By Indrani Bagchi

As American power meets new claimants for a place at the top table, we are no longer looking at a single narrative that was almost a mantra for how nations conducted themselves. In the rise of the rest we are witnessing new ideas of the the exercise of power and different notions of how the world is structured.

More than any other power, it is in the rise of China and India that we find the tussle of two compellingly different narratives. Of particular interest is how the two developing giants exercise power as regional hegemons.

China is following a path to power wholly its own. China is much less likely to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. This could mean that states can have their own models of economy or government without risking a diminution of Chinese patronage. In return, though, Beijing will demand that smaller, less powerful states explicitly recognize China’s primacy.

Leaving aside India, China has resolved its land border disputes with almost all its neighbors. That has not stopped it from aggressively pursuing expansionist territorial ambitions either in the South China Sea, or with pliant nations on its borders, like Myanmar and  Laos. Buoyed by impressive economic and military growth, China has picked fights with the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam over sovereignty issues.

As India has grown, its primary foreign policy has centered around what it calls a “peaceful periphery.”  From the Maldives to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, India has encouraged liberal democracy, however imperfect that might be.

Two factors have and will continue to temper India’s support for such an international order. First, India’s security concerns will trump many other issues. In Myanmar, India engaged the military government in favor of holding out for justice for Aung San Suu Kyi because it can only work with the Myanmar military to counter many northeast insurgencies, many of whose leaders live in the neighboring country.

Second, India has not shied away from involving itself in the domestic politics of a neighboring country if its stability is crucial for India. In the Maldives, India supported the new government after a controversial transfer of power in February – because the Maldives is the bridgehead for New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy. India has quietly but forcefully opposed Nepal’s Maoists from fashioning a left-wing authoritarian state on its doorstep, all the while encouraging Nepal’s political parties to choose democratic forms of governance.

A third factor, often unarticulated is China. China’s activities along India’s periphery, often encouraged by India’s neighbors as insurance against Indian hegemony, have alarmed New Delhi to the extent that in many cases, India is willing to compromise on the fundamental principles of liberal democracy that it itself lives by.  On the other hand, China’s own boorish behavior in its neighborhood has propelled some towards a sympathetic India.

As “others” like India and China rise, some trends are clearly visible. We might be returning to the old balance-of-power paradigm here, which makes it particularly interesting. India will weigh in with the principles of a Western international order, except that it wants to be in the tent. China is already in the tent, but clearly an outsider. Beijing will take decisions based less on what kind of world it wants to see and more on open self-interest, bordering on mercantilism.

With some exceptions, China has been fairly successful until now. India, meanwhile, is in the midst of serious policy crisis — making it rather like a deer caught in the headlights, leading many to ask whether some Chinese characteristics might not be more attractive.

In the end, the India story of a pluralistic, liberal democracy, is much more attractive. But the Chinese model appears more efficient.

Indrani Bagchi is Diplomatic Editor of the Times of India.