September 21, 2014

A Cuckoo Strategy on China

Vol - XLIX No. 38, September 20, 2014 | Atul Bhardwaj 
Book Reviews
Deep Currents and Rising Tides: The Indian Ocean and International Security edited by John Garofano and Andrew J Dew (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press), 2013; pp xvii + 331, $32.95. Asymmetrical Threat Perception in India-China Relations by Tien-sze Fang (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2014; pp xv + 247, Rs 795.
Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific by C Raja Mohan (Washington DC: Carnegie Foundation), 2012; pp xii + 360, $19.95.
Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior: Growing Power and Alarm by George J Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2012; pp xxx + 376, £22.99.
Atul Bhardwaj ( is an ICSSR senior fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.
In a vintage warship, the crow's nest is the topmost spot on the ship's mast from where a "lookout" scans the seas for incoming danger. In a modern warship this vantage point has been replaced by the radar. However, for students of strategy, the story of the cuckoo surreptitiously laying eggs in the crows' nest continues to be relevant. The wise crow is lured out of his nest into a chase when provoked by the continuously jarring sounds produced by the male cuckoo. While the crow is busy in hot pursuit, the female cuckoo quietly moves into the crow's nest, throws out some of the crow's eggs, thereby making place to lay her eggs. Unknowingly, the crow warms all the eggs and nurtures the babies when the eggs hatch.
The crow is a perfect example of a strategic sucker. In the secular world too, there are nations who are suckered to provide their military manpower to fight someone else's war. The first question to ask vis-à-vis China is whether the 1962 conflict was India's own war? The lack of dispassionate analysis of the period has led Indian strategic thought to shy away from identifying and naming the cuckoo that clandestinely came and laid its egg in the Indian nest.
Foreign Strategy of India
According to K M Panikkar, America and Apa Pant were the twin factors responsible for a sudden deterioration in Sino-Indian relations in the mid-1950s (Gupta 1982: 14). A powerful American lobby having deep links with all political parties in India, barring the Communist Party of India, pushed the Indian establishment on an escalatory path vis-à-vis China that eventually resulted in a border war. Apa Pant, India's political officer in Sikkim (1955-61), was instrumental in building a Tibet lobby within India. He convinced many "senior Indian political leaders like Jai Prakash Narain, G B Pant and the ex-president Rajendra Prasad to take up the Tibetan cause as their own" (Gupta 1982: 15). Purshottam Das Trikamdas, an old associate of Apa Pant, inspired the international commission of jurists to publish two reports on Tibet in 1959 and 1960 with an aim to establish that Tibet enjoyed de facto sovereignty between 1912 and 1951.
In 1959, India entered the game of brinkmanship vis-à-vis China and kept climbing up the escalation ladder. India was gullible enough to follow western instructions both on Tibet and its boundary with China and ended up fighting a frivolous war. By allowing asylum to Dalai Lama, India acted like a foolish crow that hatched American strategic eggs. The United States (US) actions in Tibet provoked the Sino-Indian war that fulfilled the American goal of preventing any possibility of Soviet Union, China and India forming a progressive joint front against western imperialism. The 1962 war was used to widen the wedge in the communist bloc and inch closer towards making Mao Zedong, a "Chinese Tito", who could speak openly against the Soviets (Xiang 1992: 319). The conflict shook Jawaharlal Nehru's belief in non-alignment, teaching him an unforgettable lesson on the relevance of empires in the postcolonial world.
Some argue that recent scientific studies have revealed that not all varieties of cuckoos are cunning. In some cases, the pungent juices secreted by the newlyhatched baby cuckoos protect the nest from being attacked by predators, thereby ensuring that the left-behind baby crows are also nurtured in a protected environment. According to this logic, America was not a cunning cuckoo since the war proved beneficial for some in India too. The US, by instigating India to take on China, helped the capitalist-driven Indian state to stem the growth of the left movement in India. The venom spewed against the communists during and in the wake of the 1962 war was enough to cause a three-way divide in the Communist Party of India and push the leftist forces on the defensive for times to come. An editorial in The IndianExpress of 6 November 1962 suggested that people should
keep our country consolidated by weeding out the indigenous communist vermin from such organisations and bodies into which, behind the facade of fellow travellers, they have infiltrated. There can be no place for these faceless traitors in any war committee or council. Despite their belated protestations of patriotism they cannot be trusted and must be put effectively beyond the pale.
