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The zero-sum giants

Shishir Gupta’s work looks at how the northern border became a live wire once again.

books Updated: May 10, 2014 13:02 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Shishir Gupta's book, The Himalayan Face-Off, looks at how the northern border became a live wire once again, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

In a span of six years, India went from announcing a new Himalayan detente when China dropped its claim on Sikkim to officially sanctioning the creation of a new army strike corps designed to fight its way into Tibet.

One can think of few countries to which Indian attitudes have changed so rapidly--and this book is among the first of hopefully many analyses to attempt an explanation. In particular, it gives unusual detail of the internal debate within the Indian system on how to tackle what is probably the country’s single most difficult foreign policy issue.

The core of Shishir Gupta’s work is how the Indian security establishment came to accept that the northern border, somnolescent for over 20 years, had become a live wire once again. The tale begins with completion of a Chinese engineering marvel, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The railway drastically changed the military balance along the border. As the army warned the government in 2004, the Chinese “now had the capacity to deploy 34 divisions... within 22 days. In contrast, India could mobilize only 17 divisions in the same period.” The speed with which Beijing mobilized troops to quell the 2008 Tibetan riots was further reinforcement. New Delhi then struggled internally about its response. As Gupta recounts, the Indian army was itself in two minds about building new roads to the border. Reflecting a post-1962 mindset that kept recurring, the army was worried that the roads would be used by China to invade India.

The Indian government deliberated. Various studies and surveys determined the far superior border infrastructure that China had built up over the years — and the creeping incursions that were being made in bits along the border. By 2009, the chief of army staff visited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prod the government to implement an earlier decision to augment India’s border defences with over two divisions. It would take four years before the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the creation of a new mountain strike corps — though it remains on hold for lack of funds. Even this tortuous decision would not have been taken if Beijing’s own behaviour had not become increasingly aggressive in the intervening years. These included its decision between 2008 and 2010 to staple visas for Kashmiris and the resurrection of its claims on Arunachal Pradesh from 2012. China’s new ruler, Xi Jinping, signalled a desire to put all of that behind him. Yet, within months of coming to power, the Depsang border intrusion took place. In almost every instance, New Delhi initially downplayed the problem — often to save an imminent border negotiation, was exposed by the media and took up a tougher, and ultimately successful, line against Beijing. Gupta writes that Depsang was a “face off that also changed the mindset of those at Raisina Hill”, scuttling one school inside the Indian government that wanted to keep an arm’s distance from the US, Japan and any “anti-China club.”

There is much else in the book: how China sought to block India’s development of the Iranian port of Chahbahar, how its firms underbid for infrastructure projects in states near the border, its continuing arms shipments to Naga rebels and the mysterious travels of Chinese journalist-cum-spy Qing Wang. The sense that when it comes to India and China, the success of one is almost always to the detriment of the other is overwhelming. These are Asia’s zero-sum giants.

Unfortunately the book’s considerable data is not placed in an equally clear and rigid structure; the big picture is easy to lose. Gupta makes some geopolitical recommendations. China takes India more seriously when the latter is on good terms with the US. And Russia is a shaky partner that supplies the same military “hardware, technology and engines to China.”

But ultimately it is really about what India does at home. As many third country China observers have noted, Beijing is most nervous about India when it seems the latter combines rapid economic growth with political freedom. That also happens to be the formula most Indians would define as success for their country. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that an India that works is not seen as being in the best interest of China’s rulers.

(The Himalayan Face-Off, Shishir Gupta, Hachette, Rs. 650, PP328.)