‘There isn’t going to be a war between India and China today’, says Bertil Lintner

The scholar of India-China relations on the contours of the ‘new Cold War’ in Asia, and Beijing’s vision for the Indian Ocean

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:48 pm IST

Published - December 27, 2017 12:02 am IST

 Bertil Lintner

Bertil Lintner

Swedish journalist and strategic analyst Bertil Lintner has spent most of his career in Asia, writing about India and China and mapping the increasingly contested region the two countries share. His book, ‘China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World’, has just been published. Here he speaks about the challenge to India from China in South Asia, his research on the 1962 war, and why he thinks there will not be another India-China war, even as India firms its counter-alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Excerpts


Your latest book on the 1962 war challenges the idea that India triggered it, and its title “China’s India War” counters Neville Maxwell’s account called “India’s China War”.


You can say that all the books on the 1962 war fall into [different] categories. The first by Indian military officers who served during the war, and they are essentially military histories about how the battles were fought and so on. But they don’t give the geopolitical context. The second is the category of scholarly books on the border dispute. Now here it is important to remember the difference in political culture between India and China. India has a strong legalistic approach, with courts and laws being very important. China, on the other hand, dismisses all treaties that it doesn’t like by calling them ‘unequal treaties’ which were imposed on China when China was weak. But even in more modern days, when China is strong, these treaties mean nothing.


Recently, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the treaty with Britain over Hong Kong was now history, or that the international court ruling on the South China Sea favouring the Philippines was just an unfair judgment. And as I point out in the book, while India was preparing White Papers and documentation and maps and copies of treaties on the boundary, China was preparing for war.


As early as 1959, you say in the book…


Yes, and the reason that people like Maxwell and others thought it was India’s forward policy that provoked the war was because China was a very closed society in those days. People were not even aware at the time that tens of millions of people had died in a famine in China as a result of the Great Leap Forward, and there was a crisis within the Communist Party. Mao Zedong was at his least popular moment in 1949 and Mao needed to unite the party and the country behind himself. India was a convenient enemy because the Dalai Lama had been given refuge here in 1959. The other reason was that in the 1950s, India under Jawaharlal Nehru had become the main voice for newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. India initiated the Non-Aligned Movement, gave the language of Panchsheel. Now at the time, the West’s three-world theory saw the Western Bloc, the Eastern Bloc, and the global South (underdeveloped world). The Chinese view of the world was the superpowers, the lesser powers, and the poor countries (Third World). China wanted to become the leader of the revolutionary forces in the Third World and had to dethrone India from that position. After the war, Mao became strong enough to begin the cultural war, and Nehru, who died a broken man two years later, was no longer able to lead India as a spokesman of the Third World and Asia.


You’ve written about the roles of the Soviet Union and the U.S. as key to the outcome in 1962. In a war-like situation between India and China today, what position would the U.S. and Russia take?


Well, first of all, I don’t think there is going to be a war between India and China today. Trade is too important. I think what we’re seeing today is a new Cold War in Asia, an informal alliance between India and Japan [versus China]. The United States is a bit unpredictable under Donald Trump, but it had under Barack Obama embarked on a pivot to Asia, with the rise of China as the main concern. For the first time, since the 15th century and Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese are now in the Indian Ocean. China didn’t even have a proper navy until recently. So now when it talks of One Belt One Road, and the ancient maritime trade routes, it must be remembered it’s not so ancient. In the Indian Ocean, you have India, which considers it its own lake, as it were. But also in the Indian Ocean is the U.S.’s most important base, Diego Garcia. And the French control 2.5 million acres of land in the Indian Ocean. This is why these alliances are growing.


To come back to the land boundary, you have said that the Doklam stand-off this year was not about China’s designs on India, but aimed to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan. Why do you say that?