Masked in realpolitik, the national chauvinist evangelism surged in the wake of the 1962 war. It has continued to serve the Indian elite's ideological interests that perceive the Chinese threat to the American empire as their national concern.
Twin American Contributions
In the initial years after Independence, the twin American contributions that laid the intellectual groundwork for an Indian foreign policy aimed at acquiring regional primacy were the Monroe doctrine and Alfred Thayer Mahan's concepts of sea power and overseas naval bases. In March 1953, at the end of his first stint as the US ambassador to India, Chester Bowles apprised Nehru of the Monroe doctrine and its applicability in the Indian context. He advised Nehru that in order to "preempt potential Communist advancements", he should take charge of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, Burma and Tibet and drive out all external influences (primarily China) from its vicinity. This, according to Bowles, was the best way for India to maintain its neutrality (Iscoe 2010: 8).

A scenario where Japan, China, India and Russia may combine to end centuries-long western dominance of the Indo-Pacific maritime space is never allowed to be considered as a viable strategic option. History is, however, replete with examples of efforts to forge a pan Asian solidarity. In 1913, Katsura Taro, Japan's acting Prime Minister, a soldier-politician, proposed to Sun Yat-Sen, the Chinese nationalist leader, the launch of a joint Sino-Japanese effort to liberate India. Taro felt that booting out the British from India would relieve Japan of the necessity to "worry about land for colonisation and commerce" and liberate it from pursuing the "crude policy of conquest" (Altman and Schiffrin 1972: 387-88).
The general paranoia related to the rise of China and unflinching faith in the myth of "unipolar peacefulness" is perplexing.
The first two decades of the unipolar era have been anything but peaceful…In all the US has been at war for 13 of the 22 years since the end of the Cold War… The first two decades of unipolarity, which make up less than 10% of US history, account for more than 25% of the nation's total time at war (Monteiro 2012: 11).
Out of the 30 days that the India-China war lasted, for 18 days the Indian Parliament and press were engaged in driving out Krishna Menon from the Ministry of Defence (Ghose 1993: 292). The remaining 12 days were spent in preparing a shopping list of arms to be presented to the Americans.
One of the biggest fallout of the 1962 war was the growth of arms lobbies in India. On 26 November 1962, one week after the Sino-Indian war ended, T T Krishnamachari (popularly known as TTK), a minister without portfolio in Nehru's cabinet, wrote a personal and confidential letter to the cabinet secretary, S S Khera, lobbying for the immediate procurement of M-14 guns from Harrington and Richardson Arms Company of Massachusetts. Intriguingly, along with TTK, Partap Singh Kairon, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, was also involved in meeting the arms agents.1
This North-South bonhomie in the arms business offers a perfect example of the ad hocism and political interference that has plagued Indian defence purchases since Independence. However, this crucial cultural malaise is rarely considered as a factor in analysing India's national strategy. Paradoxically, those who profess greater indigenisation are also the biggest advocates for hastening the process of importing arms and ammunition from abroad.
The modernisation of the forces with indigenised equipment is a long-drawn out process that requires protracted peace. However, the Indian defence and foreign affairs establishment, married to theories of "security dilemma", "international anarchy" and "balance of power", can hardly appreciate the need for deliberately lowering the threat levels to achieve national objectives. Should India impose a moratorium on its desire to appear masculine? Why should India not explore the possibility of an isolationist foreign policy? It is sacrilegious to pose such questions, because it is tantamount to disrespecting Kautilya and the western realpolitik scholars ranging from Machiavelli to Mearsheimer.
