The India-China relationship – What we need to know

Pratyush Chandra

Every ‘bold’ and ‘independent’ step by a ‘third world’ government is seen as congenitally progressive and even anti-imperialist. Any ‘third world’ alliance is welcomed on the ground that it will develop multi-polarity in the ‘unipolarising’ world. Today, in India at least the middle class “progressives” have the tendency to visualise every dinner party between Delhi, Peking and Moscow to be progressive and a step against imperialism. While trivialising the very notion of imperialism as a world system, this nostalgia for an “anti-imperialist” statist cooperation has made our “progressives” remarkably moody – the Indian state’s apparently contradictory, adulterous relationship with the US hegemony seems to negate the promise revived by Manmohan’s courting of Putin or the Chinese leadership. The simultaneity and intensity of all these relations put our “progressives” totally out of mind, making them giddy.

They must be really sick, if they come to feel the potentiality of anti-imperialism in business ties, as recently in the partnership between ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for jointly bidding for promising projects. This particular partnership is definitely significant not only for the energy supplies to India and China, but also perhaps for global energy politics. But to consider it as challenging the global hegemonies is undoubtedly a maddening extrapolation.

It is true that India and China both are major players in the world market, and the global polity cannot be understood by ignoring their activities. But it must be admitted that their position is largely, if not solely, dependent on the cheap labour-force and its vast reserve army (regimented by the informalisation of labour markets along with the statist integration of ‘labour aristocracy’). Their underdevelopment has been a boon in this global rise of these economies. It has carried the segmentation of labour market to an unprecedented level, along with a multiple diversification of the demand structure. These are the gifts of the “differential of contemporaneousness”, as Sidney Pollard would call it. (1) Do we want to term this rise as “progressive”?

Further, the Indo-Chinese “collaboration to compete” is already in place in various international and regional trade, business and political forums, both struggling against the protectionist west and claiming low labour and environment standards as their comparative advantages. Even though global capital on the whole – western and indigenous capital and multi-nationals – is effectively using these advantages for its expansion, its identitarian heterogeneous configuration forces a competition that requires cornering of each other through shifting coalitions.

With regard to the Sino-India cooperation, three points are very important. Firstly, its political manifestation need not exactly pattern with the economic. In fact, all international alliances and cooperation in the phase of neoliberalism tendentially seek to ‘depoliticise’ the economic management. Are we not used to frequent statements from businessmen and politicians that call for not mixing ‘national’, ‘pragmatic’ economic interests with politics? However, “depoliticization is highly political” – it puts the economic management beyond the effects of political uncertainties that mar political systems today, especially democracy. In effect, this means putting economic instruments beyond the possibility of democratic control, beyond any reciprocal effects of the social fallouts of capitalist competition and collaboration. (2) There is a high probability that we will see political and border conflicts between India and China intensifying with the increasing economic cooperation. In fact, the reformist China has been very efficient in depoliticising its international relations and also its labour market, by carving a near-ideal panopticon (Bentham’s “confinement house”) out of the Chinese society, as “mechanism of discipline, secure management of a multitude and extraction of labour”. (3). Only a rampant depoliticization of all economic relations – i.e., by forcing labour to surrender – China could achieve its “global rise”. The said Indo-China cooperation is developing in this context.

Secondly, any global intervention on the basis of this cooperation will be more of a competitive-collaborative character designed to redistribute the booties gained in the areas where they compete, or more exactly for the “division of the rest of the world”, left by the “great powers”. They collaborate to compete, and their collaboration in the energy sector, where cartelisation is an inherent tendency, is exactly of this nature.

If we see counter-hegemony in India-China partnership, can we call the formation of OPEC as progressive, or anti-imperialist? OPEC was constituted by five oil-producing countries in 1960 to stabilise their own income against the earlier system of royalty arbitrarily fixed by the oil concessions. “The royalty rates …were exclusively geared to the extent of political domination of international oil companies and their governments with respect to this particular oil region.” (4) OPEC was formed as a collective body of rentiers to negotiate with Occidental companies, linking the oil rent system to oil price. However, at the time some did call it anti-imperialist, but considering its relationship with the non-OPEC ‘third world’ it hardly seems so. The collaboration of the OPEC countries individually and collectively with the global hegemony has been quite pronounced except over division of oil income, which is more like a conflict between landlords and capitalists, or an intra-capitalist class conflict, as there are local oil companies too. Further, there is hardly any political unanimity within OPEC except on oil dealings.

