India versus China: Reflections through an aeroplane window

6 mins. to read
India versus China: Reflections through an aeroplane window

Virgin Atlantic 301. I’m heading home. At Indira Ghandi Airport I purchased a copy of Peter Francopan’s The Silk Roads – A New History of the World (at half the price of what it costs in the UK – another reason I love India). You may know that I discussed this book in my Postcard for the Jaipur Literary Festival. Well, strange it is that as I read it, looking out of the aeroplane window, I gaze upon the endless, ferociously inhospitable deserts that straddle the junction of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Silk Road once ran through this waterless hell.

I am trying to make sense of the many snippets of news that I have digested in India. I am persuaded that India possesses the most vibrant, varied, opinionated, wacky, brutally honest, usually scrupulous and occasionally downright wacky published media in the world. (Or at least, the English language portion of it to which I have access. Newspapers in Hindi, and in dozens of other languages across India, no doubt have their merits and foibles too; but the Indian middle class, especially the opinion-formers and decision-makers, take their news in English. Though often it is somewhat Hinglish.) Whenever I go there I devour newspapers with an enthusiasm that eludes me at home.


French Regiment Back on Indian Soil after 232 Years[i]

A 124-man contingent of French troops, mostly from the 35th Infantry Regiment, marched down India’s ceremonial boulevard, Rajpath, for the Republic Day military parade on Tuesday, 26 January. France’s President Hollande was of course Prime Minister Modi’s guest of honour. The 35th then known as the Aquitaine Regiment served in India from 1781 to 1784, fighting for Tipu Sultan against (you’ve guessed it) the British. During the siege of Cuddalore (Tamil Nadu) in 1783 the French conducted a bayonet charge against the British-led armies of Bengal and Madras. They were soundly beaten. Amongst French casualties (and prisoners) was the young Jean Baptiste de Bernadotte who later rose to become a Marshall of France under Napoleon before being invited to assume the throne of Sweden. (The present Swedish king is a descendant.)

Tipu Sultan’s cavalry later became, under the Raj, the Mysore Lancers, which after Indian Independence was amalgamated into the 61st Cavalry of the Indian Army. And, how interesting: India’s 61st Cavalry marched directly behind France’s 35th Infantry.

All this is rich with symbolism. France is beating the UK in the race to feed India’s voracious appetite for new weaponry. Shashi Tharoor (whom I wrote about the other day in my Postcard) believes, amongst other Indian historians of his anti-British persuasion, that India would have been better off if she had been colonised by the French.

So we have three historical threads in play here. First, France and England’s thousand-year rivalry for influence and gain. (The French closed a deal to sell Dassault Rafale fighters to the Indian Air Force during Hollande’s visit.) Second, India’s resentment against Britain for the historical legacy of the Raj. And third, India’s determination to rise to the rank of a first-class global power, and to seek whatever alliances suit her in that aim.

Don’t get me wrong. Indians, in the main, are extremely Anglophone; and they do not really have, as far as I can judge, any great affinity with the French. (Though people who like the film The Hundred Foot Journey may disagree. Personally, I thought the plot was idiotic; though, as ever, Hellen Mirren was great.)

But when you hear about British warships that have power cuts, you do start to wonder who would want to buy from BAE Systems…


Chinese Investors betting Big on India[ii]

For years, the Chinese were sniffy about investing in India. Between 2000 and 2015 they managed to invest about US$1.2 billion, which though it sounds a lot was only 0.47% of India’s total foreign direct investment inflow. While China became India’s biggest trading partner back in 2008, indirect investment remained modest.

Now, if trade follows the flag, investment follows trade. China is now emerging as the biggest investor in India, too. Wanda, China’s largest real estate developer has just announced investments worth US$10 billion in Haryana. SAIC Motor, China’s largest automobile manufacturer, is bidding for GM’s Gujarat production facility. Chinese online travel agent Ctrip has purchased a strategic stake in India’s Makemytrip. Baidu, China’s Google, has been prowling around India investing in start-ups. Alibaba has invested in Indian online retailer Snapdeal and payment system Paytm. Chinese internet giant Tencent has invested in the Bangalore-based healthcare start-up Practo.

The current estimate for total Chinese FDI into India over 2015-18 is now in the US$5-10 billion range. Indian businessmen would have to learn Chinese but for the fact that Chinese investors already speak English. That’s another reason why they like India.


American naval history offers clues to Beijing’s intent[iii]

Our military strength has to be demonstrated to the world. This was the Chinese state-owned Global Times newspaper in January. This is an articulation of the new Chinese policy of active defence. In a recent announcement on the Chinese ministry of defence’s website, a strategist revealed plans for China’s first aircraft carriers to protect waterways along the 21st Century maritime Silk Road. That’s all the sea lanes between China’s eastern seaboard and the Mediterranean on the one side and the Pacific on the other.

Hitherto, China has proceeded on the doctrine of needing to protect its territorial waters. One can understand the Obama administration’s favoured redirection of American foreign policy towards Asia. (Which is now more important, presumably, than Europe.) Jamil Anderlini writes that very few people outside the military elites in Beijing understand what China wants or how she plans to get it.

Though Peter Francopan has some ideas. And so do the Indians. The Chinese want to control the security of their trade routes as robustly as the Americans have controlled theirs.

In the early 19th century the first foreign adventure of the fledgling US Navy was the First Barbary War (1801-05), fought to protect American merchant vessels from attacks by pirates off of the coast of West Africa. In 2008, the first foreign foray of the Chinese PLA Navy was to fight Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa! Symmetry is satisfying.

Those modern Chinese maritime Silk Roads flow past the coasts of India. China already has military-capable installations in Sri Lanka. Sometime, relatively soon, India will have to decide whether to become China’s apologist, or to oppose her. Except that China will soon be so pivotal to the Indian economy that it might be difficult for the Indians to resist her embrace.

Hence India’s military build-up – of which more soon. There are probably arms dealers on this very aeroplane, clutching bloody maries around the bar in Upper Class.


Never underestimate the power of history to turn around and bite you on the bottom. Anyone who thinks that history is bunk is a moron. The best hedge fund managers are economic historians, like Crispi Odey and Hugh Hendry. (I can vouch for Crispin as I was, for a time, his tutorial partner at Oxford.) They interpret events and opportunities through a historical matrix. They will already have read The Silk Roads.

I’ve now read the first and the last twenty pages or so (we’re now over the Caucuses). So I’ve only got another five hundred pages to go. And it’s still mostly desert down there.

[i] Headline for The Times of India, 27 January 2016.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Financial Times, Thursday, 28 January 2016, article by Jamil Anderlini.

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