Take for example, the recent raising of a mountain strike corps in the eastern sector, consisting of 40,000 troops and costing Rs 60,000 crore. This mobilisation of men and money is justified by digging out the ghost of the 1962 war and echoing the weather-beaten American theories of Chinese threat and irredentism. The predominance of security matters in the India-China matrix has needlessly rocked the boat and made the two neighbours sit on a powder keg. The net result is that the precious Rs 60,000 crore that should have gone to beef up indigenisation plans has been spent on creating a military asset that will continue to draw its feed from the foreign military industry.
It is hard to discount the fact that much of the anti-China rhetoric in India emanates from the international arms and currency bazaars, especially when New Delhi is the largest importer of arms in the world and China's growing economic might is seen as a direct threat to the supremacy of the dollar.
Familiar Chant of Bazaars
The four recent books discussed here echo the familiar chant of bazaars that well-nigh pray for strained Sino-Indian ties. Some authors simply reiterate the India-China disagreements over Tibet and unsettled borders, others who find the two contentious issues inadequate to keep the Asian giants apart for long insist on extending the rivalry into oceans and the nuclear realm. The common thread running through these analyses is the underlying assumption that the US is a benign balancer in the region and India should not contest American hegemony. The authors believe that America has a central role in mitigating the China-India conundrum. A trilateral dialogue between India, China and America is prescribed to calm the maritime commons.
In Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior: Growing Power and Alarm, Gilboy and Heginbotham talk of India and China's strategic culture and how those historical and social moorings could be best utilised by America. Raja Mohan's Samudra Manthan sees the surging economies of the Asian giants and their expansionist urges as a cause of Mahanian resurgence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He almost treats India and China as the East India Company and Dutch East India Company respectively who will entangle themselves in a war for resources and profits. Such western and much of the Indian analyses imagine the Indian and Chinese armada competing on the high seas to establish their naval bases in Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles in the IOR. It is also imagined that the Indian navy in order to maintain its perceived hold over the Indian Ocean would interdict the China-bound oil tankers and choke their growth. Tien-sze Fang in Asymmetrical Threat Perceptions in India-China Relations uses constructivist studies to understand the perception of a threat in India-China dynamics, but arrives at the realists' conclusion that sees "security dilemma" as the raison d'être that prevents India-China ties from resting on an even keel. Tien-sze Fang's nuanced theoretical understanding of India's "misperceptions" with regard to Chinese intentions is helpful in drawing a correct picture of the problems in current Sino-Indian relations.
Samudra Manthan that talks about churning of the Indian Ocean misses the point that the mythological magic potion of immortality is no longer concentrated in the oceans, it has proliferated to the global financial markets, where daily trade amounts to trillions of dollars. The ratio of global financial assets to global gross domestic product (GDP) is now above 450 in developed countries (Sassen 2008: 187).
The financial deepening of advanced as well as emerging economies is one of the major reasons for the western world's bold alteration of course away from the seas. Holmes and Yoshihara's chapter, "In Red lines for Sino Indian Rivalry", inDeep Currents and Rising Tides: The Indian Ocean and International Security, highlights the opposing approaches to sea power in Europe and Asia. On the one hand, the West seems to have transcended Mahan, entering a 'post modern', 'post-Mahanian' age in which high seas combat appears almost unthinkable…Asians by contrast inhabit a 'modern', 'neo-Mahanian' in which naval war becomes a reality (pp 187-88).
Just as in the 20th century, America used maritime strategy as a subset of a grand strategy to deal with the balance of power, it is once again trying to do the same by poking its nose in the South and East China Sea disputes between sovereign nations. One sees a great deal of commonality between the current Sino-US maritime competition (in which India is being used as a pawn) and the Anglo-American maritime rivalry during the interwar years. It was a period when the naval problem ranked with reparation as the most serious international problem. Much of the maritime problems in the 1920s resulted from Anglo-French fears related to emerging competition to their colonial holdings. The 1922 Naval Treaty arrived at the Washington conference was successful only for a couple of years, mainly because it did not account for the fast declining combat capacities of the warships in the era of naval aviation and submarine warfare. This resulted in the need for further review of international navies and restricting their tonnage or type. The Three-Power Naval Conference in 1927 between the US, Great Britain and Japan failed to arrive at a common denominator to measure the navies. The US did not approve of the greater expansion in the cruiser strength of the United Kingdom's naval power and any limitations on the type of vessels that America wanted to invest in (Dulles 1929).
