Earlier this month Antoly Karlin (of Sublime Oblivion) wrote an interesting post outlining several possible trajectories India may take in the near future.
A fair amount of the post is devoted to comparing India with Asia’s other billion-person behemoth, China. The two giants are likely to remain engaged in intense strategic competition for the next half century, and as Mr. Karlin sees it, the inevitable winner of this great geopolitical game will be China.
A quick statistical comparison reveals why:
|GDP / capita 2009
|Literacy rate 1995-2005
|Manufacturing sector (current prices) 2008
|Internet penetration 2008
|Planned infrastructure spending 2008-11
Given the evidence presented, I must agree with Mr. Karlin: all long term trends clearly point towards a future of Chinese dominance. If growth rates and naval tonnage are the name of the game then this is a game India cannot win.
But must these be the name of the game? It is a question worth the pondering. The course of history is rarely decided by nothing but the demographic and economic trends of the long duree. Just as important as any long term trend are the short jumps and leaps of history. “Punctuated equilibrium”, “critical transitions”, “black swans” – a whole host of terms have been created to name those unexpected events that truly change everything.
This is a problem that undermines the very foundation of future studies. Futurists use the data of days past to make projections for the future. Such extrapolation suffers from a crippling weakness: it only works in a world where these trends are allowed to play themselves out absent hidden variables. This world is not ours. No state on this Earth operates in a vacuum. As complex adaptive systems they are subject to the unexpected stresses of a system disruption. There are plenty of possible yet unpredictable “discontinuities” (e.g. epidemics, ecological disasters, major war, assassinations or terrorist strikes, large-scale social unrest, ect.) that could throw even the steadiest trend off its given course. While we can be reasonably sure that these discontinuities will happen in the future, it is a fool’s game to try to predict the scale, shape, or timing of any one disruption.
This places clear limits on the futurist’s craft. Theirs is not a doomed art, however. I am reminded of a few words I wrote for an earlier post on theories of social decline:
It hardly needs to be said that most civilizational collapses are unexpected ‘black swan‘ events – if they were anything else, the great majority would have been averted. However, the unpredictability of an empire’s final throes does not render theories of collapse and social decline useless. The metaphor of the camel’s back serves us well here. Few can predict the exact manner in which a stray straw floating in the air might fall onto a camel’s back. More difficult still is to predict the precise straw that will break the poor creature. But the wise herdsman can know when the camel has been overburdened to the point where a straw might break the back.
As are the camels of metaphor, so are the civilizations of reality. The proper concern of civlizational theorists should not be the prediction of the exact moment or cause of a collapse. Rather, theorists should concentrate their efforts on developing models that predict when societies become most vulnerable to these ‘black swan’ events. Plagues, barbarians, terrorist, famines, recessions – such ills befall all complex human societies. Some of the societies find the power within themselves to overcome these challenges; others fall prey to them. The difference between the two is rarely found within challenge itself. A people are brought to its knees by what came before the last straw. Societies, states, empires, and civilizations do not fall simply because they are confronted with unexpected challenges. It is when they lack the capacity to respond to these unexpected challenges that collapse ensues.
I term a country’s ability to respond to challenges and recover from disruptions national resilience. While it is harder to quantify than concrete economic statistics, resiliency is just as important – in a few cases quite a bit more important – than are long term trends in GDP growth and military spending. Futurists who ignore national resilience threaten the credibility of their predictions from the get-go.
Resilience is a tricky thing. An ecologically resilient country may be financially brittle; social resilience may come at the cost of political collapse. In most cases a failure in one part of the system will spill over into the others. A key aspect of any resilient system is its ability to reduce the damage these spill overs cause or otherwise contain disruptions before they bring down the entire system. It is on this count the comparison of China and India is most revealing.
The Chinese Communist Party prevents the conflagration of financial and social disruptions by holding a tight reign on Chinese society. There could be no paralyzing bandh of the type that shut down the Indian economy earlier this month
; if it were attempted the perpetrators would be promptly rounded up and arrested. Social unrest and financial volatility are closely monitored by the ruling regime; it does not hesitate to use means arbitrary or coercive to stop trouble spots from spiraling out of control. In China the government is the guarantee of societal resilience.
There is but one problem with this approach: the Chinese system is dependent on a strong functioning government. If the Chinese Communist Party cracks, so does the rest of China.
This problem is made worse by the general brittleness of the Chinese regime. It suffers from a malady common to authoritarian states: there is no established process for resolving severe disagreements among the political elite. Bandhs are one of many ways the Indian political system channels the opposition away from true instability and violence. Where is the Chinese counterpart? The CCP has no vehicle for dissent. As long as China’s political elite are united in consensus this poses no danger. But this consensus will not last forever. A serious schism would threaten to bring the whole system crashing to the ground.
We do not know if such a schism will occur. What we do know is that if the politiburo was to crack apart, or if the general staff of the PLA were to find themselves in sharp disagreement with the leading bodies of the CCP, the consequences would have a much longer reach than if similar schisms occurred in the ranks of their Indian counterparts. And what emerges from the fray may be much worse than the fray itself. Even if even if the internal struggle of the Chinese elite is both quick and bloodless China’s leaders would remain a small clique whose will is law. This is another bug of authoritarian systems.:If the foolish gain control there is very little that can stop them from ruining everything. The contrast with India proves the point. India would recover from another Long Emergency at a much faster rate than China could hope to rebound from another Cultural Revolution.
Of course, one cannot know if the 21rst century’s great authoritarian will find his (or her) way to power in China, India, or another place altogether. Futuristics is a blind man’s dice game. One can never be quite sure where the next disaster will strike or when the next miracle will occur. To whom fortune deigns to give her frowns and smiles is known by none but her. However, with few reservations I can say that her frown will harm Beijing more than New Delhi.