At the recent celebrations marking the centenary of the ruling Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping was at his trademark best when he thundered that those who would “dare to bully, oppress, or subjugate China” will “have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people”.

China has made tremendous economic advancements in the last few decades and that is a cause for celebration indeed. China’s economic and political rise is the single biggest story of our times, shaping the way we live and conduct inter-state relations. Beijing’s imprint is everywhere, in every domain of global politics.

Yet it is also important to recognise the challenges that have come with the rise of China – structural, institutional, and normative. There is a reason why a large part of the world that had been largely supportive of China’s rise for decades is turning against China. The way Covid-19 was handled by China in its initial stages is a story that is yet to see its final chapter being written.

False comparisons

An unsentimental assessment of China’s rise and its consequences is the need of the hour. Similarly, an assessment of India and its role in global politics is also necessary at a time when it has become fashionable in several parts of the world to draw false comparisons between India and China.

The tendency to hyper sensationalise China’s rise and to dismiss the India story as one with no legs does justice neither to these two great civilizations nor to those who believe in the value of democratic norms.

The stories of the rise of India and China stand on their merits. Both have had their successes and their failures. India cannot be compared to China as the latter’s economic rise began much earlier while India remained a closed economy till the early 1990s.

While China seamlessly used the changing balance of power during the Cold War to its advantage, India continued to talk about non-alignment. But whatever India did, it did in a democratic framework.

India’s economic reforms program was not a dictate from some party high command but the result of a meticulous process of multi-stakeholder engagement. India’s choices, therefore, should be understood in this context.

For many, India’s inability to tackle the second wave and the media headlines it has generated across the world seems to have dented India’s global brand, perhaps forever. But it is equally important to remember where this terrible pandemic originated from.

Even if we keep aside the fact that India managed the first wave much more effectively than some of the most developed nations around the world – and yet this was never reflected in the global headlines – India’s global brand was never based on its stellar systems and processes.

India’s capacity deficit was a reality that was accepted across the world and India’s brand, as it evolved over the years, has been about the creativity of Indians to work wonders despite a largely inept and inefficient state apparatus. It is also worth pointing out that the most developed nations continue to struggle in the management of Covid-19.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party. Photo credit: Wang Zhao/AFP

In comparison, India did much better in the first wave, when it emerged as a provider of global public health and also managed to flatten the second in record time. India has been building its health capacities consistently over the last few months – first emergency medicines, PPE kits, etc and then vaccines.

And it has done that not only for itself but for its neighbours and friends. For all the purveyors of doom and gloom about the India brand, India’s story will be back on track pretty quickly. And that is precisely the reason that powers around the world continue to bet on India.

In the last year and a half, India has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic on the one hand while on the other, it has pushed back against Chinese aggression at the border. New Delhi was at the forefront of mobilising global opinion in managing the pandemic when most advanced industrial nations, including the US, were busy looking inwards. And New Delhi was busy fighting the Chinese soldiers on the border on its own.

Pushback against China

India’s pushback against China has been a part of the Indian strategic posture for years now. Even when the West was busy cosying up to Beijing, New Delhi was challenging China on multiple fronts. India was the first major nation to openly criticize Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative as a predatory infrastructure project.

Today New Delhi’s critique has become part of the global consensus on the Belt and Road Initiative. The acceptance of the logic of the Indo-Pacific from the West to the East, despite China’s strong disapproval, would not have happened without India’s enthusiastic response to it. And the emergence of the Quad would have remained a pipedream if New Delhi hadn’t clarified its foreign policy choices.

Global pushback against China is the new strategic reality in a world re-defined by Covid-19 and its aftermath. The rise of China remains a work in progress. If China had indeed won its place, its president would not be talking about foreign powers getting “their heads bashed” if they attempt to bully or influence the country.

If China’s rise cannot be contained, then India’s rise will also continue with all the challenges that a democratic nation that is open to the world faces. India and Indian policies can be freely critiqued by its friends and adversaries and Indian leadership will not be talking about “bashing heads”.

With all its fumbles and stumbles, a democratic India taking on its due role as a global leader will continue to be one of the most interesting stories of our times. This does not mean that China will not rise. It simply means that the two assessments will have to be made differently than is usually the case.

In a world that is increasingly recognising that no one is safe unless everyone is safe, India’s rise will continue to attract global attention even as China continues its ascent.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.