Bruce Reidel&’s JFK&’s Forgotten Crisis, published this year by Harper Collins, Delhi, based on declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents relating to the Sino-Indian border conflict and Cuban missile crisis, is a “must read” for every-one interested in the North-east. It contains facts hitherto unknown about events that shaped the course of South Asian history following the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Korean war and Pakistan&’s role as an ally and facilitator in US actions in Tibet.
The US intervention followed the text book method of subversion — training of Tibetans in guerrilla warfare in simulated conditions in Colorado and airdropping them in Tibet by using facilities at Dhaka and Peshawar airports in Pakistan. This included regular U-2 spy flights over China that yielded strategic intelligence, such as early evidence of the Chinese plan to make nuclear bombs.
While Pakistan continued to provide logistics for the US Air force, it did not deter that country from seeking Chinese support after the 1962 Sino -Indian border war when it realised that the USA and the West would not favour any Pakistani adventure in Kashmir during the 1962 conflict and even thereafter as it opened up Indo-US and Western military collaboration and trade on a scale unthinkable before, the conflict erupted when shortcomings in Indian defence preparedness stood exposed.
The subsequent Pakistani tie-up with the Chinese, with tacit US support, was a classic case of Machiavellian real politics as Pakistan was building, at the same time, an alternative channel to China for future use of the USA; and this came handy for that country when, during the term of President Richard Nixon, Dr Henry Kissinger flew to China from Pakistan to begin a new chapter of US-China relationship.
This was the reason for the USA overlooking Chinese support to the Pakistani nuclear build-up, Sino-Pak collaboration in building strategic assets in Karakoram and the Chinese transfer of missile technology to Pakistan. Since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which made it a frontline state for the USA, Pakistan continues to hold a crucial strategic importance in the Western power game in Asia.
Notwithstanding the dramatic rise of the US-Sino trade and investment relationship after opening up of the Chinese economy, the Tibetan question remains in the international domain, causing some concerns for China despite its seemingly strong hold over Tibet.
Reidel&’s unstated message is that Tibet was the real cause of the Chinese aggression in 1962 and produced “the India-China-Pakistan Triangle” and “created the balance of power, the alliance structure and the arms race that still prevails in Asia”. And yet Sino-Indian trade expanded to make that country India&’s largest trading partner, which, even in the present recession, touched $65 billion in 2013, though down from $75 billion in raising strike corps in West Bengal to strengthen its defence infrastructure.
In this background, one needs to look at Reidel&’s views on the power game in South Asia from a North-east 2011 point of view. However, considering the strategic vulnerability of the North-east and east India, as evident during the 1962 conflict, India launched a massive strategic road building programme and perspective, the first thing that would strike an analyst is the vulnerability of the region arising from its division into eight states, and as multiple power centres that stand in the way of building a strategic approach to regional development and security.
As if anticipating this constraint, the North Eastern Council Act (1972) provided for a security review role for the council&’s task of preparing a regional plan. While the first was not even attempted, the other was reduced to just an additive plan to fund infrastructure projects and technical institutions of regional importance. Thus, the NEC plan, together with the state and Central plans, did not create economic and technological capabilities that could enable the North-east to be a partner in the vibrant Southeast Asian economy. And this has also security implications as well because as South China economy grew it needed access to the Bay of Bengal. In today&’s global power game, regional security is best assured through trade developing “interests” and constituencies in the neighbourhood, investment and exchange of knowledge and technology by cooperation so that conflict is substituted by competition and competition is a game that is played according to an internationally approved set of rules that preclude war as a means of settling international disputes.
Thus, there is strength in Reidel&’s argument that “China and India are not in a state of conflict — they are competitors, not enemies”. There is also no religious or civilisational faultlines either. Hence, the North-east region must put its act together to build an economic and technological outreach capability geared to make India a major player in Southeast Asia.
One must note that geography is economic destiny and the North-east region was once the very centre of the second Silk Route that ran from Sichuan through Yunnan in south China to the North-east and from there on to northwestern India, Afghanistan and Iran.
This was discovered by Chinese scholar and trader Chang Chein in 126 BC in Bactria (now Balkh in Afghanistan). It is time to revisit this journey and revive the famed second silk road for development with real security founded on commonalities of interest. The task before the North-east states is to strategise this idea for renewal of the region.
The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and was a member, Academic Council, National Defence College of India.