Similarly, the Sino-Indian collaboration internationally will be geared towards regions and sectors where they are unable to compete individually, and this collaboration does not require any mutual ‘political’ understanding, except a level of trust required for any business relationship. And, of course, a ‘political’ collaboration is required to the extent that it facilitates their collaborative business to fructify.

It is here that the last and most important aspect or implication of the ‘outward-oriented’ Sino-Indian relationship resides. The fruitfulness of this relationship as a rule will be determined by and will lead to an intensified intervention in the regions of this collaborative landing. It is nothing but chimera to imagine a peaceful Asia under the unlikely leadership of China and India. Particularly in the energy sector, the conflict between the ‘Indo-China nexus’ and OPEC will become more direct and intensive, which will be similar to the conflict between the West and OPEC, that of between ‘oil rentiers’ and oil companies. Nothing can prevent India and China, not even the ideology of “Asian Continentalism”, from collaborating with the West on the basis of this commonality of business interests, which does not take much time in getting politically translated into either active collaborationism or neutrality, or even armed conflicts (when intra-class conflicts intensify).

In some regions, the interventionist collaboration between India and China is already politically visible. In Sudan and other African oilfields, Chinese and Indian businesses have been remarkably coordinating with highly conflicting local hegemonies to stabilise their own interests, tempering and tampering the global aid and ‘humanitarian’ regime for these ravaged economies to their advantage. Further, these interventions are not totally devoid of militaristic component, as India (and China, too) has been involved in training local military personnel and supplying arms. In sharply fragmented and divided societies such interventions cannot have any other purpose but “neo-colonial”.

In South Asia, where India knows that any slackening on its part in any field can give the Chinese a tremendous advantage, and China is aware of the near impossibility of shaking off the Indian hegemonic influence on the region, the collaboration between them acquires a different level of intensity. Both require stabilising local polities and curbing any ‘nationalist’ hostilities for safe intrusion and spreading. More important in the region is to facilitate market integration and capital flow, for which infrastructure too should be provided for. China and India are aware of the futility of trying to negate each other in the region. Any attempt to shutting off each other is bound to fail and result into greater instability, as both have groomed their political agencies in all the regional societies for many years now.

Moreover, the nature of capitalist regulation from the firm level to the industry level, further up to the economy and to the global level has changed. It has transformed the character of “the division of the world between capitalist associations and great powers”. The corporate structure has intensified competition within a firm among diverse stakeholders and shareholders for greater share in profit. The same struggle is every moment transformed into greater collaboration that constitutes the firm. Similarly the “division of the world” is increasingly fluidised. Particular (national) capitals compete for attracting more and more profit, but they need to collaborate to compete with others or even to go on competing among themselves. The presence of India and China in South Asia and elsewhere too has acquired this dimension. They compete with one another, collaborate to compete with others, and collaborate with others to compete with one another. We cannot take one of these moments to be all defining as most analysts do when they analyse the rise of these two “Asian Powers”. Their analysis on the basis of one set of events is always negated by another, and they find India’s alliances with competitive powers contradictory.


(1) Sidney Pollard (1992), Peaceful Conquest: The Industrialization of Europe, 1760-1970, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

(2) Peter Burnham (2000), “Globalization, Depoliticization and ‘Modern’ Economic Management”, in Werner Bonefeld & Kosmos Psychopedis (ed.), The Politics of Change: Globalization, Ideology and Critique, Palgrave, New York.

(3) Massimo de Angelis (2002), “Hayek, Bentham and the Global Work Machine”, in Ana C Dinerstein & Michael Neary (ed.), The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Ashgate, Hampshire.

(4) Cyrus Bina (1985), The Economics of the Oil Crisis: Theories of Oil Crisis, Oil Rent and Internationalization of Capital in the Oil Industry, Merlin Press, London.


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