Book review of China’s India War: Bertil Linter gives a rigorous introduction to define the 21st century relationship

Published: December 17, 2017 5:00 AM

Bertil Lintner, an intrepid Swedish journalist who had a long stint with the Far Eastern Economic Review in its heyday, retains an abiding interest in China and its southern neighbours, namely India and Myanmar, for well over three decades.

India, China, China's India warA file photo of Indian soldiers dragging a truck along hilly terrain during the 1962 Sino-Indian war Express archive

Bertil Lintner, an intrepid Swedish journalist who had a long stint with the Far Eastern Economic Review in its heyday, retains an abiding interest in China and its southern neighbours, namely India and Myanmar, for well over three decades. When I first made his acquaintance in the late 1980s, he had a mini halo as the first European (white man?) to have traversed almost 2,300 km from north-east India through then Burma to the turbulent border areas with China that were held by militant ethnic groups. In short, Lintner has been there, with his equally fearless wife, and seen it from the ground, as it were—often astride an elephant or a bicycle!
An astute observer of regional geopolitics, his deep understanding of China and its southern Asian neighbours has been distilled into the volume under review—and the fact that the author chose not to use the interrogative question mark at the end of the title points to the conclusion that he is arriving at—namely that a new ‘Great Game’ will be played out in this century against the geopolitical setting of the ‘roof of the world’. The earlier protagonists, Imperial Russia and the British Empire, will be replaced by the two Asian giants—a democratic India and communist China.

The Sino-Indian relationship and the October 1962 border war has been on the author’s radar for a long time, an interest that began when he was still in school. As he recalls: “My interest in the border conflict goes back to 1967 when, as a 14-year-old schoolboy in Sweden, I sent a handwritten letter to the Indian embassy in Stockholm asking them for information about the problem. I was curious to know about the dispute and why it had led to a short but vicious war in 1962.” To the credit of the Indian embassy, a lot of material by way of White Papers was sent to the young Lintner, who then embarked upon his own study and subsequent research based upon available documentation. Fifty years later, the current volume testifies to the diligence with which the author has studied and interpreted the Sino-Indian relationship, and in many ways challenged the received wisdom on the subject. A hat-tip to the anonymous Indian diplomat who enabled this quest! In eight lucid chapters, Lintner traces the origins of what he describes as ‘the improbable border dispute’, and for a younger generation not quite familiar with the discourse on the 1962 war, the first four chapters of this book will be a very useful introduction. The core of the Lintner formulation challenges the dominant interpretation of October 1962 advanced by Neville Maxwell, an Anglo-Australian journalist in his book, India’s China War.

Published in 1970, the Maxwell book argued that “it was India that had provoked the war”. India banned the book and charged the author with breaching the Official Secrets Act (for having obtained a copy of the still classified Henderson-Brooks report on the war), but Delhi did not invest in a scholarly rebuttal of the Maxwell account. At the time, the book was widely praised by Beijing (no surprise) and strongly endorsed by Henry Kissinger—the rising star of US security discourse and policymaking. Lintner adds that initially he found “Maxwell’s book very persuasive”, but as he delved further into the subject, he realised that “the more I read about the conflict, the more I came to realize that Maxwell’s version of the events leading up to the 1962 War did not stand up to any serious scrutiny.” Through his extensive scrutiny, Lintner arrives at the conclusion that “rather than India provoking China, it could be argued that it was the new communist leaders of China who had behaved aggressively after they seized power in 1949″. As two large civilisational entities that went through a century of colonial subjugation and have only recently become independent nation-states, India and China have a very complex, tangled and contested relationship. Erstwhile empires buffeted by the vicissitudes of history, they had remote, uninhabited frontiers, but no clearly agreed upon borders.

Hence the 4,000-km-long, yet-to-be demarcated border and related territorial dispute led to the October 1962 war, where chairman Mao, for domestic reasons, embarked on this carefully planned ‘lesson’ to humiliate India and its prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The second chapter of the book, titled The Line, is rich in academic detail and, at 56 pages with 114 end notes, provides a comprehensive overview of the origins of the McMahon line, the two-volume Alistair Lamb thesis on the disputed border, the Maxwell orientation, the critique by Leo Rose, and more. The March 1959 Lhasa uprising against the Chinese crackdown, which culminated in the young Dalai Lama crossing into India, sowed the seeds of the Tibet issue that continues to shape the uneasy Sino-Indian relationship. Little-known details about the Chinese influence in Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian north-east add to the texture of the book, as also the introduction of the maritime domain as the most recent arena for this competition between the two Asian behemoths.

Brief reference is also made to a resurgent Japan and the Abe doctrine and Lintner avers of the Delhi-Tokyo partnership: “With two nationalists now as prime ministers…the battle lines and alliances have become clearer.” However, such a clear binary reduction of the democratic cluster, now referred to as the emerging ‘quad’ (along with the US and Australia), coalescing into an anti-China alliance, is not as evident as Lintner asserts. But the wealth of detail that Lintner has recalled is very rewarding for those who want a more rigorous and in-depth introduction to the defining relationship of the 21st century—one that will make or mar the Asian century. One quibble—why was Steven Hoffman’s meticulously researched book not included in the survey of literature?

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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