Even if India is rising economically and China is declining, it will take India about 25 years to catch up with China, says Vijay Keshav Gokhale, a former Secretary of the Ministry for External Affairs. Nor will India be able to sever economic ties with China, he said, speaking at an event organised here by the NGO, United Way of Chennai, on Monday. 

Observing that the US had a GDP of $23 trillion and China $17 trillion in 2022, he said that the next five countries put together (Japan, Germany, India, UK and France) collectively had GDP of less than $17 t. Similarly, US and China spent $800 b and $320 b on Defence in 2022; the next five countries—India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK and France—collectively spent $300 b.  

“Which multipolar world are you talking about,” Gokhale posed. He said that a new world order of a multilateral world—as opposed to a multipolar world—with strong bi-polar (US and China) features, was emerging, in the wake of the collapsing world order built by the US after the second world war. He said that the credibility of the US Security Council now is the “lowest in 70 years”, with all the five members having gone to war, and the realization that the Bretton Woods institutions – World Bank and IMF – cannot fulfil the aspirations of the developing world. 

While the world has been in a transitioning phase all the time, the transition this time around is different, due to several factors—such as an absence of rules and regulations for outer space and under water, and the use of emerging technologies like AI, quantum computing and blockchain. 

Furthermore, the 20th century concept of a “era of democracy” was being challenged by “one country which tells the world that you don’t need democracy to deliver better life to people,” Gokhale, who has been India’s Ambassador to China, said. 

Alongside, the US itself is undergoing an epochal change. While every US presidential election is important to the world, this time around, it is more, because it is a clash of fundamentally different ideas. The Democrats believe it is necessary to invest further in the world order that the US created and benefited from, the Republicans feel that enough blood and treasure has been spent without commensurate benefits to American people and therefore, a more isolationist approach and less of an internationalist approach which costs America less is the way to go forward. 

Against this backdrop, India would have to navigate between the two giants—US and China, he said. Stressing that India does not wield the kind of influence that China wields today, he said that India, with a GDP of $ 4 trillion, can at best be a sub-regional power, with influence between Aden and the Malacca Strait.  

Even if India’s GDP grows faster than China’s it would take India at least 25 years to catch up with China. Also, India should realize that US and China control substantial part of world’s supply chains and technology. Gokhale said that he was “amazed” that some people think that India should sever economic times with China, when some of the best export-performing Indian industries, like pharma, auto components and telecom, are heavily dependent on imports from China.  

India should develop its own semiconductor and electronics industry. The debate over whether India should buy 5G technology from Huawei or the US was irrelevant because both are “capable of snooping on us”. Gokhale wondered why India could not develop its own Meta, Amazon or Google and added that India’s policies should enable startups to grow big. (Later, during the question-answer session, he said that while India had good policy framework, it failed in ‘last-mile-handholding’.) 

The former diplomat noted that the “Taiwan crisis” (not even a war) was a big threat, as any disruption in shipping or semiconductor supplies, could hit India hard. India would also have to deal with China on two fronts – apart from the north, China “will definitely have a naval presence in the Indian ocean within a decade.” 

On the flipside, India’s democracy would make it difficult for the Chinese leaders to explain to their people why they can’t elect their leaders in a way that their neighboring country with a bigger population than China, does.