The naval negotiations of the interwar years, between the rising and the declining international powers, were primarily focused on putting restrictions on the naval vessels and their armament. Another element in the American strategy was to apply moral pressure on the Anglo-French to retain their colonial status. Throughout the 1930s, Anglo-American tussle continued on the maritime high table. It is only in the ABC Conference of 29 January-29 March 1941 that the Americans finally convinced the British to accept their "Atlantic First" strategy which, according to General George Marshall, meant, "If we lose in the Atlantic we lose every-where" (Offner 1978: 832).
Ongoing Power Game
With Asia now emerging on the global economic stage, America is focused on an "Asia First" strategy. The strategy is to deepen the schism within the Asian community and project the rise of China as morally repugnant and militarily threatening. America (primarily due to money constraints) is seeking help from India, Japan and the Philippines to make China divert its resources to spending more money and energy in managing the maritime issues in South and East China Sea.
It is under these circumstances that one sees the Chinese proposal of a "Maritime Silk Road", as a counter-strategy, a conciliatory strategic gesture, or probably a Chinese version of the Monroe doctrine. As Robert Kaplan says in his latest book, Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End to a Stable Pacific, China is seeking an Asian version of the Monroe doctrine, an approach that helped America take over from European nations as the supreme power in the western hemisphere. Kaplan is of the opinion that the US must encourage "a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region's largest indigenous power".
What Kaplan is saying is that China, the sleeping partner of the US in the cold war, must now play an active role on behalf of Washington in the ensuing US-Russian rivalry. America wanted Chiange-Kai-shek to be the US policeman in Asia-Pacific region and subsequently expected Mao to perform that role.
The 21st century power game is not ideological – nor is it between players with huge asymmetries in terms of wealth and technology. In the 1950s, China only had nationalism and a bit of ideology to defend itself. Now, in addition, it is also rich. However, the role of China in shaping the contours of future regional and global politics remains as important now as it was in the past in shaping the final outcome of the cold war.
In this ongoing power game, should India be in the playing 11 or decide to be the 12th man? Should India remain indifferent to China's geopolitical rise or help America maintain the status quo and retain its supremacy? Working in aid of the US entails India to partake in US military adventures. Gilboy and Heginbotham attempt to extrapolate from ancient Chinese and Indian texts their respective propensity to use force and willingness to sacrifice their military manpower to achieve US goals. The Indian and Chinese texts (Kautilya's Arthashastra and Sun Tzu's Art of War) on strategy are more or less similar in terms of how to fight wars through deception, deceit and treachery. The major difference between the two is that Kautilya openly suggests that continuous conquest is indicative of good leadership while Sun Tzu's use of force is cloaked under the rubric of self-defence.
One tends to disagree with Gilboy and Heginbotham that strategic culture can be used to distinguish a nation's military behaviour from another. The entire human civilisation is entrapped in a vicious cycle of fear and violence that has made their military behaviour almost similar. There is a universal culture of violence that transcends all boundaries. However, one cannot ignore the modern history of a nation to understand its propensity to use force under different circumstances.
For example, modern history can provide an answer to the question of whether China or India is culturally more inclined to use force to fight other people's wars. The Indian military tradition does not consider it repugnant to send armies on expeditionary missions launched by imperial powers. Indian armed forces celebrate their regimental achievements in the first and second world wars that fought under the Union Jack. The Chinese military tradition, on the other hand, is more intertwined with their nationalism. Historically, the Chinese have never left their country to fight other's wars. During the second world war, the Chinese soldiers did come to India to be trained by American and British forces, but that was only to fight the Japanese within China. Furthermore, most of the wars that China has fought after 1950 have been related to their territory. India, on the other hand, has fought wars in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for reasons other than territory.
