Since the late 1940s, India and China have been neighbours whose journeys as newly independent countries have run parallel to each other.
However, the two countries’ history has been complicated, contentious, and dramatic. There are risks of a potential conflict between the two, and their battle will be a significant determinant of the Indo-Pacific region’s destiny.
In this context, Maroof Raza’s book Contested Lands is pertinent, as current events between the two neighbours are a continuation and reflection of historical dissonances. The book follows a linear narrative that traces the origins, development, contestations, and collisions of India-China relations in the twentieth century.
Books that span the present era
Negotiating the many layers of events, stakeholders, and issues in India-China relations has been difficult. Underneath a multitude of minutiae, any grounding messages in works dealing with India-China history can be lost. Raza keeps it brief here, drawing on his diverse experience as a strategic-affairs scholar and a former infantry officer to produce a fascinating narrative spread across nine short chapters that explain the past and their current relevance.
The author highlights Tibet as a major source of tension between the two countries. The book describes the disputes between British, Chinese, and Tibetans when signing the Simla Accord in 1914 on Tibet’s position and the ensuing unresolved border. The book’s ability to ferret out interesting tidbits hidden within the folds of the bigger tale and leave the reader with a few probing questions is a standout feature. Tibet, for example, declared independence from China in 1913 but remained unrecognised until Chinese armies invaded Tibet in 1950. In its drive to woo China, India opted to ignore Tibet, according to the author.
One of the lesser-known aspects is that the world’s powers competed for uranium resources in Xinjiang as part of their race for nuclear supremacy. While India was debating the value of having an army, Mao spotted the bomb. In 1949, Raza writes about a historic opportunity India missed joining the US in an anti-Communist alliance. Given the strong CIA presence in Tibet then, would such an alliance have prevented Tibet’s annexation by China in 1950?
A remarkable aspect of the book is its ability to unearth interesting tidbits concealed inside the folds of the larger storey and leave the reader with a few probing questions. Tibet, for example, declared independence from China in 1913 but went unnoticed until 1950, when Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet. According to the author, India chose to neglect Tibet in its efforts to woo China.
One of the lesser-known elements is that as part of their race for nuclear domination, the world’s nations battled for uranium deposits in Xinjiang. Mao noticed the bomb when India was debating the value of having an army. In 1949, Raza describes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As the storey progresses, he doesn’t pull any punches and provides an unequivocal and strong critique inevitably towards the 1962 conflict. He discusses India’s failures throughout the battle, having previously discussed the widening gap in strategic philosophy between the two countries. The author delves into the flaws in India’s leadership that led to the disaster. He criticises Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategic mistakes, such as obfuscating the Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin in the 1950s and relying solely on a “team of sycophants.” He is also harsh in his criticism of defence minister VK Krishna Menon, Army head General PN Thapar, and Lt General Bijji Kaul, the wartime general.
He considers the choice not to use the Air Force as a major miscalculation during the conflict. While criticising the senior army leadership throughout the war, Raza praises the bravery of the troops leadership and courage of young officers and men who withstood the Chinese attacks valiantly, despite not possessing the right weapons or clothing.
Following the 1962 conflict, the Indian army won redeeming wins at Nathu La and Cho La in 1967, as well as reversing Chinese invasions at Sumdorung Chu in 1987 and a standoff at Doklam in 2017. The PLA now realises that, unlike in the past, they will be unable to defeat the Indian army, as Raza reveals in his SWOT analysis in the last chapter, titled ‘2020 Was Not 1962.’
The author avoids scholarly study in favour of a clear explanation of how, in the mountains, the defender has the upper hand and, as a result, a Chinese onslaught today against well-prepared Indian Army defences would fail. Despite numerous attempts, the author laments the inability of the two sides to reach a binding boundary agreement. Raza bemoans India’s failure to solve its problems of Indian leadership to understand Chinese motivations and adopt a coherent security doctrine.
He discusses how the political leadership ignored Lt General Thorat’s counsel and evidence of Chinese buildup prior to the war in the chapter on the 1962 catastrophe.
He criticises a system that is “controlled by a politico-bureaucratic elite with inadequate knowledge of national security concerns,” and feels that the approach from the 1950s to the present is similar. Despite the fact that the book briefly discusses contemporary topics in the closing chapter, it would have been interesting to learn more about the author’s perspectives on existing conflicts.
Contested Lands is a well-researched piece of writing that weaves a compelling history of the neighbourhood with drama and happenings. Given the volume of literature already accessible, it’s difficult to offer much uniqueness to the subject.
Raza, on the other hand, offers a new, unified vision with a deft approach, keen observations, and forthright critique expressed in simple writing. Contested Lands is an important addition to the history of India-China that policymakers, army officers, academics, and others should read.
Probal DasGupta is the author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China, a book about history and international politics.