There is a popular Marxist axiom that says history repeats itself. That may be the case in many social sciences but a challenging proposition in international relations because of the constant changes that take place in the structure of the world system.
Many analysts consider the future of Sino-Indian relations through the prism of the Marxist theory. Foreign policy hawks and nationalists in both countries maintain that the two rising powers will reengage in war at some point. On the other hand, there are liberals and supposedly pacifists who do not buy this argument and claim that the two Asian giants will rise peacefully.
The debate has raged since the mid 1990s when both China and India started showing high economic growth. Fifty years after the two went to war, questions about the future Sino-Indian relationship are increasingly relevant. Hence the war itself is subject to intense historical scrutiny.
Many theories, indeed some conspiracy theories, have emerged into the reasons of the 1962 conflict. Almost all of them point to the border dispute as the war’s impetus. But that was rather an excuse than a cause.
Chinese ambitions of regional hegemony reemerged after the Communist Party had firmly established itself in Beijing. Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia were seen as hurdles to such a position but not an outright challenge. India, due to its sheer size and political clout, was. To claim a leadership position in Asia, China had to check India’s own aspirations through political or military means.
China’s unilateral ceasefire declaration without putting up serious terms or conditions suggests that its only wish indeed was to remind India of its power. Secondly, there was the clash of personalities between India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw himself as the leader of the Nonaligned Movement, and China’s Mao Zedong, who contested for the leadership of the communist bloc. Mao’s willingness to go to war may at least in part have stemmed from his desire to degrade Nehru’s status on the world stage.
China and India reestablished diplomatic relations in the late 1970s. Trade has since increased between them. By 2015, the volume of Sino-Indian commerce is expected to top $100 billion per year.
Yet all is not well. Despite engagement for more than two decades, the two nations have yet to resolve their border disputes. They have also, intermittently, engaged in spats over political issues.
The present combination of cooperative economic engagement and political instability explains why questions over the future of Sino-Indian relations remain relevant. In the near term, economic necessity will preserve the cooperation that is seen in that sphere but even if another war seems unlikely, unresolved political disputes continue to frustrate a truly “peaceful rise” of both nations.