Looking further back into history one finds an excellent example of how the British imperial navy used an Indian prince to attack Tibet at a time when the British were launching their first opium war against China in 1840. Those who argue that it was the British naval might that forced China to sign the "unequal treaty" in 1842 must also give due credit to Gulab Singh who unknowingly fell into the British trap to hatch their eggs in Ladakh and Tibet.
Ladakh, Tibet and Nanking Treaty
In the second half of the 19th century, in order to prevent English ships and sailors from being regularly checked and regulated by the Chinese authorities in Canton (Lamb 1958: 35), the British identified Tibet as the soft spot that could be exploited to pressurise and provoke the Chinese. Massive economic and financial stakes in mainland China prevented London from direct military action against Peking. The British preferred covert means to draw the Chinese military into a "noose".
Gulab Singh, Raja of Jammu, was used to attack Tibet. He was ensnared by the lucrative pashmina shawl wool trade to invade Ladakh in 1834. Ladakh was the transit point for the wool coming from western Tibet for its onward journey to Kashmir. However, the moment Ladakh was invaded by Gulab Singh, the Tibetans diverted their export consignments along the Sutlej route to Rampur-Bushahr, a British territory. Gulab Singh got Ladakh but not the profits. His first war ended up filling British coffers since the selling price of shawl wool in Rampur skyrocketed by 200% (Lamb 1958: 40).
Then in 1841, the prospect of earning huge profits bewitched Gulab Singh to conquer western Tibet, the source ofpashmina wool. He attacked, but only to face the combined wrath of the Chinese-Tibetan military might. He lost Leh to the Chinese and was forced to toe their line.
Analogy of Crow's Nest
The story of gullible Gulab Singh brings us back to the analogy of the crow's nest. Singh's first invasion in 1834 led him to invest in the administration of Ladakh, while the British made all the gains from shawl imports. Gulab Singh's second war in 1841 against western Tibet brought him only defeat and humiliation, but again huge strategic and commercial gains for the British. In 1841, the British were launching the first opium war against China and forcing them to grant trade and territorial rights within China. Gulab Singh unknowingly helped the British navy secure victory against the Chinese and forced them to sign the treaty of Nanking. Incidentally, the British involvement in instigating Gulab Singh to go on expeditionary missions is borne out by the fact that the British raj influenced and instigated Gulab Singh through their ally, the Sikh kingdom of Lahore to indulge in the futile use of force.
Tibet, for the British imperialists of the 19th century, was not "worth a candle". They were least interested in wasting their resources on a land that did not promise to fetch adequate profits for their businessmen. The British could not match the Chinese might in terms of land warfare. All they could do was to divert Chinese military manpower towards distant Tibet and tie them up in a noose that could be pulled and tightened at will.
It is important to understand the "noose" strategy because this is exactly what Mao used when he bombed Jinmen and Mazu in 1958. He did not launch an amphibious attack to land on Jinmen. He made sure that the shells from mainland China avoided hitting the American naval ships and inhabited areas. Mao did not escalate the crisis; his intention was to control the American movements by drawing them into an area where they were unwilling to commit their forces. China wanted America to maintain the sanctity of its territorial waters by remaining outside the 12-mile limit. Besides bombing, Mao was also having ambassadorial-level talks with America in Warsaw (Xiaobing et al 2009).
It can be safely concluded that the propensity to use force is not a function of cultural moorings. Use of military is a matter of time and space. The best results ensue when passion is combined with politics. Gulab Singh, a Sikh, belonging to a "martial race", failed because he played a pure military game. He let the British accumulate the political gains that accrued from his military actions. Mao, on the other hand, played a political game with military tools. At one stage during the bombing campaign, in order to avoid pushing the envelope too far, Mao ordered the shelling to be conducted only on odd numbered days. This unprecedented "military joke" displayed Mao's judicious understanding of the limits of limited war and the futility of pushing it beyond a certain limit.
