Decades after the world discovered the opportunities a rising China offered by way of trade and investment, and started to carve out strategies to take advantage of its opening, business circles in India, Dasgupta appears to suggest, still cannot decide whether it presents a threat or an opportunity.
Economics, however, is very much still a function of politics in this country. Much of the book covers ground that has been the subject of extesnive research and discussion since PM Vajpayee’s path-breaking visit and the agreement to resolve the boundary dispute politically. This gave a shot in the arm to business ties and China soon became India’s largest trading partner.
Even as our exports to China increased by over 15 per cent (imports also increased marginally), macro-level optics continue to be shaped by the massive trade deficit—we buy three times as much as we sell to China. While the problem could partly be that China does not provide easy access to its market, Dasgupta believes that the “Indian side has not been sufficiently creative and striving when it comes to finding markets in China.” The chapter ‘Trading and Slipping’ is indeed a rather dismal saga of the causes, starting from the limited Indian trading basket (still dominated by primary goods) to the yawning cultural ignorance.
As expected, strategic and security issues are melded into the arguments. There is a longish section on ‘Building Infrastructure and Influence’, where we come across a practical discussion on the vexed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Dasgupta describes it as the “silver bullet” that Modi 2.0 will have to decide whether to bite or not. This informative section features discussions with strategic experts who raise predictable warnings about Beijing’s intentions. Dasgupta veers between discomfiture and exasperation, even as he questions whether India’s resistance is “overdone” and the “non-decision” is a “safe bet”. He rues the possibility of losing out on lucrative business deals and even speculates whether China’s efforts at “rebranding” the BRI will bring any shift in India’s sovereignty concerns. Having followed this debate for some time now, it is clear to this reviewer that this problem is not going away. Meanwhile, the ground is rapidly shifting and we are facing a China that is gaining increasing clout through its BRI projects all around us—we are virtually being given a fait accompli to which we have at best a reactive stance.
Dasgupta’s account is replete with dos and don’ts that can only come from years of experience with and observation of Chinese politicians and entrepreneurs. He has a sharp eye for detail and an acute understanding of the issues at stake. The chapter ‘Deal Making while Navigating Chinese Culture’ is testimony to that. As he writes, “It is easy to kill a deal by making a few involuntary mistakes even at the point when it is about to be completed.” This could well be a primer to negotiate and ‘do’ business with China.
But Dasgupta has also interacted at length with Indians who have done (most, successfully) and are doing business with China. He manages to bring out Indian practices, apprehensions, blind spots and limitations, but the moot point is: how is thinking in India, by and large, still characterised by the belief that the gains do not outweigh the losses?
One recalls a book that had appeared in 2014, The Silk Road Rediscovered, by Gupta, Pande and Yang. It was the first effort at analysing the growing corporate linkages between India and China, and catalogued Indian companies that had figured out “how to win” in China. Dasgupta’s book five years later does not appear to generate any confidence that—success stories, information and obvious opportunities notwithstanding—the oft-made prediction that India-China economic ties will be among the 10 most important bilateral ties in the world, would materialise. He acknowledges the “growing restlessness in the Indian business community” about missing out on opportunities. One of the opportunity costs is reflected in the question that has just started to be asked: will India become old before it becomes rich?
(Prof Alka Acharya is with Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU)