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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Analysing Bambawale, et. al., 2021 ("Strategic patience and flexible policies: How India can rise to the China challenge")

by Shubhashis Gangopadhyay.

This is the text of my discussant comments at LEPC 4.1 today, which is a session organised around a talk by Gautam Bambawale presenting the recent paper Bambawale et. al. 2021.

The paper makes a strong and convincing argument for the need to create an ecosystem that fosters growth that is fast and sustainable. It focuses strongly on what needs to be done to ensure Indian citizens a desirable future. This future is envisioned as one where we are in control of our own destiny, China notwithstanding. I am in complete agreement with the need for India to grow economic muscle. I also agree that this will play a large part or, could even be necessary, to thwart China’s adventurism in our neighbourhood. But what I like most about the paper is that the authors’ emphasis is not on diplomacy, or on battle preparedness, or on economics but on the realization that they all need to play their respective parts for India to reach a common goal.

The paper is a “must read” for all. The paper sets the tone for how public discourses need to be carried out --- state the problem, clearly articulate the solution and, explain why the solution will work. A public discourse is not simply the voicing of opinions but also explaining the reasons behind them. Reading it will not only inform, but also improve, the public discourse on this topic. Respecting the spirit in which this paper has been prepared, I will try and add to the discourse initiated by the authors.

The paper makes an excellent argument for reforming the ecosystem within which economic transactions are planned and executed. To borrow a term from game theory, building up India’s economic muscle is seen as the “dominant strategy” against the challenges posed by China. There is, or can be, very little dispute about the need for India to grow economically.

While agreeing completely with the recommendation in the paper, I would like to modify somewhat the problem statement. For that, I will distinguish between a goal, or an objective, and the strategy to achieve that goal. A winning strategy is determined by the desired objective of the player and the possible responses by her opponent. In other words, a player’s strategy cannot be independent of what the other player is doing or, of the different circumstance in which the game is being played out.

India’s strategy is not an action it should undertake but an enumeration of the set of all contingent actions that India must take. Contingent on what? Contingent on the response that China will undertake for each of the actions we take. The choice of actions could also be contingent on changing circumstances for which China may not be directly responsible. E.g., if we criticize Myanmar’s military government, China may move in and make the Myanmar government hostile to us; on the other hand, if we do not criticize, we may face problems in the Quad.

A player’s strategy is derived, among other things, from the player’s own objective and the threats to that objective posed by the responses of the other players (or competitors) and, the changes brought about in the environment by nature (uncertainty). Simply put, the strategy is derived from the objective and never the objective itself.

There are two reasons why I want to distinguish between a goal and the strategy to attain that goal. First, as stated before, formulating the problem determines the answer we get. The way the paper currently reads, China is the problem and growing economic muscle is necessary to thwart China. And, it is this that makes me nervous. Why? Our policymaking has been mostly in response to a crisis and we slip back to status quo ante as soon as the crisis blows over. As an example, consider the trade liberalization measures undertaken in the post-1991 period (when we faced a foreign exchange crisis), and the roll-backs in more recent years when we are not facing any foreign exchange shortage. Trade liberalization was never seen by our policymakers as necessary for economic growth; it was always seen as a step towards easing the foreign exchange shortage of 1991. Hence, I am afraid that if we do not clearly state that growing economic muscle is an end in itself (and not simply to thwart China’s adventurism), we will go back to our old economically inefficient ways as soon as the China threat is neutralised.

The second reason is a bit more nuanced and depends essentially on what one means by strategy. As the paper points out, correctly, the game will be played over many years giving enough time both, for China to push back on what India is doing and for circumstances to change as global uncertainties are resolved. For example, if we develop manufacturing and/or services to export into Africa, I do not think that China will simply watch us do so and not push back in various ways to defeat India’s purpose. The correct definition of strategy will enable us to consider the following options (say) --- grow through the African market, focus on the Western market, or ASEAN or, diversify in such a way that China has to push back in every market at great harm to itself (push back is always costly to the one doing it). In other words, we must plan our economic growth in such a way that China cannot, or will not, be able to force us to give up our growth plan in the way we have envisaged. Our growth path must be such that in case they want to affect it, it will be costly to them but with minimal repercussions on us.

This approach immediately alerts us to a careful formulation of our goal, along with a deep understanding of what (a) China is trying to achieve and (b) the national interests of our potential partners. This latter is very important and I get a whiff of romanticism in the paper’s suggestion of forming partnership with those who believe in individual freedom, market resourcefulness and the rule of law. The biggest supporters of the free world routinely justified their inactions against apartheid and continue to be in denial while condoning the atrocities of various “friendly” dictatorial regimes! In other words, they are going to partner with India, against China, only if it is in their interest to do so --- not because they have great regard for India’s righteousness. They will support us only when there is an alignment of our interest with theirs. Some years ago when I complained to a high level US official about how their policies in India’s neighbourhood are adversely affecting us, he was quick to point out that he was paid by US taxpayers not to meet India’s aspirations.

It could be dangerous to misread China’s objective. It may appear as an approach relevant to a zero-sum game (very “mercantilist”), when the economic world is uniquely, and definitely, a positive-sum game. So, why is China doing what it is doing? The paper seems to suggest that this is largely an attempt to raise nationalistic fervour within China to distract people from its domestic problems (of a growth slow-down amid growing disparities). If this indeed is the reason then once China gets back on its erstwhile growth path, Chinese adventurism along India’s borders will diminish. Contrast this with the possibility that irritating Indian border forces is a longer term plan. Should our responses in both cases be the same? To play the game properly, we must be able to anticipate China’s game plan. This will only happen through careful and deep investigation of the ground realities in China along with the interplay among its political actors. Not understanding fully China’s objective is where we begin to lose the game! The paper does point out that there are more people studying India in China than Indians studying China. Given our definition of strategy, the importance of correctly reading China’s objective is crucial to determine India’s optimal strategy.

I want to highlight a specific difference between our two systems that differentiates the manner in which we achieve our respective goals. China could get its banks, companies, policymakers and all other groups in their society to do exactly what the central authorities wanted them to do. In India, that is not feasible. This does not put us at a disadvantage as long as we are aware of it and, hence, stop borrowing “best practices” from China or, for that matter, any other country. We are going to rely on the resourcefulness of our people, operating through innovations and investments by the private sector, facilitated through the appropriate institutions implementing market rules. Historically, this approach has been found to be a more sustainable path to economic growth. As the paper correctly points out, this is a huge advantage for India especially if we see the fault lines now opening up in the Chinese system.

India is not a unitary system but a federal one. Indeed, whatever “ease of doing business” policies the central government rolls out, the ultimate hurdles can be taken down by state governments only. Why would various sops to foreign businesses bring in FDI when our own companies, even when they are flush with investible resources, not investing in India? So the first job of this exercise is to move out of Delhi and get the state governments aligned with the nation’s interest and coordinate their strategies. In this context, I must say that I am extremely sceptical of following a SEZ policy in India simply because China did it successfully. Its implementation invariably leads to corruption and crony capitalism, which will lead to umpteen consequential issues which are difficult to handle in a vibrant federal democracy where the rule of law should reign supreme. What China could do with its centralized economic approach and business activities through state-owned enterprises is simply not doable in India.

Our goal of sustained high growth has to be attained in a way that suits the Indian context. Japan, China, South Korea and the Far East, all followed their own paths to reach where they are now. The differences in the paths they followed are more pronounced than the similarities. And that is what we need to understand --- scholarship without thought will simply not do.


Shubhashis Gangopadhyay is a researcher on India and economics.

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