Can the Elephant Dance with the Dragon?

TRIVANDRUM, INDIA – It is fashionable these days, particularly in the West, to speak of India and China in the same breath. These are the two big countries said to be taking over the world, the new contenders for global eminence after centuries of Western domination, the Oriental answer to generations of Occidental economic success.

Indeed, two new books explicitly twin the two countries: Robyn Meredith’s The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us and Harvard business professor Tarun Khanna’s Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping their Futures – and Yours . Both books view the recent rise of India and China as shifting the world’s economic and political tectonic plates. Some even speak of “Chindia,” as if the two were joined at the hip in the international imagination.

Count me among the skeptics. It is not just that China and India have little in common, save for the fact that they occupy a rather vast landmass called “Asia.” It is also that they are already at very different stages of development. China started its liberalization a decade and a half before India, hit double-digit growth when India was still hovering around 5%, and, with compound growth, has put itself in a totally different economic league from India, continuing to grow faster from a larger base. 

Moreover, the two countries’ systems are totally dissimilar. If China wants to build a new six-lane expressway, it can bulldoze its way through any village in its path. In India, if you want to widen a two-lane road, you could be tied up in court for a dozen years over compensation entitlements.