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Updated: May 5, 2014 22:11 IST

India’s Himalayan China ignorance

Praveen Swami
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The Himalayan Face-off —Chinese Assertion and the Indian Riposte: Shishir Gupta; Rs. 650.
The Himalayan Face-off —Chinese Assertion and the Indian Riposte: Shishir Gupta; Rs. 650.

Even as India elects a new government, some of the most important figures in its strategic establishment have been making the time to read a new book on China: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his aides say, has been through journalist Shishir Gupta’s The Himalayan Face-Off; so, it is believed, have Defence Minister AK Antony and National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. Finance Minister, and former Home Minister P. Chidambaram, has called the book a “must read”; Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley, has lauded its “deep insight”.

The interest in Mr. Gupta’s book tells us two important things. First, it underlines the desperate thinness of Indian intellectual engagement on China. In spite of exponential growth in trade, mirrored only by the growing concern over the rising Chinese nationalism, there is only a small corpus of serious Indian writing that engages unfolding policy debates.

Prem Shankar Jha’s India and China, and Arun Shourie’s very different Self-Deception stand out — but much of the writing comes from western authors, like David Smith’s The Elephant and the Dragon.

The second important thing reactions to Mr. Gupta tell us is this: Indian policy-making on China is at a crossroads. For the best part of two decades, Indian foreign policy makers have assumed that a growing economic relationship would lead to strategic stabilisation, and an eventual resolution of the two countries’ border disputes. Last year’s military face-off in Ladakh, naval competition in the Indian ocean rim, and the absence of progress on resolving China-India border disputes, have all given strength to those sceptical about the optimistic premises on which policy was built.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who may well become Prime Minister in May, has described China as expansionist; while this may be put down to poll-time excess, the truth is his private views are likely not dissimilar. Inside the Congress, too, China-pessimists are proliferating: Mr. Gupta records Defence Minister Antony’s conviction that the People’s Liberation Army was “the real face of Beijing”. Eminent foreign policy experts, like Shyam Saran, have called on India to deepen their engagement with both the United States and Russia, as a hedge against Chinese aggression.

Mr. Gupta’s solidly-researched work doesn’t seek to provide an answer to these debates: indeed, it could be argued that skills in astrology would be more fitting than those of a journalist.

Instead, the book provides a gritty empirical overview of the state of the strategic relationship. China, Mr. Gupta argues, has substantially expanded its military capacities along its boundaries with India, enhancing both infrastructure and offensive resources. It has also, Mr. Gupta records, maintained a substantial relationship with insurgent groups in the North-East. This build-up has, among other things, been attributed to Chinese anxieties about Tibet, and its fear India might exploit unrest there. Then, there is China’s organic relationship with India’s arch-rival, Pakistan—a relationship whose economic aspects are often exaggerated, but which has translated into significant support for the country’s nuclear programme, and its ballistic weapons capabilities.

From 2008-2009, Mr. Gupta records, India began slowly developing the capacities to respond, enhancing its east-facing military infrastructure and combat capacities. Though he does not suggest the prospects of a war are high, he notes that “a single incident of accidental or angry firing could change temperatures on the border”. He records growing fears within the United Progressive Alliance government’s highest levels of “mixed messages coming from Beijing”, with its political leadership seeking growing cooperation on Afghanistan and the Middle-East, even as tensions periodically flare up along the border.

This book is an excellent primer on the complex considerations that have weighed on the minds of the United Progressive Alliance government’s policy-making on China through the last 10 years, and the reasons for the cloud of pessimism that has enveloped it. It also demonstrates, though, the need for India to have a more nuanced understanding of the power most critical to India’s destiny through the next century — a project scholarship and journalism have failed in.

Guns and cash will shape the course of the Himalayan face-off — but also knowledge, and it is here India remains wanting.

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