‘America First’? Not if India and China Have A Say In It

The phrase ‘America First‘ sends a chill down my spine. Used by the presumptive Republican nominee for President in the United States, at least on some occasions, it is not where the world is going in the future. Nor, at least before 1945 and arguably 1918, was it the world in the past. It evokes an ugly strain in American politics, one that some would remember hearkens back to the 1930’s. Led by aviator Charles Lindbergh and car-maker Henry Ford, the movement ‘America First’ stood for non-intervention against Adolf Hitler as well as USA isolationism. Fortunately it did not succeed against President Franklin Roosevelt, and faded away relatively quickly. (As I write this, we have just had in the last few days the terrible news from England of the killing of a lawmaker by a member of the Britain First group.)

I suspect (and hope) the 21st century version will also fade into the sunset, and as quickly as possible. (By the way, to use the phrase ‘America First” and mean the United States is a slap in the face to Canada in North America, and all the nations of Central and South America as well. Kind of like saying World Series or Super Bowl. 🙂 ) This is not to say that the United States is fading away anytime soon. I prefer the view of Fareed Zakaria in his book, Post-American World. There he suggests that it is not necessarily the diminishment of the USA that will occur in the next several decades , but other nations catching up and perhaps surpassing it. More on that in a future post.

India and China are now 36% of the world’s population, with China at 1.3 billion and India at 1.2 billion according to recent estimates. By 2025, India is expected to pass China and become the most populous nation in the world. Both nations have very young populations as well, compared to especially Europe and Japan and to some degree North America. As I wrote in a post a few months ago on the future related to India and China, any calculations and projections in the next 100 years and farther out must be based on these two nations at least to some degree. It will not be ‘America First’, but ‘America among others’. (See my post The Next Five Hundred Years for more).

A recent book by journalist Bertil Lintner, Great Game East, brings out the power struggle that is happening more and more between the two largest nations on earth. It uses the name Great Game, referring to the struggle that went on between Britain and Russia from the late 19th century until after World War 1. These two empires did a political, cultural and religious dance for influence across the nations of Central and South Asia. The Cold War in the last half of the 20th century between the USSR and USA had certain echoes back to it, but at a global level and with vastly more dangerous weapons available.

Lintner describes a new Great Game, now in the East in Asia. Similar to the struggles for power above, it is so far thankfully not one that involves military combat. It is fought for influence in the business, cultural and socio-political realms. Areas like the NE part of India are on the frontier, and countries like Myanmar and Thailand among others. The role of nations like Singapore become even more crucial in the next decades. This conflict for influence between India and China will be perhaps the most important geo-political reality for at least the next 50 years, and maybe the next 100.

But this is not new in world history. These two nations (always more like civilizations than nations), have been here before. In fact even in the modern period, a certain amount of goodwill existed between them until 1962. They stood together in the post-World War II period after gaining independence, helping lead their own versions of an alternative to Western dominance. Their relations were referred by some to be “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (India-China brother, brother). But that all changed in October 1962, when in a surprise attack the Chinese army poured over the Indian border at several places. After taking territory over several weeks, China withdrew and relations were poisoned for a generation. It was not until the visit of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 to Beijing that there was somewhat of a thaw.

But let’s not forget that there is more trade between the two nations than ever before, at least in the modern period. Daily flights go from New Delhi to Beijing and other cities. As I mentioned, Singapore plays an increasing key role as a partner and investor in both nations, far above its size. With Myanmar/Burma changing by the day from an authoritarian isolationist state to perhaps a more open and involved member of ASEAN, (Association of South-East Asian Nations), more trade and transport links envisioned for many years can become reality. These will link NE India to SE Asia in a much more direct way, and have major impacts on the development of that area as well as potentially the nation of Bangladesh.

It is exciting days in Asia. Not without pain, struggle, and uncertainty. But if you ask me where the action is in the next 100 years, guess where I would say?


2 thoughts on “‘America First’? Not if India and China Have A Say In It

  1. Good stuff Steve. I can nod my head in agreement with most of it. I need to let the part about the link between NE India (clearly a region of much talent- and a few social problems.) and SE Asia (is that SE China?) sink in. As any good student would do, I ran for my shower curtain… in this case a 6 foot high world map which never needs unfolding! Is the link between NE India and SE China? It is an influential part of China I THINK (I have little expertise on China) but you may have meant all of China + all of India. Or India plus SE Asia. Or…
    It would indeed be marvellous to see Bangladesh develop!! Thanks Steve!!


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