"Military power is generally considered to be the 'ultima ratio' of power because it is perceived as a decisive arbiter of disputes when it is used and shapes outcomes among states even when it is not"' (Beckley 2012: 57). However, more than the military, it is the strength of the treasury that determines majority of the international outcomes. Viewing strategy purely as a military option or use of force is a skewed approach. Strategy must extend beyond the narrow confines of use of force to include options that suggest ways and means to avoid getting sucked into wars. Middle powers that get suckered into wars designed to sustain empires and anarchy in the international order only increase their debt and dependency.
India's aspirations to be a global power are justified and legitimate. However, what is questionable is the timing and its level of preparedness to jump into the great power game. Has India accumulated the requisite capital to be a meaningful actor in the global game? America, despite being a pre-eminent economic power from 1900 to the 1940s, did not display its true intentions to be a global hegemon. It began appearing militarily on the global stage only after the Anglo-French Asian empire had been bankrupted and delegitimised by the second world war.
The Chinese too are patiently waiting for their time to come. It is only in 1987 that China started considering an aircraft carrier for the PLA Navy that was eventually commissioned in 2012, when their foreign reserves stood at $3 trillion. India, on the other hand, bought an old aircraft carrier in 1957 and 1980. On both occasions, India was suffering from acute foreign exchange crisis and going to the World Bank with a begging bowl. Today China holds about a third of the world's international reserve assets excluding gold and has foreign exchange reserves of $4 trillion. It can afford to be more assertive in the South China Sea by placing 80 ships to protect its newly established deep-sea oil rig in Paracel Island. But how can India think of playing big maritime games in the Pacific, when its foreign reserves stand at a meagre $300 billion plus? Despite such glaring asymmetries between the two, Raja Mohan still sees India in competition with China. He sees China having diplomatic ties with Bangladesh also as a problem and a potential flashpoint. Tien-sze Fang is more objective in his assessment that China is not moving ahead to thwart the Indian advance. In fact, New Delhi does not figure in the Beijing's immediate adversary list.
The anti-China, pro-Tibet advocacy groups in India who were active during the 1962 war are once again reviving old rivalries with state-capitalist China. The only novelty is that the stage for enacting the Machiavellian drama, with Alfred Thayer Mahan and Monroe as the lead actors, is being shifted from the Himalayas to the high seas. The drama, scripted in American think tanks has gained popularity among Indian realists. The resulting nautical neurosis is making India draw imaginary redlines in the Indian Ocean, challenging China to cross them at their own peril. Mahan – "the fin de siècle American sea captain", is being invoked to kindle the Indian elite's colonial instincts, urging them to take on China.
Perhaps, it is the Chinese Jin-class submarines, with JL-2 ballistic missiles, that the Indian strategists find menacing. However, the fact is that currently China has no proper command and control mechanism in place to operationalise a sea-based deterrent. Moreover, China has no experience of operating SSBNs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) at sea with nuclear warheads mated to missiles (Lewis 2013: 12). Furthermore, China has enough land-based missiles that cover the entire Indian subcontinent. There is no reason for China to come and meet India from the Indian Ocean.
Why should India be perturbed by China's rise? If India can manage to live with America, a global hegemon of monstrous proportions, with around 700 military bases around the world, then dealing with a powerful China, in a multipolar world should hardly be a cause for concern. If Japan, despite being nuked, positively engages with the US, there is no reason to imagine that India cannot jettison the historical baggage of a low-level Sino-Indian war of five decades vintage. The China-India territorial dispute is not insurmountable nor is it difficult to have a dialogue with China on the Tibet issue.
India suffered immensely during the 1940s, losing her men to famine and imperial wars. India must revisit 1962 and its relations with China as a catharsis rather than repeating the process of churning at the behest of another empire.
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