After Zhou Enlai’s 1960 trip to India ended in acrimony, Beijing concluded that Nehru was not interested in resolving the border dispute

Three weeks ahead of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s landmark 1960 visit to India, Chinese officials prepared an internal note discussing how they viewed the political and economic situation in India and its bearing on the boundary issue. The April 1, 1960 note, among documents from 1949-65 that were declassified recently by the Chinese government, was prepared to brief the Chinese leadership ahead of Zhou’s April 20 visit.

The note is revealing of how Beijing perceived — rightly or wrongly — the influence of the political climate in India on driving the tensions on the border. “Since the implementation of the Second Five-Year Plan in April 1956, India’s economy has been deteriorating and its economic policy has moved increasingly towards the right,” the note observed. “The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. The road of Indian bourgeois reformism has become narrower and narrower.”

“The U.S.-led Imperialist countries,” the note continued, “are taking advantage of India’s economic difficulties and tightening control over India through ‘aid’ and private investment. In early 1958, the United States provided for the first time a large number of loans to India to buy equipment. The U.S. also colluded with Britain, West Germany, Japan, Canada and other countries to ‘aid’ India.” The note concluded, “The strength of the Indian big bourgeoisie has increased and intensified collusion with foreign monopolies… and attempted to intervene in the arms industry to reap higher profits by taking advantage of the Sino-Indian border issue.”

“We came in vain”

Chinese officials saw the 1960 visit as a real opportunity to negotiate and reach a settlement. “In 1960, we first came to Delhi to negotiate, but it was in vain,” Zhou Enlai told the Soviet Union Ambassador on October 8, 1962, 12 days before the Chinese offensive. While Zhou never openly or formally declared that China would accept an “east west swap” deal where India would recognise Chinese claims on Aksai Chin and China would give up its claims on the eastern sector, he made it clear that Beijing was willing to negotiate. In a meeting with R.K. Nehru in New Delhi on April 21, 1960, Zhou said “in the east, a settlement can be found”. “Our aim,” he said, “is still to explore ways of a settlement”.

“The McMahon Line on the eastern section of the Sino-Indian border is illegal and has never been admitted by China’s governments. Nevertheless, in order to keep peace of the border and help peaceful negotiations, we suggested before negotiations that armed troops do not cross the line,” Zhou told the Soviet Ambassador. “India never surveyed the line and only after Indian border defence troops arrived did they know what it was. The topography is favourable for them and thus they drew it on the map.”

Zhou’s meetings with Jawaharlal Nehru on April 25, 1960, however, ended in bitter deadlock. Zhou recounted, according to the October 8 note, that Nehru had rejected out of hand all his proposals. “We suggested that bilateral armed forces respectively retreat for 20 kilometres on the borders and stop the patrols to escape conflicts. They did not accept the suggestion. Later, we unilaterally withdrew for 20 kilometres and did not appoint troops to patrol in the area in order to evade conflicts and help negotiations develop smoothly. However, India perhaps had a wrong sense that we were showing our weakness and feared conflicts… India is taking advantage that we withdrew for 20 kilometres and did not assign patrols, and has invaded as well as set up posts.”

Chinese thinking

Two revealing internal notes prepared shortly after Zhou’s trip shed light on Chinese thinking following the visit. One note prepared on May 31, 1960 alleged that the Indian government had “distorted the exact words of Premier Zhou” in the translations of the press conference held in New Delhi and in the official press releases subsequently circulated. The note listed 11 different ways in which Zhou’s words had been misconstrued. For instance, it said that Zhou had stated that the dispute in the middle sector was “relatively small”; the Indian government’s version read “very small”.

Zhou said “the eastern section of the disputed area has been China’s administrative jurisdiction area for long”. The Indian version, the note claimed, said China had administered the area “for once”. The Indian version, it further alleged, deleted Zhou’s statement that “the Chinese government has never accepted the McMahon line”. The note said Zhou had also wrongly been quoted as saying that “in the eastern section, we are willing to maintain the present status”, adding that the words “before the settlement of the border” had been deleted from the end of the sentence.

The sense of acrimony was clearly evident in Zhou’s meetings in New Delhi, particularly during his interaction with Morarji Desai, the then Finance Minister, on April 25, 1960. The bitterness of the visit is reflected in K. Natwar Singh’s detailed account of the meeting in My China Diary. “Discordance started at the very beginning,” Mr. Singh recounts. After trading barbs on Tibet, Desai accused Zhou “of being unjust”. Zhou told Desai he “had said enough”. “The Chinese Prime Minister said more than enough,” the Finance Minister retorted.

The bitterness of the exchange was further evident in a second internal Chinese government note, prepared on July 31, 1960, that reviewed Zhou’s visit and came to the conclusion that India was not interested in a settlement. The note concluded that “the Indian Establishment wanted to provoke the border event so as to oppose China”. The Chinese government ultimately linked the failure of the 1960 visit — perhaps based on questionable evidence — to Indian designs on Tibet. “After the Tibetan rebellion was put down, a series of progressive reforms would be carried out which would have great influence on India,” the note said.

“The Indian government,” it concluded, “was afraid of this because Indian people under such influence would complain more about their own government’s inability. In addition, the Indian government is facing up difficulties and resembles a mother who lacks milk… The Indian people hope to get on with China; troubles are made by the Establishment.” K. Natwar Singh, in his book, writes that by the time Zhou landed in India, the point of no return had almost been reached. By the time Zhou arrived back in Beijing, the two notes suggested, the Chinese came to believe that point had already been crossed.

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