In 2007, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew angered Beijing by writing that unlike China’s rise, which created widespread apprehension throughout the region, much of Asia either welcomed India’s rise or else was indifferent to it. To understand one reason why the region thinks this way, look to China’s disciplined preparations for its hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 and compare it to India’s less regimented, and even chaotic, lead-up to the Commonwealth Games in October 2010.
Earning the right to host these events is about more than sport. According to the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, when China first learnt it won the right to host the 2008 Olympics it became “another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation”.
The Olympics was seen as a chance for China’s leaders to showcase the country’s rapid economic growth and modernisation to the rest of the world - a message supported by a US$45 billion budget.
In ensuring that all went according to plan, China demonstrated its ruthless efficiency.
For example, a reported 350,000 people were “resettled” to make way for the stadium construction alone. Thousands of houses were forcibly demolished with owners given minimal compensation. Homeless and other migrant workers that spoilt the “beautification” facade were removed and banned for the duration of the Games.
Domestic protestors needed to “register” with a specially created agency, only for many of them to be subsequently detained, sent home, and banned from re-entering Beijing. The result was undoubtedly the best-organised Olympics in history.
Similarly, India is looking to enhance its reputation, albeit on a smaller stage. Although the Commonwealth Games is well past its heyday, there will still be 71 nations and territories competing. To demonstrate its progress as a great power, India is spending an estimated US$2 billion on the games - almost double the previous highest record that was spent for Melbourne 2006. This does not include additional projects such as the US$3 billion poured into Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.
In contrast to Chinese efficiency, preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games have been bogged down by disputes between officials and residents. The New Delhi-based Peoples Union for Democratic Rights filed a lawsuit in the public interest, charging that Commonwealth Games workers were being underpaid, and living and working in appalling conditions. Around 15,000 workers will be affected by the outcome of the case.
Another illustration of the country’s troubled preparations are the 36 different driving lane changes needed to establish the “games route” from the airport to the athletes’ village in east Delhi. The city’s governor has finally approved the changes and the necessary infrastructure will probably be built on time. But Delhi’s traffic police cannot even guarantee that local citizens will actually obey the road changes when the games begin.
Australians familiar with the way of things work in India will not be surprised. Given the emerging competition between these two Asian giants, Beijing will no doubt view these organisational road blocks with some degree of smugness and also derision.
That the Beijing Olympics will be a far superior event to the New Delhi Commonwealth Games is beyond doubt. But while highlighting Indian flaws is a common regional pastime and an occasional source of hilarity, China faces a different problem. The Chinese Communist Party’s determination and ability to ruthlessly get things done - regardless of collateral damage - is impressive. But it can appear menacing. Businesspeople looking only at the bottom line might appreciate Chinese efficiency but democratic politicians throughout the region, Asian strategic elites, and liberal populations frequently do not.
And this is the advantage that India enjoys over China when it comes to external perceptions. Singapore’s Minister Mentor, himself not a noted democrat, argued that the fact India was democratic had something to do with why it was meeting little resistance. Unlike Beijing, it is believed that New Delhi’s domestic habits of transparency, negotiation and compromise will influence the way a powerful India interacts with other states. Besides, New Delhi cannot easily marshal its national resources as efficiently and ruthlessly to pursue its foreign policy goals - even if it were expansionist. In addition to having no history of dominating East and South-East Asia, democratic India is comfortably rising within an order that has been characterised by democratic community, transparency and governments subject to the rule of law for decades.
This then is the bottom line: although regional states respect Beijing’s apparent efficiency and are perhaps even a little envious of it, they do not trust what it seemingly represents, which is authoritarian ruthlessness and single-mindedness. China easily delivered on what it promised for the 2008 Olympic Games. By doing so, it fed regional unease with its rise.
For India, it is almost the opposite. While New Delhi does not command the same respect and praise, the relative chaos of its system - although occasionally derided - does not generate the same apprehension and fear. But winning respect, which India craves, is something else. After all, India’s economy has been quietly growing at China-like rates since 1992.
If India gets its act together in October, it will be a pleasant surprise for the region and further silence sceptics who doubt modern Indian claims to competence and “can-do”. If the Games are a disaster, the region will shrug its collective shoulders, give it little thought, and refocus a wary eye on Beijing.