October 1962 might remind at least a few Americans of the Cuban missile crisis, which, during the Cold War, pushed the world that much closer to a nuclear armageddon that was, thankfully, averted. At the same time, on the other side of the planet, while nuclear bombs were not involved, two other heavyweights—India and China—did go to war over a number of difficult and unresolved geopolitical issues, which continue to dog them even today.
The short war in 1962, which was disastrous for India, did not
resolve these border disputes. Both India and China continue to claim
the northern Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin as theirs, though it is
completely under China’s rule now. All the way across, India’s
northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as South
Tibet. In addition, the Dalai Lama’s government in exile in India is a
reminder of the complications over Tibet.
There is an important reason why these two countries have not waged
any more wars in order to plant their respective flags on the other’s
lands—they are busy with economic growth and development. Since the late
1970s, China has been on an accelerated path of economic growth, and
India has been trying to catch up with its own liberalized policies a
decade after China’s reforms began. The two countries are perhaps
examples of how much the war chants decrease in volume when there is a
healthy and growing trade in goods and services.
The background noise over the unresolved border issues, how much
ever it might be muted now, mean that the economic and diplomatic
relations between India and China will be of importance not only to the
more than two billion people there but to the entire world. The slow
thawing of relations between India and Pakistan, which have been
characterized by a belligerent sibling rivalry ever since their
independence from Britain in 1947, will further enhance the importance
of that part of the world.
The United States appears to be recognizing these developments and,
in the language of policymakers, is pivoting towards Asia, and China in
particular. This is a contrast to the practice during the bad old days
of the Cold War, when the focus was on Western Europe, and how to make
strategic friendships with the satellite countries. Thus, the
non‐aligned India and the communist China were viewed with suspicion
then. After the fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the Cold War, it
was perhaps only natural that the United States pivoted towards Asia.
I am worried, however, that we are increasingly focused on China for
all the wrong reasons. We seem to be interested in the happenings there
not because we want to be where the party is going on, but more because
we want to make sure that we can quickly checkmate China, which has
unresolved territorial disputes with many countries from Russia and
Japan in the north down to the Philippines and Vietnam. These
geopolitical issues are not anything new, but are carryovers from
centuries of China’s dominance when it was an empire and a superpower.
Both the presidential candidates appear to be intent on escalating
tensions. Their rhetoric makes it clear that neither one wants to come
across as being wimpier than the other when it comes to dealing with
China. Further, China seems to be a convenient scapegoat on which the
candidates prefer to pin the blame for our economic stagnation,
conveniently forgetting to acknowledge how much our own disastrous
policies—like the loosened regulations that encouraged bankers to take
wild risks—contributed to the Great Recession. If China had a minimal
role in causing the Great Recession, one would think that China is not
the reason why we continue to be in a funk either, and yet we beat up on
our important trading partner more than even going after the rogue
Political theorists often point out that governments distract their
peoples by pointing at enemies, mostly imaginary, on the other side of
the border. I hope this is not what our pivot to Asia implies. As India
and China have demonstrated to the rest of the world over the fifty
years since their only war, disputes might linger, yes, but we can learn
to live together.