- Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China's Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands by Sulmaan Wasif Khan
Sulmaan Wasif Khan's Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy describes the process through which the newly-formed government of People's Republic of China (PRC) de-limited and made the border between Tibet and the surrounding states less porous throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The book is part of the "New Cold War History" series edited by Odd Arne Westad. Khan succeeds in fulfilling the aim of the series: to introduce readers to unknown conflicts in the Cold War through the use of new archival sources in a number of different languages. As Khan describes it, throughout the early years of the Cold War, the central government in Beijing had little control over both the nomadic herders and the settled peoples who inhabited and traversed the Tibetan plateau. However, after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the PRC transitioned from what Khan calls "empire-lite to a harder, heavier imperial formation" (2) in the Tibetan borderlands. As the PRC government consolidated their new state, they had to rely on and came into more frequent contact with "non-state actors" on the frontier, who, Khan argues, "had a dramatic impact on the nature of diplomacy in China" (2). Unlike Taiwan, Xinjiang or Korea, Tibet became a place where the PRC could "articulate its outward looking foreign policy" (28). Border incidents involving Tibetans created a rapprochement between the Chinese state and their Southeast and South Asian neighbours, showcasing how Tibetans played an active role in the development of Chinese foreign policy [End Page 641] during the Cold War (82). At its heart, the book addresses the ageold question of state-making and the perceived illegibility of nomadic peoples on the edges of empire. Khan includes the peoples of the peripheries into the history of the demarcation of Chinese borders during the Cold War.
Khan's Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy opens with a cast of characters and a sequence of events — a welcome inclusion given the complexity of the topic to non-specialist readers. There are also a number of maps to familiarize readers with the geography of the region. The prologue and chapter one explain the historical context surrounding the Dalai Lama's decision to leave Tibet. The next two chapters follow the international diplomatic maneuverings in the region and at the United Nations, which followed his departure and the subsequent hardening of the borders between China, Nepal, and India. Chapter four describes how people traveling back and forth over the newly-delineated border were dealt with by Chinese and Indian officials on either side.
The book is very short: Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy is 136 pages with at least eight of these pages dedicated to maps. There are, however, over thirty pages of explanatory endnotes in a smaller, more-condensed font. This means that many of Khan's theoretical underpinnings, central arguments, definition of terms, and historiographical interjections are relegated to the back of the book. Careful readers might be perplexed and mildly annoyed by this, but to general readers attracted by the flashy title and for scholars outside the field, the burdens of unfamiliar historiographical arguments and terminological disclaimers are carefully tucked away in dense paragraphs in the back of the book, making for a quick and pleasant read.
However, the length of the book also raises a number of questions. Why, for instance, does Khan end his narrative just short of the 1962 Sino-Indian border War, which seems to be the logical culmination of his approach to interstate relations in the Tibetan frontier zone? Furthermore, his repeated insistence that Tibetans were "cosmopolitan" is never fully rectified with his assertions that Tibet was an "unruly" "wild" and "untamed" place. The contradiction is glaring, but not very well fleshed out. To this reviewer, claiming that Tibet was "stateless," or, as Khan...