Review: Dragon on our Doorstep by Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab | books | reviews | Hindustan Times
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Review: Dragon on our Doorstep by Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Dragon on our Doorstep argues that the way to handle Sino-Indian friction is to use military power more strategically

books Updated: Jul 22, 2017 07:47 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
India,China,Dragon on our Doorstep
Bad memories: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru entering Parliament House to inform an angry Parliament of the Indian reverses in the war with China. (Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Even when our troops are not facing off somewhere in the Himalayas, no country weighs more on India’s strategic conscious than China. India has little institutional knowledge of China. And Beijing’s decision-making is a black box. The result in India is a wide array of opinions about how best to handle the Middle Kingdom. The two authors of Dragon on our Doorstep argue the way to handle Sino-Indian friction is to use military power more strategically, using a toughened border stance to send messages to China and make peace with Islamabad. While this has pie-in-the-sky elements, the bit about Pakistan would not have been out of place in Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy.

The China policy outlined here starts with the Sino-Indian border. They argue that since Rajiv Gandhi’s time, successive Indian governments have taken away border management from the generals and handed it to the diplomats. “Consequently, all border agreements thereafter demonstrated an ignorance of military understanding and its correlation with foreign policy.” When New Delhi then opted to counter Beijing on the global stage, it sought to keep the border out of the headlines and created a fiction about its stability. In a “policy of appeasement,” they argue, Indian officials negotiated border management agreements that tied the hands of the military in an attempt to preserve an uneasy truce along the de facto border. “India’s political and military leaders, in cahoots with its diplomats, have sold falsehoods to their own people on the border issue,” the authors charge. For example, India’s claim its troops also intrude into Chinese territory is patently false and all such intrusions are ‘strictly one-sided.”

The fallout: a declining Indian military capacity. This is a specific meaning for the authors and they return to it repeatedly. According to this, New Delhi’s has come to see defence in terms of amassing weapons and a more holistic sense of military power has been allowed to wither. The army’s diversion to counter-insurgency operations, the civilian authorities unwillingness to let the military to be involved in strategic policy-making and so on have all fed into this process of atrophy. Bizarrely, the authors see even the 2003 Line of Control ceasefire as having contributed to this decline. The ceasefire, they argue, was “a masterstroke” by Pakistan because “the artillery fire was a morale booster for troops on the Line of Control.”

06 December 1962 - Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister Yashwantrao Chavan at the Military Hospital in Tezpur where they met Indian Prisoners of war released by the Chinese. On Nehru’s Left is Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw Corps Commander. (HT Photo)

They also cite the Pakistani and Chinese military approvingly despite strong evidence that the former has officer-soldier problems on the battlefield while the latter is almost a business conglomerate. Linked to this, and argued on firmer grounds, is a critique of India’s state-owned defence industries with their addiction to imports and inability to make guns or even boots.

With so much malaise afflicting India’s foreign and defence policy, it is no surprise Beijing does not take New Delhi too seriously.

Co-author Pravin Sawhney

The proposed solutions to India’s China dilemma are daring if suspect at a time when China’s Belt-Road Initiative could decisively change the geopolitics of the continent and its successes in the South China Sea have emboldened it to become more aggressive.

Co-author Ghazala Wahab

They argue India has three strategic options regarding China. One is to lean towards the United States to counter China’s greater strength, but there is scepticism about Washington’s dependability. The other is to dramatically reform India’s military and boost overall capacity –easier said than done. Finally, India can simply act as if has a greater global profile and bluff its way with China as long as it can. None of these are well-defined in the book and some of the assumptions behind them are questionable. They see Russian relations as a model for India, ignoring the degree Moscow is now at Beijing’s beck and call. They see the Indo-US nuclear deal as a failure, falling into the common misconception it was actually about nuclear technology.

Read more: Rising Hindu nationalism has hijacked India’s China policy: Chinese media

It is difficult to swallow the argument that “India needs to understand that the road to managing an assertive China runs through Pakistan.” Settle Kashmir and it will “open the floodgates of opportunities.” There is some logic to this. However, the authors whitewash the difficulties involved and fail to consider the likelihood that the Pakistani military will remain hostile to India despite a settlement.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China (Getty Images)

Where the book hugs the Indian border or talks about the nitty-gritty of its military, it is convincing and stimulating. As it moves into the more rarefied air of diplomacy or international relations, the more fanciful it sounds. There are many gaps. It is never clear what actually motivates China’s leadership to do what it does. Pakistan’s internal drivers are also hazy. However, despite a tendency for the text to stray into unrelated areas, the book remains largely true to its larger argument and is brave enough to argue, for example, that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is detrimental to the military.