Given their history, one might have expected India and China to be two of the most vocal critics of Russia’s invasion and effort to in essence colonize, or recolonize, Ukraine. And yet neither country has done so. Indeed, both have seen the Russian invasion as an opportunity to improve ties and expand trade, especially in fossil fuels, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Colonization is defined as “the act of taking control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and sending people from your own country to live there.” Sounds a lot like what imperial Russia is up to in Ukraine.
Of course, part or all of what is now Ukraine has long been the object of foreign invasion, domination and colonization, especially by Russia, Poland and the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. Though not without its challenges, the country has been free and independent for 30 years.
India, too, has a long and troubled history of being colonized, primarily by Great Britain. The British, under the auspices of the British East India Company, first landed in India in 1608 to engage in trade, especially tea and spices.
But the East India Company expanded its power and control, with India formerly becoming part of the British Empire in 1765.
India’s people eventually undertook a decades-long struggle to free themselves from British colonial rule, obtaining their independence in 1947, only 44 years before Ukraine became independent. But not before thousands of Indians were imprisoned, injured or killed in the effort. That struggle saw the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, who became an international role model for how to lead a nonviolent revolution.
If India believes it’s acceptable, or at least not too problematic, for Russia to invade Ukraine to drag the country kicking and screaming back under Russian rule, would it also be acceptable if Great Britain were to decide to drag India back into the British empire?
Of course not, which is why India’s silence on the Russian invasion is so troubling.
China is not India, and it was never colonized the way India was. But China did experience decades of European colonizing powers, including Great Britain, knocking at its door, demanding trade.
Those conflicts led to what’s known as the 19th century Opium Wars. The British were heavy consumers of some of China’s most important products, especially tea, silk and porcelain. But China required traders to pay for those products with silver.
British merchants were transferring so much silver to China that Great Britain’s silver reserves began running low. The Brits needed a product the Chinese were eager to buy to get that silver back. The solution was opium, mostly made in India.
When the Chinese government took steps to stop, or at least limit, the opium trade, the first Opium War erupted (1839-42). The British won that war easily, and imposed an expansive treaty known as the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which included ceding control of Hong Kong to Great Britain. China simply had not developed the technology and military skills to stand up to Great Britain.
The second Opium War (1856-60) included the British and the French against the Chinese, and again the Chinese lost.
The Opium Wars were devastating and humiliating defeats for China, leading to a series of what were seen as inequitable treaties. The country was one of the world’s oldest and largest civilizations, and at times it had been one of the most prosperous. The Opium Wars still loom large in the minds of many Chinese today.
Yes, China still claims Taiwan, but then it never agreed to its partition, which isn’t and shouldn’t be a justification of its current threats to Taiwan. Even more troubling is that China has been using trade as an excuse for its own expansion into other countries. Let’s hope China doesn’t transition from being a target of colonizers to being a colonizer.
European colonization, which included North and South America, has a long and checkered history. There were some benefits to both the colonies and colonizers, but the human rights abuses, especially in Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia, which includes India and China, were atrocious.
Imperial Russia is, once again, seeking to expand its empire. Those countries that were once the subject of colonizing efforts should be the loudest voices in opposition.