Book Review: Shishir Gupta, The Himalayan Face-Off: Chinese Assertion and the Indian Riposte (Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2014).
Shishir Gupta says clearly at the beginning that the ‘book is not about China but its policies and mindset towards India as perceived by the top Indian leadership, political parties and the public’ (p. xi). Within this framework he tries to give an organized picture of the ebb and flow of Sino-Indian relations during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. While the coverage ends sometime in 2013 well before the UPA regime ended its tenure, the change of regime in New Delhi does not materially alter the nature of relations with China and Gupta by highlighting in his title, the fact that there has been an ‘Indian Riposte’ to ‘Chinese Assertion’ deserves full credit for standing out from the crowd and differing with general public perception of the UPA government’s tenure as being one of inaction and incompetence when it came to China policy. Whatever the UPA’s sins of omission or commission in its domestic politics or in its foreign policy in general, on China policy at least, a combination of focused political and military leadership and competent bureaucratic support ensured that the new NDA regime will find little to change except to provide greater direction, resources and speed and perhaps, with the backing of majority in Parliament, bolder engagement or even, out-of-the-box solutions to resolving ‘The Himalayan Face-off’.
Gupta does not fail to outline a familiar litany of fears and woes on the Indian side – ‘whether India has already lowered its global ambitions and has made its peace with the fact that China is a superior power both in terms of its economy and military’, ‘absence of a pro-active strategy from India to counter China’ (p. 30), ‘military acquisition is stuck’, (p. 31), and so on. And yet, the author also repeats at several points that the Indian strategy has been to try and avoid confrontation or to buy time till it is militarily and diplomatically prepared to tackle Beijing’ (p. 27) and that ‘the India-China relationship is certainly not a lose-lose game…’ (p. 37). Buying time has, in fact, something of the feel of a strategy when interpreting the UPA’s policy towards China, and under the circumstances, it was not a bad one either.
There is practically no discussion of such important trends of the UPA years as the emphasis on multilateralism through the Russia-India-China trilateral, BRICS or the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Forum for regional economic cooperation – perhaps, another form of buying time? – or of the increasing thickness of links at the sub-national level between the two countries. But Gupta’s work is otherwise detailed and there is a wealth of new information available. He has covered infrastructure development, weaponry, Chinese war-fighting concepts, Sino-Indian economic ties, China’s relations with other South Asian countries and even with a few African nations. The contrasts he draws are hard hitting – for instance, of the four hours it takes to traverse 92kms in Sikkim versus the 400-odd kilometers between Lhasa and Nathu La being covered in only about six hours (p. 101). There is a partiality to detailing of military information and therefore, the book should be essential reading especially for those interested in the military dimension of the Sino-Indian relationship.
The author’s foray into history – spread across different chapters in the book – is however, rather distracting and detracts from the readability of a book that could have done well just by concentrating on the past decade. Gupta raises the by now all-too familiar 7 November 1950 letter by Vallabhbhai Patel to Jawaharlal Nehru as a sign of the former’s prescience with respect to China (p. 12). The question however, both students of history as well as of realpolitik must consider is if one letter or a few comments by Patel in 1950 are enough to classify him as being more ‘strategic’ or more of a realist than Nehru was. The frequent references to Patel and to his letter are probably more instructive about the attitudes Indians today have towards Nehru and China rather than a serious statement about whether Patel would have done things much differently from Nehru, had he lived longer or been in the same position.
There are common Indian misconceptions that are repeated in Gupta’s book. There is, for example, the familiar one about the Chinese ‘tend[ing] to speak in one voice and in one language’ and contrasting this with India’s multi-lingual, multi-ethnic state, with a rather chaotic decision-making approach…’ (p. 36). Regional differences, including those of dialect, cuisine, economy, and culture can be quite significant even in the Han-dominated parts of today’s China and history is replete with instances where these have affected China’s domestic politics and stability.
In Gupta’s account of the Depsang transgression by the Chinese in April-May 2013, other preconceived notions about China or unsupported statements are evident such as for instance, the attribution of a ‘maximalist position’ to China on the boundary resolution (p. 5). Pray tell, why India’s current position as understood in the public domain, is not a maximalist one, too? Or how does Gupta explain the success – and success it surely was – of the combined Atal Behari Vajpayee-Manmohan Singh administrations, of pinning the Chinese down in the 2005 Agreement on Guiding Principles and Political Parameters, where they agreed to the clause on ‘settled populations’? While Gupta notes that the Chinese have since tried to resile from this particular position in the Agreement, he also quotes former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on the importance of the ‘written word’ as far as China is concerned (pp. 42-43). In other words, the 2005 Agreement is not something the Chinese can simply walk away from without significant political cost. That the author appears to have a hard time of squaring some circles should not be surprising given that it is statecraft that he is discussing.
As a journalist, Gupta clearly had access to individuals involved in the thick of China policymaking in India and to information more than usually available in the public domain. His account of the goings-on around the Depsang transgression is probably the most detailed one to date and will remain so for some time unless one of the officials or leaders involved in the events comes out with their version of the story. Indeed, the book provides a good insight into what and how Gupta’s sources thought about China. A few people in fact, get starring roles in the book – then Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy Shyam Saran, then Indian Army chief Gen. V. K. Singh, Saran’s successor as Foreign Secretary and later National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh. Notably, the much-maligned then Defence Minister A. K. Antony gets a largely positive assessment from Gupta.
What brings down the quality of the book by a few notches is the poor editorial work. What is the adjective to describe or refer to things or matters Indian and Chinese? Sino-Indian? India-China? Indo-China? The average English newspaper reader would fail this test and so would most of the media or those from the political and professional classes who write on or provide the news on China. The book under review uses all three versions interchangeably when Indo-China or Indochina actually refers to peninsular Southeast Asia, covering Myanmar, Thailand, parts of Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Similarly, there are mistakes in spelling Chinese names: Huanzang instead of Xuanzang (p. 9), Jiang Jiechi instead of Yang Jiechi (p. 35), Yunan instead of Yunnan (p. 178) and the inability to distinguish Chinese surnames (in Song Dehang, Song is the surname, p. 41). These might seem like minor quibbles but are actually reflective of the larger problem of a lack of attention to history and to detail that is the unfortunate reality of much media coverage of foreign policy in India and most notably in the case of China.
That a journalist as author has provided references even if it is simply in the form of URLs, is good enough but it then falls to the publishers to employ the necessary research and editorial staff to clean up and complete the references. The fact that this has not been done reflects in turn, a rather disturbing tendency of feeding a market frenzy on matters strategic or China-related by publishers without really putting in the hard work necessary to take the book from one in a crowd to good or even outstanding. The annexures are useful but the index is a disservice to a book of this nature. Even words like ‘patrols’, ‘transgressions’ or ‘incursions’ are not to be found.
Despite such shortcomings, Shishir Gupta’s work is a useful record of Sino-Indian relations over much of the UPA regime, as seen from the Indian side. It is written in an engaging and readable style and scholars and lay readers alike will find plenty to engage with, challenge and research further.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Of Perceptions and Policies’, in The Book Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 12, December 2014.