Look East,Look Sharp

The rise of China has reopened the less celebrated front of the Great Game,arching from Tibet to the Andamans

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: October 20, 2012 2:35:56 am

Book: Great Game East India,China and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile frontier

Author: Bertil Lintner

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs. 699

Pages: 442

The much-used metaphor of the Great Game initially described the extended rivalry between Calcutta and Moscow through most of the 19 th and early 20 th centuries for influence in Afghanistan,Iran and the Khanates of Central Asia.

Bertil Lintner,the well-known journalist and chronicler of Myanmar and the regions that connects India,China and Southeast Asia,reminds us that the Great Game was never limited to the subcontinent’s North-western marches.

Lintner narrates the less-told story of the Great Game in the northeastern frontiers of the subcontinent and its new relevance for India amidst the rise of China as a great power.

The Great Game was,in essence,about the British Raj’s determination to keep the rival European powers at arms length from the subcontinent.

Although Calcutta was mostly concerned about the Russian threat,it had to deal with the French forays in the late 18 th and 19 th centuries and the German advances in the 20 th.

The Raj created a variety of administrative (inner lines and outer lines of territorial sovereignty) and political arrangements (buffer states and client regimes) in the frontier regions that few empires had ever exercised full control over for any length of time.

In the northwest,the Raj was sought a measure of control over the lawless lands beyond the great Indus making Afghanistan a protectorate of the Raj.

In the northeast the Great Game was about the adventures of the Raj across the mighty Brahmaputra that led to the annexation of Burma in 1885 and the opening up of Tibet in 1903-04.

China’s decline through the 19 th century,the difficult terrain of the mountains and jungles of Burma,and the ability to fend off European powers in Asia,seemed to make the northeastern frontiers of the Raj quite secure.

If Japan shook the Raj out of its complacency in the 1940s by occupying Burma and setting up a nationalist government in the Andamans,the rise of Communist China enormously complicated the management of independent India’s northeastern frontiers.

The partition of the subcontinent relieved India of the direct burdens of the Great Game in the northwest. India no longer had physical access to Afghanistan and Iran and it was Pakistan that continued the Great Game in partnership with the United States.

The partition,however,severely tested India in the northeast where it had to cope with new and challenging geographic realities — Chinese control of Tibet,the emergence of East Pakistan,the collaboration between Pakistan and China,and an independent but weak state in Burma.

Further complicating the situation was the fact that unlike the empires of the past,the nationalist governments in China,India and Burma could no longer treat their frontier regions as buffer zones.

Those empires had no emotional attachment to far-flung territories; they were mere instruments in the management relations with other empires.

For the nation-states that succeeded them,asserting territorial sovereignty over what were only loosely linked regions was a grand ideological imperative.

If nationalism was a burning motivation to consolidate territorial sovereignty,the new rulers had a hard time following through on the ground. Their efforts to promote centralised control over the peripheral regions were not always successful and created deep resentment and persistent revolts in Tibet,India’s northeast,and Burma’s northern territories.

The disaffection of those in the frontiers provided opportunities for the states in the region as well as the great powers for destabilisation and political leverage.

Lintner,who has travelled extensively in these regions — legally and illegally — tells us stories from these volatile frontiers,the aspirations for separation and autonomy among the indigenous peoples,and the external support to dissident movements across the borders. His experience as a journalist and mastery over detail makes this narrative easy to absorb.

Linter begins the story in Tibet,the Chinese occupation in the 1950s,the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959,the Sino-Indian border war of 1962,and the U.S. efforts to support Tibetan rebels from India and Nepal.

If China was angry with what it saw as Indian intervention in its internal affairs,Beijing,supported by Pakistan’s I.S.I.,began to back the rebel movements in India’s northeast from the 1960s to late 1980s,when Delhi and Beijing began their slow normalsation of their bilateral relations.

After he covers the internal and external dimensions of the conflicts in Nagaland,Mizoram and Manipur,Linter surveys the complex dynamic between Assam and Bangladesh,the enormous consequences of migration on the ethnic balances and the aggravation of regional conflict.

Lintner’s fabulous tale then turns to Burma and the impact of its internal dynamics on India’s northeast and China’s South Western Province of Yunnan and its special importance in the unfolding Sino-Indian rivalry.

Linter’s grand survey of the Great Game in the East concludes in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and extension of the Sino-Indian rivalry into the Indian Ocean.

In sketching the complexities of the geopolitical arc stretching from Tibet to the Andaman Sea,Linter helps us better understand the mounting challenges on our northern and eastern frontiers amidst the rapid rise of Chinese power.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow,Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express

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