Travelling through China, the debates exercising many people in the west - terrorism, donations to political parties, neo-liberal engineering in France - suddenly seem very insignificant, even somewhat irrelevant, compared to what seems the greatest event of the new century: the possibility that millions of Asians could rise out of poverty and assume a place in the world commensurate with their size, skills and the high status enjoyed by their pre-modern ancestors.

However, one debate in New York did hold my attention. In speeches on consecutive days at a conference held at the Asia Society, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chinese Commerce Minister discussed the meaning of freedom.

"Some people have said the 21st century will be the Asian century," Singh quoted President Bush as saying on his recent trip to India. "I believe the 21st century will be freedom's century." In response to Singh's quotations from Bush, the Chinese foreign minister Bo Xilai referred to "some developing countries" that cram their poor into "clusterings of shantytowns".

On his recent trip to India, President Bush said many things designed to flatter his hosts, who lap up western praise regardless of where it comes from. Still, the Indian prime minister and his advisors should have known better than to approvingly quote George W. Bush on the subject of freedom, especially before an overwhelmingly Democrat-voting audience of New Yorkers.

Never has the word sounded as empty as when uttered by President Bush. Unfortunately, it sounds no less hollow when pronounced by the leader of the world's most populous democracy - especially to those Indians who live amid their country's manifest cruelties and injustices, and who watch bemusedly its smooth elevation, by a glib commentariat, to almost-superpower status.

In any case, can China and India, the two countries who appear in the business-class lounge view of the world as Siamese twins, be realistically paired? Even if you drop the high moral rhetoric of freedom and accept provisionally the terms of the economic development claimed for itself by India?

Certainly, a comparison between the two countries is unlikely to flatter the Indian longing for international eminence. Just as China achieved much more than India in the realm of public health and education under an austere Communist regime, so its economic growth under a capitalist-friendly government strikes a visitor from India as nothing less than spectacular. In contrast, India has failed to modernize its airports, or improve other important infrastructure, in even its largest cities: Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

India, too, has grown impressively in the last decade while remaining a democracy. But it remains, visibly, one of the poorest countries on earth, with only a small minority well-placed to fully enjoy the blessings of freedom.

The Indian elite that draws its identity from India's economic achievements cannot be unaware of this. It also knows that India cannot match China's economic growth for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it seems entirely possible that, as Meghnad Desai recently wrote, that 'China will again become a viable Great Power,' while India remains 'just a Great Democracy.'

It may be why the Indian elite, which would probably rather be a great power than a great democracy, has appropriated the American rhetoric of freedom and democracy. Perhaps, it, too, hopes, following the present American ruling class, that loudly asserted claims to moral superiority will somehow offset the rise, in the real world, of long-dormant political and economic rivals.

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