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Journalist Chronicles Rise of'Elephant and Dragon'

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Robyn Meredith, a Hong Kong-based editor for Forbes, has traveled widely around Asia reporting for her magazine, but covering such a vast region has occasionally been frustrating, she said, because her more narrowly focused competitors are sometimes able to break stories about specific countries.

But Meredith said that studying all of Asia has given her a broad perspective to assess the entire region and, importantly, has allowed her to observe and write about the remarkable economic rise of its two emerging giants, India and China.

“Some journalists are experts on China; some are India experts. I’ve had the good fortune to study both countries and that’s been very helpful,” she said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.

The result is her new book, “The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us,” which chronicles the remarkable economic growth of these two nations.

“I’m on the ground in both countries all the time and it’s striking how much of the global economy has moved to India and China. This is a very, very big deal,” Meredith said. “We have two gigantic nations that are embracing globalization and capitalism at the same time. That has never happened before. It’s a very important development for the global economy.”

Soft spoken, precise and engaging, Meredith is a native of Tulsa, Okla., with an undergraduate degree in English literature from Boston University. She has worked as a reporter for USA Today and the American Banker. From 1996 to 2000, she was a Detroit correspondent for the New York Times. Then in 2000, Meredith joined Forbes as its Detroit bureau chief to write about the automotive industry, moving to Hong Kong in 2002 for the magazine. She has written cover stories for Forbes about General Motors, Microsoft, Toyota, Li & Fung, Infosys and Accenture.

Meredith believes that the emergence of India and China represents a major shift in post-Cold War geopolitics, with far-reaching consequences for global economics, politics, security, energy and environment. The two nations’ simultaneous transformations, she argues, are as remarkable as any the world has seen since the United States catapulted onto the world stage in the last century.

“Geopolitics is being shaped by the rise of China and India. It’s a very dramatic development. Their remarkable economic growth has given each country a lot more sway in geopolitics. There have been some pretty dramatic post-Cold War shifts,” she said.

“The increasing economic power of China and India is getting them invited to the table of all kinds of global discussions,” she added. “The rise of China and India means the period of American dominance is receding. Most people think that in 20 or 30 years, we will have three superpowers—the United States, China and India.”

Meredith said it is not only important to understand how China and India are alike, but also how they are different. Too often, she points out, the ascendancy of these two nations is depicted as a single development.

“As they move from the ranks of developing world countries toward a superpower status, India’s slow-but-steady approach contrasts with China’s rocketlike rise,” she wrote.

“In plenty of other ways, India and China are as opposite as [Mahatma] Gandhi and Mao [Zedong]. India is democratic and China is authoritarian. Capitalist India is often anti-business and communist China is usually pro-business. Chaotic India is a riot of colors, a cacophonous nation with 30 different languages. Even India’s nationwide time zone mystifies; it is a half hour off from those elsewhere in the world, so at noon in New York it is 9:30 at night in Bombay,” she explained. “China seems more straightforward; the national language is Mandarin Chinese, clocks line up with the rest of the world’s, and—no doubt about it—the Communist Party runs the country.”

According to Meredith, China’s emergence as a global economic power effectively began with the reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Moving carefully and incrementally, Deng modernized China with modest, deliberate steps. He took care not to advance revolutionary changes such as those attempted by the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Deng’s genius, Meredith argues, was to dismantle communism while publicly proclaiming his adherence to it. He crushed a political revolution at Tiananmen Square but pressed ahead with an economic one. Deng initially focused on the countryside and then on some of China’s cities by creating special economic zones. Eventually, he implemented a broader modernization effort and made a big push to develop coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear energy in China. Deng also organized dozens of visits by Chinese delegations to Singapore, viewing that nation as a compelling model for China.

Meredith said that by the mid-1990s, foreign investment in China took off. By 2006, annual foreign investment in China reached billion. Over the past quarter-century, China has averaged economic growth of 9.6 percent a year, far more robust than India’s 5.7 percent or the U.S. growth of 3 percent.

But she cautioned that China still faces many serious challenges, such as linking its thriving coastal cities with its struggling interior. But if China stays on course, there soon will be 100 million Chinese with middle-class purchasing power. Americans, Meredith believes, should view this China as a rising power that deserves to be taken seriously, but not as an unstoppable juggernaut.

“Many Americans are afraid of the rise of China, fearing the loss of jobs, fearing that China will somehow take over the world. But in fact, China is a lot weaker than it appears,” she said. “For example, a large part of the trade deficit with China is in fact American companies producing things in China and exporting them to the U.S. China is not as strong as it looks. And the truth is there is not a lot of direct economic competition between the U.S. and China.”

Meredith noted that the debate over China’s currency is the vehicle by which many Americans—especially the Congress—blame China for the United States’ struggles with dislocations caused by globalization.

She acknowledged that China’s yuan is undervalued, but does not believe that proposals to sharply increase its value would have the positive impact that its proponents suggest. It could even cause economic disruptions in the United States that its supporters don’t anticipate.

On India, Meredith said that an economic crisis brought about policy changes to India as swiftly as they came to China, but this occurred more than a decade later and in a very different way.

India’s self imposed economic exile during the Cold War era was largely a reaction to its colonial history under Great Britain and the legacy of the anti-industrialism of Mahatma Gandhi as well as the socialism of Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched economic reforms with tax cuts, regulatory relief and greater openness to more imports and exports. But these reforms never took a firm hold.

Finance Minister Manmohan Singh responded to an economic crisis in India in 1991 with a sweeping reform plan that included currency devaluations, tax cuts and the abolition of the “License Raj” that controlled India’s trade and industry by requiring licenses for numerous transactions.

Although India’s reform efforts have been pursued unevenly, a market economy is now in place and the Indian economy has grown steadily, if not at the sizzling pace of China’s.

Meredith said India’s rise has had clear implications for American white-collar workers, as U.S. firms learned they could hire highly educated and skilled professionals in India to do software programming, tax preparation and legal work for a fraction of what they would be paid in the United States.

China and India are both clearly moving forward economically, but at different speeds, Meredith argues. “They are really opposites. They are so different. They are as different as Gandhi and Mao. China is authoritarian. India is a democracy. China has built this infrastructure to be connected to the global economy. India’s infrastructure is a disaster.”

She added: “India is like an elephant. It’s trudging along, lumbering. It’s frustratingly slow, but it will eventually get there. China is more direct and fast and also volatile. But for all of its problems, China grows at about 10 percent every year, and I think it will for the foreseeable future.”

Meredith said that many Americans are uncertain how to respond to the rise of these two huge powers. She advises trying to better understand India and China and use their ascendancies as a catalyst for reinvigorating the U.S. economy.

But she warns that the United States should avoid the pitfalls of either protectionism or blind faith in free trade. Instead, it should pursue a “third way” with a more activist government that creates a strong safety net, provides quality education, supports research, and focuses on creating high-value jobs.

“The rise of India and China can be a catalyst to re-establish America’s competitiveness. Maybe this could be this generation’s space race. If inward-facing India and communist China can transform themselves and face the world, so can the United States.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999