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  • China’s Fourth World Borderlands
  • Edward Friedman (bio)
Sulmaan Wasift Khan. Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. xxiv, 189 pp. Hardcover $34.95, isbn 978-1-4696-2110-4.
Bertil Lintner. Great Game East: India, China, and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. vi, 343 pp. Hardcover $35.00, isbn 978-0-30-019567-5.

In a state-centric approach to international relations, a nation-state is, at its core, a capital with an army and, usually, a language. The mainstream approach to China– India foreign policy therefore can be reduced to Beijing–New Delhi relations. From this perspective, Beijing–Delhi relations are about how state centers manage flows across borders, goods and people, trade and migration.

In contrast, Lintner and Khan, in line with the postmodern negation of “centrism,” ask readers to de-center the nation and to focus not on the capital but on the peoples of the frontiers and the borderlands. These cross-border communities are threatened by self-aggrandizing and narcissistic centers demanding purity and loyalty. When Beijing insists that people cannot be both Tibetan and Nepalese or Chinese and Sikkimese (Khan, p. 67), it turns cross-border people into traitors. The communities are made vulnerable targets of state power. The center’s relation to the state’s periphery crucially informs the nature of state power and the relationship with the neighbor on the other side of the new border. Borderland studies, a field of knowledge with its own journal, has much to teach. It suggests that a singular and homogenous national identity does not offer a solution to complex issues of community identity.

For much of human history, large aggregations of people lived in empires with divine rulers — kings, emperors, shahs, khans, tsars, etc. Empires waxed and waned. Frontiers expanded or shrank as power expanded or shrank. There were no fixed borders behind which lived citizens who could get legal travel documents. The nation-state, however, would destroy the open frontier regions of prior empires.

Modern India was founded in 1947, the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Lintner and Khan ask about the fate of frontier peoples in these new states. [End Page 97] Cross-border communities were not part of the liberation or independence movement in either China or India. They therefore do not, out of an imagined historical experience, identify with the new nation. Burmese or Indian patriots, before the nation won independence from Britain, could ally with a militarily expansionist Japan. These patriots would treat the prior colonial national army as the inherited tool of colonial rulers. They could even reach out to borderland communities. Complex clashes would ensue. The consequences would be long lasting.

On both sides of a new border are people, not just nomads, whose economic fate still depends on being able to freely cross what were once open frontiers that have suddenly become controlled borders run by groups who are not friendly to frontier peoples. Such cross-border communities are likely to be suspected by the new state of disloyalty to the new state. Indeed, frontier communities can experience the new central state as the greatest threat to the very survival of their community, ethnicity, tribe, or nation.

In the China–India case, those suspected of disloyalty by one nation-state, let’s say India, for example, Naga (Lintner, chap. 2), Mizo (chap. 3), Manipuri (chap. 4), or Assamese (chap. 5) may be courted, and even welcome being courted by the government of India’s rival, China or Myanmar or Pakistan. The threatened border community can experience help from the foreign power as a welcome lifesaver, although its own state center sees something else, a subversive tie to a rival state, which means it no good.

The big question for state formation then is how, say, a Chinese Communist Party state will respond to the ambiguous position of Nagas on the Indian side of the border or Tibetans on the Chinese side. The major hypothesis that follows from this logic of threat and survival for frontier peoples who historically cross...


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