Bhutan is China’s only neighbour that doesn’t have diplomatic ties with it. Relations are maintained through these boundary talks, which have been going on for more than two decades. Bhutan has been under Indian influence, but it is now asserting itself as a sovereign power. Why did China even need the road in Doklam? Maybe the plan was to get Indian troops out of Haa (Bhutan’s Haa Valley) and get them more directly involved in this conflict, which would embarrass many Bhutanese. You can see the statements from Bhutan at the time, which were very cautious, and many Bhutanese think that India overreacted and wanted to show its control over Bhutan. China is on a charm offensive there (in Bhutan). They’re sending acrobats there, circus performers, football teams, tourists, scholarships for students. Clearly China wants to extend its influence to all its neighbours, and that includes Bhutan.


What does this mean for India-China relations in the future, especially the resolution of the boundary question?


I think the Indian Ocean is going to become the biggest challenge in the near future. I find it hard to believe they will fight another war in the Himalayas. China has in the past suggested a swap between Arunachal/South Tibet and Aksai Chin. On paper that sounds reasonable, but we don’t know how serious the Chinese are. Also, if China were to accept the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the border, it could control any dissidence within. In India, which is a democracy, the government couldn’t just go ahead with that solution… it would be political suicide. So this package is a non-starter. But in the larger picture, China doesn’t care if the boundary remains unresolved. They are not looking for a solution, they are looking for a strategic advantage. Where there is a conflict of interest building up is in the Indian Ocean. And the joint naval exercises with Australia and other countries is important. While visiting the Andaman Islands recently, I was told that the U.S. navy was visiting Port Blair. Now we know that they are not there to learn to rescue shipwrecks and play cricket.


Do you see the newly convened “ Quad ”, of India, Australia, Japan and the U.S., building up as a military alliance?

Yes, I think so. It is almost inevitable. Nobody really wants to talk about it, but it will come. It has to do with the rise of China, and with economic power will come political power and then military power, which you need to protect your interests.


In your previous book, ‘Great Game East’, you dealt with China’s inroads in the Indian subcontinent, from Myanmar to the Maldives. The Maldives has recently concluded a free trade agreement with China , and is growing much closer to Beijing in all respects. The question is, how can India counter China’s obvious advantage in terms of money power?


Well so far, India has been an observer, and not done that much really. The same thing is happening in the Seychelles. China is paying enormous attention to the country, of less than 100,000 people. India’s eastern border with Myanmar is so much more important, for example. But India spends an inordinate time on its western border (with Pakistan). Myanmar is China’s corridor to the Indian Ocean. What India can do to counter it is to pay more attention.


Do you think India’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative, which every neighbour except Bhutan has joined, will be effective or counter-productive?

I think on the Belt and Road Initiative, India should have made its opposition to it much earlier, and articulated its concerns better, because they were lost on most outside observers.


Will the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) change the politics of the region?


So far, I don’t think the CPEC has been much of a success. Pakistan is not a stable country, and China will have to deal more and more with its internal dynamics. Plus, the CPEC connects to Xinjiang, away from China’s economic centres, unlike, say, Myanmar that connects to China’s eastern economic zones and ports. Over the past year, given the problems in Rakhine state, China is even looking for a third route into the Indian Ocean to bypass the choke-point at the Strait of Malacca. Here China is pushing the idea of the Kra Canal (from Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea). So for China what is important is the goal, not so much the routes to it.


Moving to the east, is China’s control in Myanmar inevitable, or is there something India can do?


India has three main problems on its boundary with Myanmar compared to China. The first is infrastructure. On Myanmar’s northern border, China has super-highways, an airport not far from the border. Kunming has been upgraded to a huge international airport. On the Indian side, infrastructure is still a major problem. It’s better than 10 years ago perhaps, but not comparable to what already exists on the Chinese side.


The other problem is red-tape and bureaucracy, and it seems that the Chinese Communist Party are better capitalists than India, a democracy, is. There are still many trade restrictions on the Indian side and several checkpoints. An integrated checkpoint, which is being planned by India, will help. The third problem is from underground rebel groups operating on the Indian side, which can carry out attacks and extort money all along the border. Anyone with a gun can demand anything. But I can say with certainty that people of Myanmar would like to do much more trade with India, because the dependence on China is so massive, it is worrying for everyone, including their military.

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