to realism?: China in India’s Post-COVID-19 Indo-Pacific Concepts.
“In the 1950s, India was the first Asian country to recognise the newly-founded People’s Republic of China,” Dr Liu noted. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was keen to form a united front against colonialism.
However, after a honeymoon period of several years, a border war between the nations broke out in 1962. Relations only began to thaw again in the 1980s, but by the 1990s agreement could be reached on confidence building measures designed to de-escalate tensions.
Even so, in recent years, border clashes have once more signalled a deteriorating relationship between Beijing and New Delhi. This has occurred despite mechanisms being in place for resolving conflicts between the two governments, the two militaries and between the two foreign ministries. But why should this be, Dr Liu wondered?
He believes the answers can be found at the strategic level. The expansion of China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region, through initiatives such as the Belt and Road, put the Indian government on alert. Unable to compete on the funding of infrastructure projects, as China has strengthened its ties with countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and, in particular, Pakistan, India has come to feel surrounded, and as if it’s losing control of the countries within its sphere of influence.
“In recent years India has changed the focus of its foreign policy,” Dr Lui explained. It used to seek to maintain its strategic autonomy, and maintain its status as a non-aligned country, distanced from US influence. Now, though, it is more open to working with the US, and other countries, to deal with what it sees as a threat from China.
The COVID pandemic has only worsened this strained relationship and led to a breakdown in contact between the two nations. China’s focus is now no longer on improving relations with India, and its offer to work in partnership with India to resolve political issues in the region is no longer on the table. And, while India recently conducted joint exercises with the French airforce, China is building more military bases and airfields along their mutual border.
The launch of the China and India Webinar Series engages scholars from Lingnan University and Flame University in dialogues and debates on development and policy issues related to China and India. The Webinar also offers great learning experiences for students who are interested in the newly launched Master of China and Regional Studies at Lingnan University. Students enrolling in the new Master programme will have the opportunity to dialogue with leading scholars and postgraduate students across the two universities.