Partisans who scoff at any comparison between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Jawaharlal Nehru might be surprised to learn they shared a common vision when it came to their perception of China. Just as the recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory surprised the current government, India’s first prime minister was caught off-guard in the wake of the defeat in the Indo-China War of 1962.
The oft-cited reason of an intelligence failure propounded by RK Yadav in Mission R&AW doesn’t hold water with experts like Kingshuk Nag and Srinath Raghavan. Indeed, it is almost as if Nag had this stratagem by Sun Tzu in mind while penning his latest offering, The New Silk Road: India, China and the Geopolitics of Asia: “If you know your enemy and yourself, you need not fear the result for a hundred battles,” as the ancient philosopher and military strategist wrote. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
A New Silk Road is a timely intervention that blends the past, present, and future of an emerging superpower. Although it will offer non-academic readers some much-needed contextualized nuance about China, the book is not an extensive Indo-China diplomatic, political, or economic history, with explicit policy suggestions towards the end. It may not offer anything new to policy wonks and experts on Indo-China.
The old silk road was once a far-reaching trade network that linked China with Central Asia, Eastern and Western Europe. Within this grand apparatus, China was the nucleus for all commercial activity. The present-day Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiative seeks to replicate this economic belt via interconnected roadways, railways, ports, power grids, oil-gas pipelines, and other ambitious infrastructure projects that span Asia, Africa, and Europe. If this initiative comes to fruition, China will be a financial powerhouse with even more pull in world economy. This would also mean maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea for the up-and-coming power.
Nag deftly expands on these Chinese designs—such as the latter’s underhanded economic strategies through investments in Indian companies like Swiggy and PayTM or building of ports for India’s southern neighbour Sri Lanka—to extend its sphere of influence. Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, his portrait of the current prime minister as a politician who cultivated a strongman image shined in The NaMo Story: A Political Life. This time around, President Xi Jinping’s rough childhood, the shrewd manoeuvring of his political and personal lives, and his own bouts with re-education-cum-indoctrination provide some necessary insights into the autocratic leader's heavy-handedness.
Xi’s father was once close to Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China. During the 1966 Cultural Revolution, he fell out with the establishment. As the government clamped down on of his father’s alleged revolutionary tendencies, Xi had to take part in sessions, where he was required to criticize his Dad and his subversive ways. One may infer that Xi’s own political detoxification aimed at deconditioning him perhaps inspired the draconian, genocidal methods being inflicted upon Uighurs.
Clearly, the Uighur cleansing is aimed at removing certain ethno-religious elements which, China feels, pose a secessionist and geo-political threat to its ambitions. According to the 2010 census, Uighurs form 46% of the Xinjiang province, a major outlet of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The corridor is one of many essential BRI components. Sadly, despite the lucidity with which Nag explains these endeavours for geopolitical and economic dominance, there are no maps of the Indo-China region to help supplement his analysis.
India too has been at the receiving end of China’s aggression. Be it the 1962 War, the 2017 Doklam standoff, or the more recent confrontation, certain parallels between the three events are hard to ignore. These three watershed moments are dissected throughout the narrative by Nag to highlight their commonalities.
In the light of the effective abrogation of Article 370, Nag stresses on the strategic importance of Ladakh, the new union territory carved out of Jammu & Kashmir, vis-à-vis China and India. This (now) centrally administered territory and the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) portion of Pakistan Administered Kashmir were once part of the frontier district province under the Dogra-ruled princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. Being at the tri-junction of the path between Tibet, Xinjiang, GB, and mainland Pakistan, the land and rivers of Ladakh are also a part of China’s grander schemes. Since May 2020, the Indian meteorological department have showed weather forecasts of GB, thereby further asserting its claim over the state. With GB located on the border of Xinjiang—especially since it provides a land route between western China and numerous CPEC projects—such assertions have also prompted China’s recent adventurism in Ladakh.
As Nag writes: “Indian politics is a lot about rhetoric, but Chinese politics is mostly about strategy and action…. One journalist says, ‘You want to know why China acted this time, and in Ladakh? Difficult as it is to believe, the abrogation of Article 370 and creation of J&K and Ladakh as separate Union Territories….the constant display of the new Ladakh union territory map with Aksai Chin in the international media heightened their anxieties.’”
Contrary to all the WhatsApp forwards in the aftermath of the present-day skirmish, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has only disengaged its troops in the Galwan Valley, not the Depsang-Pangog Tso areas. Regardless of how belligerent a foe is, one should always give one’s opponent the respect they deserve. The problem is that Nehru gave a little too much of it to his nemesis in 1962. As for Modi, he didn’t so much as tip his hat.
Quite rightly therefore, throughout one’s reading of A New Silk Road, the ancient adage, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” continues to ring true.
Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.