Buck on Lintner, 'China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World'

Bertil Lintner
David Buck

Bertil Lintner. China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxviii + 320 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-947555-1.

Reviewed by David Buck (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) Published on H-Asia (January, 2019) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53374

The India-China War of 1962

Bertil Lintner, a freelance Swedish journalist, has been skewering Southeast Asian autocrats for decades, most often in the pages of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. Burmese (Myanmar) governments have been a special target, but his sharply critical, well-researched articles and books have taken on the Thai and Laotian governments, the policies of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), Chinese crime in Southeast Asia, and numerous others including North Korea, East Timor’s long struggles for independence, and the misdeeds of the Nepali politicians. His latest book is a reassessment of the 1962 China-India War.

The open conflict lasted only a few weeks in October and November 1962. It was fought along the borders of the new states of the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. The conflict with the People’s Republic of China occurred when China started to deepen its control in Tibet. Interpretation of the war quickly became a subject of intense debate among scholars and remains a contentious subject more than fifty years later. The dominant interpretation derives from Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War (1970) in which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and India are cast as aggressive and precipitating the war. Maxwell’s account leans heavily on a partial copy of the India Army’s self-assessment of the war, the secret Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report. In it two officers voice strong criticism of both the Indian government’s policies and the Indian Army’s conduct of the war. They did not pass judgment on China’s responsibility for the war and accepted China’s claim that it acted defensively. The diplomatic historian Alistair Lamb also both blamed India for causing the war and judged the outcome as a serious defeat for India. There were others who felt that China bore equal or greater responsibility, but their voices have not been as influential as Maxwell and Lamb. Prime Minister Nehru, some claim, was so upset by criticism of India’s role that it hastened his death in 1964. An undeniable consequence was the collapse of Nehru’s nonalignment policy that offered a third way in the deepening Cold War.

Lintner in this book joins those who want to blame China for starting the 1962 war. He writes, “Maxwell’s version of events leading up to the 1962 War do not stand up to serious scrutiny” (p. xi). Instead he believes Chinese aggressiveness caused the war. In his view the People’s Republic of China redefined the colonial-era borders in South Asia shortly after taking control of Tibet. They built new roads to enable movement of supplies and men to the border, established forward military bases, and recruited agents to undermine the existing borders. China moved to active warfare only when the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 created a diversion of world attention. Lintner does not have any Chinese government documents or statements to back this interpretation, but rather has deduced Chinese responsibility from a fine-grained analysis of Chinese and Indian activities along the disputed border. The remaining two hundred pages of his book present a heavily footnoted account of how China has continued to advance its territorial ambitions along the Sino-Indian border regions. He recounts how China’s aggressiveness has undermined the independent and semi-independent Indian border states in return for China’s diplomatic and material support. In recent years, to further their dominance the Chinese have increasingly used loans, grants, and probably bribes with funds from China’s enormously successful policies of state capitalism.

In spite of all these details of how China has prevailed along the Sino-Indian border, Lintner’s book lacks a clear statement of the patterns found within China’s policies. Without directly stating a conclusion, his books argues that a succession of Chinese governments since the eighteenth century—the Qing dynasty, the Nationalist governments beginning in 1912, and the Communist state since 1949—have asserted claims to any territory that appears to have been under Chinese control in the past while trying to assimilate those territories' populations into a Han-dominated political system. Such a pattern fits what China has done in Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea in recent years. Most obviously in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has denigrated native religions, suppressed local languages, forbidden many cultural practices, and imposed political reeducation, arrest and punishment on the non-Han population while encouraging Han immigration to those lands.

Chinese spokespersons have advanced three complementary arguments to support their expanding assimilationist policies. Increasingly these days, Chinese spokespersons argue that China must have unquestioning unity to a homogeneous Han Chinese culture to insure that China’s century of humiliation by Western imperialism will never reappear. In order to correct China’s past humiliation all challenges to the leadership of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party cannot be tolerated.[1] Peter Perdue, in China Marches West (2005) describes Qing dynasty military efforts to bring the peoples of China’s western borderlands under its control in the eighteenth century. The Qing gave these newly conquered lands the name Xinjiang (New Region). In the 1930s the American geographer Owen Lattimore foresaw that the Han Chinese would overrun the Mongols and other non-Han peoples. This was a major theme of Lattimore’s scholarship and is clearly stated in The Pivot of Asia (1950), in which he and other scholars review the recent events in Xinjiang. Today, a favored official explanation of assimilationist policies is as a defense against the reappearance of foreign imperialism.

Since coming to power in 1949 China has used a two-step approach to assimilating non-Han regions. First, the People’s Republic of China has undertaken a series of border wars or clashes to establish its control over specific sections of China’s borders. The most prominent of these have gone on for years before settlement. After the fighting ceased Chinese authorities have stepped up assimilationist policies including Chinese-language education, suppression of various religions, Han Chinese immigration, and detention and incarceration of local populations for ideological remolding.[2]

Whatever the explanation—Han chauvinism, the overrunning of nomadic peoples by agricultural and industrial states, a means of defense against the return of foreign imperialism—it is clear all of these have been at work in Chinese border policies and efforts to assimilate non-Han peoples in China. The only surprise in Lintner’s new book is his failure to consider the patterns that underlay his account of Chinese rule in Central Asia during the last three centuries.


[1]. Wang Qishan, keynote speech at the Bloomberg New Economic Forum in Singapore, November 6, 2018, Bloomberg TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch/v-WcZLmrhpQhU, accessed November 17, 2018.

[2]. Ian Johnson, “The Uighers and China’s Long History of Trouble with Islam,” New York Review of Books, November 23, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/11/23/the-uighurs-and-chinas-long-history-of-trouble-wi... November 25, 2018. Johnson emphasizes Han Chinese intolerance toward Abrahamic religions.

Citation: David Buck. Review of Lintner, Bertil, China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53374

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