The simmering geopolitical tensions between India and China came to blows earlier this week, but then didn't. As the deaths of personnel being mourned in both countries, the leaders were sensible enough to walk back from the brink, recognising the futility of the conflict. However, while a hot war looks unlikely, the countries are likely to settle for another long period of disengagement and conflict. And, it seems the way it should be : Two emerging countries vying for global roles, with thousands of miles of common but unsettled borders and burning jealousy of trade are destined for conflict. Besides, the incompatible political systems, democratic India versus communist China, are supposed to engage - so say the commentators - in twentyfirst century's defining battle.
But is this the way it must be?
The current conflict seemed to have emerged from India's US pivot, a shift of foreign policy dating back to the 2008 Nuclear Treaty with US, which pulled India into the orbit of American Asia strategy. Over time, this shift has proved profitable not just in achieving nuclear recognition but also in neutralising Pakistan. However, while the object of Indian policy was to gain an upper hand on Pakistan, which it has somewhat achieved, the US strategy is focused on containment of China. In the new world of US-China conflict, India provides the foot-soldiers - as well as the right geographical vantage points overlooking the Silk Road - for the reworked US strategy in Asia. If anything, continuous tensions with India - and in South China sea - should keep China locally engaged, cutting down its resources and will to take on a greater geopolitcal role.
But, if India wants to take on China, should China not try to win it back? After all, India is crucial to its grand strategy of shifting the world's economic gravity to Eurasia. Besides, it must achieve a stable Asia before it can aspire for a global role. Its leaders are no doubt mindful of Germany's fate in the last century, whose great scientific and technical achievements came to nothing for its failure to evolve out of the European balance of power system. China wants to keep the borders unsettled and encircle India with hostile neighbours, in order to curtail its geopolitical aspirations and keep its involvement limited in the Indian Ocean area.
This is perhaps all geo-political common sense. However, all this thinking is framed in the European nation states model based on competition among nations and territorial sovereignty. This is based on the cold war ideological framework of competition between democracy (of which India is at best an imperfect example) and communism (though the Chinese version is peculiar). Furthermore, it is based on the view of China as an emerging world power and its rising power as a new and destabilizing force in world affairs that needs to be contained.
However, a more imaginative thinking would go beyond these tired nineteenth and twentieth century assumptions. To start with, it's quite valid to think about China's rise as a return to natural state of affairs, rather than an anomaly. China, India and the Eurasian plain combined was world economy's centre of gravity until almost the middle of nineteenth century and given that most of the humanity lives in this area, it is perhaps crucial for a more balanced and more just world system. The great civilisations - not just the Indian and Chinese, but also the Persian and the Mongolian - lived a-territorially, not fighting over lines of control but engaging at multiple levels, which involved, from time to time, military raids for plunder but rarely for grabbing territory or establishing hegemony. Geography saw to the peaceful existence of two of the world's most powerful societies side by side. The Indian civilisation, spiritual and individualistic, never got sucked into any conflict with the more earthly and communistic Chinese, just because their systems were different. Even down to days of Mao and Nehru, when the two countries fought a war, India and China were never seen as belligerent countries by their leaders.
The history of 1962 war doesn't change that fact. The war, seen from the vantage point of time, would have been caused by various factors, among which were Mao's need to reassert his authority after the disaster of China's Second Five Year Plan (the Great Leap Forward) and the intention of limiting Nehru's, and India's, outsized global influence. But even then, it was triggered by geopolitical anxieties and particularly India's closeness with the United States and its alleged complicity in CIA's efforts to destabilize Tibet. That is indeed the right way to view the conflict - the Cold War context - which is now past. There was nothing inevitable - or permanent - about the 1962 conflict. It was a product of its time and caused by a failure of imagination and communication.
It's true that both China and India are anxious nations, insecure at home in their attempts to forge new identities and offended easily abroad in consciousness of their lost glory. But what's forgotten is that both the civilisational unity and material and spiritual prosperity came because of exchange and engagement with each other. China was once great and India was too - when they coexisted and cooperated. And at the moment of their abject humiliation, Indian opium, shipping and personnel were harnessed by the British to defeat and destroy China. They went down together, under mutually reinforced yoke to the benefit of foreign masters.
The questions today are which past do we learn from and which future do we want to construct. Have we not suffered enough by limiting our imagination to the ideas of dead white thinkers? Our model of the world doesn't have to be that of the Colonizers and there are greater uses of geopolitics than mere preservation of Anglo-American hegemony. Indeed, lot of private fortunes and intellectual egos are entwined in the world system thus visualised, but, if 2020 should have taught us how limiting these interests are and how limited their ideas could be. It is time to rethink the world and in that reimagined context, there is no reason for India and China to fight.
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