As a kid, I remember reading in school a story by Jack Finny called “The Third Level”, the story is set in the 1950’s about a young man who is in Grand Central Station at New York and accidentally discovers a Third Level which directly transports him back to the year 1894. This particular story comes to mind because when you look at the Geopolitics of today I can’t help but think that we are somehow reliving the 1950s all over again.
Now why do I say this?
It is important to remember what the 1950’s was all about, you had after the end of the world war 2 the emergence of 2 major super powers, the US and Soviet Union. These 2 countries jostled each other in trying to find influence across the world, whether it be in the Middle East, Africa or closer home in the Sub continent. The world was clearly divided between two poles. India was a recently Independent country that was trying to find its feet and decided not to join either camp and instead was championing the cause for non alignment. This is also the time when India decided to emerge as the leader of the third world and talk about concepts like Asian solidarity etc. Of course the context in which India was making these decisions was very different because large parts of Asia and Africa were still colonized at that time. China in the 1950s was a newly communist country that was very much anti American, a very close ally of the soviet union and also ostracized by the west because many did not recognize Mao’s China and instead lent support to Chiang Kai Shek’s Taiwan. Pakistan meanwhile decided to ally itself with America because they want to make up for the conventional disadvantage they had vis-a-vis India. Thus followed Pakistan receiving a lot of sophisticated weapons, Loans and Aid from America. In 1956 the Soviet Union decided to send its Army into Hungary to quell the Hungarian revolution. This was criticized by the whole world and even at the UN, however India decided to abstain from voting against USSR at the UN, bringing in a lot of criticism for India and as being viewed as Pro Soviet. The decade started with a certain bonhomie between India and China but soon things turned sour with the border clashes and eventually a War.
Fast forward to 2023, what are the similarities?
We have again seen the emergence of a Bi-polar world with US and China at the opposite ends. This is after a prolonged period of unipolarity in world affairs with US being the undisputed hegemon after the end of the cold war. Both US and China are antagonistic and see each other as strategic rivals. Russia which is the successor state to USSR is still an adversary of the United states and the west. In what seems like a role reversal, China today is what the USSR was back in 1950’s with Russia being what China was during the same time. Only that China has the economic might which the soviets didn’t. If in the 1950’s china was the junior partner to the soviet union, today clearly the Russians are the junior partners to the Chinese. Both are close strategic allies of each other just like the 1950’s and both see the United States as their strategic rival. Russian is the pariah to the west today after its invasion of Ukraine the same way the Chinese were a pariah in the early 1950’s. If Pakistan had allied itself with the Americans in the 1950’s to offset the conventional advantage India had, it now seems that Pakistan is strategically allied with the Chinese for precisely the same reason. The Chinese are now the biggest source of High tech military equipment to Pakistani today like the Americans were in the 1950’s. If America gave Pakistan the F-104 Starfighters in 1950’s, the Chinese are giving Pakistan the J10-C multi role fighter today. So where does India feature in all of this. Again, India seems vary of everyone and still hopes to maintain strategic autonomy by not being seen in any particular camp. India’s abstentions at the UN have received considerable consternation from the west who obviously expect India to come out and openly vote against Russia at the UN. But just like we did with the Hungarian revolution, we seem to be still siding with Russians thus far notwithstanding the admonishment Putin received from Prime Minister Modi during their meet in Uzbekistan. We have also seen India recently championing the cause for the Global south and trying to the spokesperson for the third world. These are again Ideas from the 1950’s which I felt we had long discarded, however have now come back in vogue.
Though history doesn’t always repeat itself but it does rhyme. 1950’s were characterized at least for India for its border tensions with China, which came to a head with War with China in 1962. We all know how that war ended and what it eventually did to the India Psyche. We are faced with a similar situation today with an ever aggressive China at our door-step, clashes at the border similar to the ones from 1959 and Russia which is overtly friendly with China. One can only wish that the present tensions do not escalate to full scale war because just like the 1950’s we are not prepared for war with China. India needs to pull its socks up and build up its military capability at a feverish face, similar to what we did in the aftermath of the humiliation of 1962. One just hopes, we do not have to wait for another humiliation at the hands of the Chinese for that realization. If lessons need to be learnt from History, we should ideally learn them fast as all the signs look ominous and point to an upcoming conflict with the Chinese.