In the background of a perceived shift in global power from the West to the East, future relations between a rising China and India are a fit subject for analysis and speculation. The title of Bertil Lintner’ book - “Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier” whets even more the reader’s appetite as it conjures up chess-board strategic moves and countermoves by China and India to promote their respective geopolitical interests in the insurgency-ridden region spanning India’s North-east and Burma.
Associated with the Far Eastern Economic Review for 20 years, with expertise on ethnic minorities and insurgencies in South East Asia and South Asia, and personal knowledge of ground conditions and contact with key rebel leaders, Lintner’s credentials for writing this book are impressive. In 1985 he travelled with his Shan wife 2275 kilometers overland from north-east India- which he entered illegally- through rebel held Burmese territory to China, for which he was blacklisted by the Indian government until the early 2000s.
The author acquaints the reader with the historical roots of the insurgencies in India’s north-east, their evolution, the role played by China, Bangladesh and Pakistan in providing arms, training, shelter and travel assistance to the insurgents, and India’s political astuteness in containing the revolts. Lintner credits India with masterly use of Kautilya’s four principles of sham (political reconciliation), dan ( monetary inducement), danda (force) and bhed (split) to control if not end the insurgencies, and admires R&AW’s human intelligence capabilities that combined with Kautilya’s maxims on statecraft makes it, according to him, a formidable force- a view hardly supported by the organization’s current reputation.
China’s direct support ended with Deng Xiao Ping’s ascendancy but Indian insurgents apparently continue to have access to the grey arms market in Yunnan run as private businesses by former officers of the PLA. Under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s support to ULFA and Manipuri rebels has ceased, which makes Pakistan’s mischief-making more difficult.
Lintner tries to fit the seemingly localized conflicts in the region into its geopolitics defined by the rising Indian challenge to Chinese supremacy in Asia, the differences between the two over Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese arms supply links with ethnic rebel movements in India’s north-east, with continuing turmoil in Burma providing the vital geographical link for such activity. But Lintner also says, somewhat contradictorily with the book’s title, that while the Himalayas will remain important strategically, the main conflict of interest between India and China will play out in the Indian Ocean.
This book should caution those in India who are enticed by the idea of linking Yunnan to India’s north-east to end its isolation and enable its development in a regional context. It also underscores the necessity of a lasting solution to insurgencies in the north-east for the connectivity through Burma and Thailand to Singapore that our Look East policy seeks to establish.
This is a book by a journalist, not an international relations scholar, and relies a great deal on anecdotes and personal accounts. There is much detail that displays the author’s rich knowledge of personalities and events in the separate chapters on the Nagas, Mizos, Manipur, Assam and Bangladesh as well as Burma, but it is the introductory chapter and that on the Indian Ocean that provides some geopolitical perspective.
The book does not quite live up to its dramatic title. On closing it the reader is not left with the feeling of having experienced the strategic thrills of a new Great Game East being played out inexorably by the elephant and the dragon.
Published Date: 2nd October 2012