The road to war

Dragon Fire

Humphrey Hawksley<em> Macmillan, 365pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0333785959

Two years ago, when India staged another round of underground nuclear tests, the country's defence minister, George Fernandes, was pilloried for suggesting that India needed a nuclear capability in order to face up to China, its "potential threat number one". His words exactly reflected the private view of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government that China, not Pakistan, is the long-term threat to India, which must therefore have a substantial nuclear capability - even though it will never be strong enough to win a nuclear confrontation.

India's politicians did not have the nerve to live publicly with Fernandes's comments and have spent the past two years trying to mend diplomatic fences with China. But, on 24 August, Fernandes stepped out of line again. Asked by the BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley to help publicise his new novel, Dragon Fire, set in 2007, in which China uses nuclear missiles to flatten the centres of Bombay and Delhi, India's commercial and political capitals, Fernandes issued a remarkable statement saying that he hoped Indians would not dismiss the story as just "one more work of fiction". The "political and historical backdrop", he added, was "real", and the Indian people would "do well to take the blinkers off their eyes and have a full-eyed look at both friends and foes".

Neither Fernandes nor Hawksley denies that Pakistan, against which India has fought four wars, is an enemy with a nuclear capability. Pakistan, however, is not seen by Indians as a long-term threat, whereas China is. The most recent Indo-Pakistan war took place between May and July last year, near Kargil on the Kashmir border. A proxy war is being waged by Pakistan through terrorist activity in Kashmir, which has been stepped up in recent weeks after an unsuccessful attempt to broker peace. In Dragon Fire, it is Pakistan's military ruler who starts the nuclear hostilities by attacking Indian troops with a localised strategic weapon.

Dragon Fire is based on the premise that there are two tinderboxes in this part of Asia, which could lead to a regional - and possibly international - nuclear war. One tinderbox is Kashmir, divided since India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, and claimed by both countries. The other is Tibet, whose spiritual and political ruler, the Dalai Lama, has lived in India since 1959, nine years after China occupied his country. Just as no Indian or Pakistani leader could survive politically if he or she gave up any Kashmiri territory, so it is unthinkable for a Chinese leader to cede sovereignty on Tibet.

Exacerbating the situation is long-term rivalry between India and China - which fought a 21-day war in 1962 and still have unresolved border disputes - and Pakistan's failure to establish a stable system of government.

Hawksley brings these strands together by starting Dragon Fire with a raid on Lhasa, Tibet's capital, by Tibetan independence activists based in India, who free a political prisoner from Lhasa's Drapchi prison. This is, perhaps, the most unlikely part of the plot, but it neatly triggers a crisis in which China accuses India of assisting with the raid and launches a grenade attack on the Dalai Lama's parliament-in-exile, in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

Pakistan then links up with China, its long-term ally and protector, to squeeze India, and shoots down an Indian helicopter carrying the home affairs minister. He is killed. India responds by shooting up Pakistani villages. China sends troops into north-east India and further escalates the confrontation by giving a neutron bomb to Pakistan, which then raises its flag on Indian soil in Kashmir. This six-day crisis gradually envelops most of the world.

This may all seem rather far-fetched and slick, but it cannot be dismissed as a mere invention of an imaginative writer, because Hawksley researches his books diligently, despite the occasional factual errors. Through contacts with high-level military and other sources in Pakistan, India and the US, he was told things that later came about. For example, while researching in Pakistan 18 months ago, he was given distinct forecasts of the Kargil border invasion. He reveals, too, the existence of India's secret Special Frontier Force, which has handled Tibetan issues since the 1962 Indo-China war. This group stages the attack on Lhasa.

If the book has a fault, it is that the characters lack personal depth, the plot moves rather too swiftly and neatly, and few of the main players show any national characteristics. Indian diplomats and politicians, who usually strut ineffectually on the world stage, are here surprisingly succinct and effective. But it is a good read, and it is uncomfortably accurate about the dangers facing Asia. It has also been blessed with a condemnation from China, whose foreign ministry spokesman has said that it is "politically irresponsible and full of fabrication".

A novelist is surely in the business of "fabrication" but, leaving that aside, it is highly likely that some of the confrontations and hostilities animated here will happen in the next few years - if not by 2007, then soon after. Some might have happened nearly 30 years ago when, according to a new book by Anthony Summers, The Arrogance of Power: the secret world of Richard Nixon, the former American president was willing to consider using nuclear weapons if China and the Soviet Union had been drawn into the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Hence the significance of Fernandes's warnings.

John Elliott is the New Statesman's New Delhi correspondent

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun