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China's Borders: Settlements and Conflicts

27 May 2014
reviewer Professor Stuart Harris

Neville Maxwell has long been known to specialists as a London Times reporter at the time of the India-China war in 1962 over disputed borders between the two countries.  He has spent much of his time since then researching this and other border disputes involving China.  He argues from the series of his papers included in this compendium that China has a policy of negotiating territorial and boundary questions and that in respect of border disputes China has generally been accommodating.  His case gains strong support in most of the examples he discusses which as well as the India-China war, includes the Russia-China compromise decision on Bear Island despite the military conflict in 1969.  The notable exception he identifies is Vietnam.

On the India-China clash, he eventually concluded, based on considerable access to secret Indian and Chinese documents that, contrary to the widely accepted Indian view that China was the aggressor, the 1962 war resulted from a pre-emptive strike (Forward Policy) by India into land claimed by China.  India refused to negotiate, even to discuss the issue, or to accept that a dispute existed.  Nehru also believed, wrongly, that China would not react to India’s move. Why India (or Nehru) and China took their particular positions has been widely debated elsewhere in the literature with explanations including their respective security concerns and the competing roles and legitimacies of both countries in post-colonial leadership.

India’s failure, however, to release any documents from the period has enabled its domestic nationalists and the West to continue to support India’s view of China as the aggressor. Importantly, Maxwell includes an introduction to the still highly-classified Henderson Brooks/Bhagat report of 1963 on the Indian military debacle.  Maxwell obtained a copy of this report which he made available on the Internet in 2013.  This remarkable official Indian report makes clear that it was India that breached the post-colonial border status quo and did so against the advice of much of the professional military.

This book brings together some of Maxwell’s significant writings on China’s borders with India and the Soviet Union/Russia; together with a paper on Christopher Patten’s controversial role in the UK/Hong Kong settlement.  Despite a degree of overlapping of individual selections this valuable book sets out many of Maxwell’s writings not easily available elsewhere.  It should help to put a different perspective on widely-held views of the 1962 war and the various motivations involved.

Neville Maxwell, China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014

Reviewed by Professor Stuart Harris, Australian National University