Recently declassified Chinese documents underscore the centrality of the issue to the 1962 conflict and to any future resolution of the boundary question

Fifty years on, how the events leading up to 1962 were perceived by China remains almost entirely absent in Indian narratives of the war. Unlike the wars with Japan and in Korea that have a central role in Chinese propaganda about a national revival led by the Communist Party ending “a century of humiliation,” the conflicts with India and Vietnam, where China was the aggressor, are largely airbrushed from today’s Chinese history textbooks. Few Chinese students are even aware of 1962.

In marked contrast to the current re-examination of the events of 1962 under way in India on the 50th anniversary, the Chinese State-controlled media is still largely reluctant to discuss a sensitive chapter in bilateral relations, resulting in very limited insights into the war from Chinese perspectives.

However, declassified Chinese documents, which include internal memos sent from Chinese officials in New Delhi to Beijing and notes detailing negotiations from 1950 until 1962, provide fresh insights into Chinese perspectives and decision-making in the decade leading up to 1962.

The Chinese documents provide a far from conclusive history of the war, and are only a reflection of Chinese perspectives — some merited and others unfounded — and the costly misperceptions that led to 1962. This series of articles will, drawing from the documents, look to simply present, rather than evaluate, the perspectives in Beijing that led to China’s decision to launch an offensive on October 20, 1962.

As many as 12 years before Chinese forces began their offensive against India on October 20, 1962, Chinese officials, in an internal diplomatic note, expressed concern over the Indian government’s long-term designs on the status of Tibet. The note, dated November 24, 1950, reported on talks between India and China that had discussed the continuation of Indian privileges in Tibet, which had been enshrined in earlier treaties with Britain. “In general,” the note said, “it was exposed that India has interfered in China’s internal affairs and has hindered China from liberating Tibet.” “India pretends not to have any ambition on Tibetan politics or land,” the note concluded, “but desires to maintain the privileges that were written in the treaties signed since 1906.”

The November 1950 note marked the beginning of growing Chinese suspicions — which were, on occasion, based on slight evidence and driven by China’s own internal insecurities — on India’s intentions towards Tibet, resulting in a turbulent decade during which the Tibetan problem emerged as the central issue in ties between the neighbours.

The occupation of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) in 1950 marked a fundamental shift in how the Chinese viewed relations with India. Months after the PLA’s occupation of Tibet, as China began strengthening its grip over the region, Chinese officials began to object more vociferously to Indian activities. Even as India voiced support to China on the Tibetan issue in 1950 by not backing appeals at the United Nations, the Chinese, internally, continued to suspect Indian designs to destabilise Tibet.

On July 28, 1952, an internal note from the Communist Party’s Central Committee instructed authorities in Tibet to crackdown on Indian business delegations, accusing India of “spreading reactionary publications in the Tibetan language.” In a meeting with the then Indian representative in Beijing, R.K. Nehru, on September 6, 1953, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made clear its displeasure with India’s continued case for privileges, even describing the “Indian incumbent government” as holding an “irresponsible” position on Tibet.

Turning point in 1954

In 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru softened India’s stand by recognising the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as a part of the People’s Republic of China and giving up privileges, in the likely hope that ties would improve. However, that same year, India, for the first time, printed new maps delineating its northern and northeastern frontiers, which Nehru declared was “not open to discussion with anybody” — a development that ultimately sowed the seeds of the boundary dispute. The documents make clear that Tibet, more than the unsettled boundaries, was by far the fundamental issue that concerned China in the 1950s. They do not, however, shed any conclusive light on whether Beijing might have been open to a compromise on the former issue in return for India’s major concession on Tibet — a question ultimately rendered irrelevant by Nehru deciding not to link the two issues.

The centrality of the Tibetan issue for the Chinese was evident in 1956, when armed revolts broke out across Tibetan areas. With rising tensions in Tibet, the Dalai Lama travelled to India that same year, ostensibly to attend a Buddhist conference but also considering seeking asylum. While Nehru persuaded the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, he also arranged for two key meetings between the young Tibetan spiritual leader and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who happened to be on a visit to India at the same time.

The meetings appeared to cement in the Chinese perception the status of India as a major actor in any eventual resolution of the Tibetan problem. In the first meeting, on November 1, 1956, the Dalai Lama told Zhou that there was “no democracy” in the way the Standing Committee of the TAR was operating. “Yesterday, we visited their Parliament and saw many representatives were debating,” the Dalai Lama said. “I think they are doing better than us on this point…Our Standing Committee of the TAR rarely debates and the content of the discussion is only the letter and word problems.”

The situation in Tibet continued to worsen ahead of their second meeting on December 30, 1956. Zhou conveyed that Mao Zedong wanted the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet as soon as possible “because now some people in Lhasa want to rebel there while the Dalai Lama is not in Tibet.” Accepting the root of the problem was in the Chinese-led reforms in Tibet, Zhou said Mao had decided that reforms would be shelved and reconsidered six years later — and only if the Dalai Lama granted his consent.

Zhou also hit out at Tibetan “separatists” who were active across the border in Kalimpong in India, and warned the Dalai Lama that the People’s Liberation Army would suppress any dissident activity: “They want to be independent and separate Tibet from China; it is betrayal of China. We must not allow it to go on and the PLA will always protect its people’s interests and take self-defense measures… ” Zhou added he would “rouse Nehru’s attention” about such activities in India.

On October 8, 1962, 12 days before the Chinese offensive, Zhou Enlai reflected on his 1956 talks with the Dalai Lama in a candid meeting with the Soviet Union’s Ambassador in Beijing, suggesting that it was a turning point in how he viewed India’s role in the Tibetan question and intentions regarding the boundary dispute. According to the minutes of the meeting, he said India had, in 1956, “exposed their desire to collude with the Dalai Lama and attempt to maintain Tibetan serfdom.”

“At that time, I found Nehru inherited British Imperialist thoughts and deeds on the border issue and the Tibet issue,” Zhou said. “However, considering the friendship of China and India, we took a tolerant attitude and did not convey this to Nehru. In 1958, serfs in Tibet, Xikang [Sichuan] and Qinghai rebelled. Nehru could not wait and took advantage of the border issue to interfere with China’s internal affairs. The Dalai Lama rebelled in 1959 and fled to India, and this was caused by Nehru’s inducement.” Zhou’s views largely characterised the thinking in Beijing three years later, when the Tibetan uprising began to unfold in 1959. China’s leaders, internal documents show, became increasingly convinced — on the basis of questionable evidence — India was to blame for their own failings in Tibet and that the resolution of their Tibetan problem was inextricably linked to the boundary dispute — a conviction that would have fateful consequences.

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