Review: Understanding the India China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas by Manoj Joshi
A painstakingly researched book on the border issue, it includes the interactions the author has had with those associated with the dispute
The 72-day (16 June to 28 August 2017) Doklam crisis was a turning point in the matter of the disputed border called the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China as it facilitated the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) passage from border management to war preparation.
Not only did China succeed in this, but it also managed to “shake Bhutan loose from the close embrace of India, something that had been determined more by geography than anything else” writes Manoj Joshi in Understanding the India China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas. Despite this realisation about Bhutan, however, Joshi misses the larger picture -- that China had managed to achieve three things. Of these, inducting forces in the WTC was the biggest win.
China’s third gain, also missed by Joshi, was to get the Indian Army to vacate the Doklam plateau where the claims of India and China remained unresolved. While China claimed Doklam as its territory, India insisted that it belonged to Bhutan. By compelling India to vacate its forces from Doklam to end the crisis after 13 rounds of bilateral talks, all held in Beijing (signifying that India rather than China was keen to end the crisis at the earliest), China effectively ended India’s narrative of the plateau belonging to Bhutan.
Who won at Doklam was answered by American analyst, M Taylor Fravel. According to him, “India’s had withdrawn first, and the Chinese would continue to be in Doklam, so the claims of victory (by India) were premature.’ Fravel was right. Sadly, India’s claimed pyrrhic victory would come to haunt it in May 2020 when the PLA did deep multi-pronged incursions in east Ladakh and occupied, as per the media reports, some 2,000 square kilometres of Indian territory. Already in the WTC, the PLA with little effort converted its routine exercise into an operation to conduct deep incursions into areas of east Ladakh which China claims were within its 1959 claim line. This added a new dimension of there being two LACs: The 1959 line claimed by China and the 1993 military line created under the 1993 bilateral agreement and held by the Indian Army. All of this finds no mention in the book.
While Joshi has written a chapter on Doklam, he has stuck to the official arguments. For example, according to him, “an important marker of Indian behaviour was the Doklam episode of 2017 when China was outplayed because its forces found themselves in a militarily disadvantageous position.” The reality was that the PLA deliberately chose this place to draw out the Indian army to achieve its military objectives.
Notwithstanding these omissions, the book’s strength is in its painstaking research and the interactions Joshi has had with people associated with the border dispute. The book starts with the 2020 Ladakh crisis, then takes the reader back briefly to the genesis of the current border crisis including the 1993 agreement and a few other events which have shaped the border dispute. Interestingly, the same period has been covered by India’s former national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon too in his book Choices.
It started with India’s revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir and creation of new maps showing Kashmir and Ladakh as two union territories. China said that Ladakh as Union Territory (UT) with defined borders was unacceptable to it for two reasons: portions of Aksai Chin under Chinese occupation had been shown as part of Ladakh UT, and India has drawn a cartographic border when no defined border had ever existed between Ladakh and China’s Xinjiang province. Since India did not make amends, China responded to India’s cartographic aggression with May 2020’s physical aggression in east Ladakh. Jaishankar knew this as he had travelled to China in August 2020 to explain that India’s new maps will not affect the position on the ground. China rejected his verbal retraction in the absence of the physical one, which entailed undoing the deed of 5 August 2019.
Joshi, however, chooses to go with the government narrative. He writes that if push comes to shove, “both have powerful armies and a major war between them would be devastating… and would set them (India and China’s) back by decades.” With the US seeking India’s military help in the Indian Ocean region to take on the Chinese military, Joshi may want to update his understanding of military power dynamics between India and China.
The writer is author of The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Countdown With China.