The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Definitive study of Sino-Indian relations
Parshotam Mehra

Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century
by John W Garver. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Rs 598. Pages xiv + 447

Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth CenturyIN the short, if troubled, half century of our Independence, nothing has been more unsettling than the seemingly unending and intractable dispute with our great neighbour, the People’s Republic of China, with its ramifications by no means confined to the unsettled boundary. New Delhi’s relations with Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka and indeed a host of other countries in South Asia are powerfully influenced by our ties with Beijing; and beyond the region, with the USA and the Western powers in general, and Japan and Russia in particular.

Nearer home the inordinate outlay on defence has skewed our economic priorities and deeply affected development prospects in such vital areas as communications and education. All in all, a heavy price has been paid: one limited but intense war, a half dozen militarist confrontations, dozens of instances of sharp politico-diplomatic struggle, chronic conflict over national policy. Above all, a "layer upon layer" of mutual suspicion.

It is in this context that John Garver’s weighty and extremely well researched tome deserves a warm welcome. His objective is to provide an interpretation of the broad pattern of interactions between the two countries, focussing on the "deep and enduring" geopolitical rivalry between them. He also offers a genesis of the East-West divide that dominated Chinese and Indian thinking on foreign affairs, for the conflict and internal development goals of the USA and the former Soviet Union "impinge" upon the Sino-Indian geopolitical reality.


The following paragraphs touch the study’s principal themes. To start with, the geopolitical dimension. Here, China’s broad policy, as may be apparent, was to prevent the possibility of Indian domination or unification of the South Asian region. To China, India is a regional hegemonist that presumes to block the "natural and rightful" expansion of China’s relations with its neighbours. Tibet, Garver is persuaded, offers "the only effective mechanism" New Delhi has against Beijing for China’s vulnerability in Tibet is to India what India’s vulnerability vis-a-vis Pakistan is to China.

The territorial dispute is difficult to solve. But "if" a peaceful negotiated settlement is the objective, the solution must come "from the very highest level"— in a meeting between the top leaders, without their border specialists and soldiers and strategists, who "must reach an agreement and impose it" on their respective countries. A tall order, indeed.

The study underlines that India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to raise its international status has been successfully blocked by Beijing. And yet the latter has "greater opposition" to Japan’s claim for the "greater challenge" it poses.

Nepal plays a pivotal role in Sino-India relations. While India’s "overwhelming presence" is a constant of Nepalese politics, China’s "unique handicap" lies in shipping material over Tibet where the costs are "prohibitively high." As in the case of Sikkim and Bhutan, it is "difficult to understand" China’s position. While it has taken for itself the largest buffer, the vast area of Tibet — destroying its culture in the process and over persistent Indian protests — India’s objective of a much smaller buffer, in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, which does not seek to alter the traditional culture of these states, faces stiff opposition.

Garver offers a perceptive analysis of what he calls the Sino-Pakistan "entente cordiale," heavily underscoring the fact that New Delhi has been "compelled" to acquiesce in a steady increase in Pakistan’s military capabilities made possible by Beijing’s "large-scale, sustained, and comprehensive" assistance. Nor has India succeeded in weakening the "core" of the entente for the "mutual trust, familiarity and parallel interests" which constitute the core remain unchanged by Sino-Indian rapprochement and are a "major constraint" on India’s freedom to act.

A sobering conclusion the study has drawn, merits consideration: "unless" India is able to alter its "lacklustre development record" and works out a "skilled and confident" programme in the South Asian region, it is doomed to assume a role "as a junior partner to an emerging Chinese superpower." High time we got our act together.

The author’s credentials are unimpeachable. Starting as a graduate student in the late 1970s, Garver learnt Chinese language and did his dissertation work in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, he had brief stints in China, Pakistan and, on more than one occasion, in India. He interacted with hordes of scholars, researchers and officials in these countries. The end result: an in-depth, well-nigh definitive study on Sino-Indian relations of which he could be legitimately proud.