China’s concerns about Tibet, a significant force behind its 1962 offensive, continue to cast a shadow on the boundary dispute with India

China’s suspicions about India’s intentions with regard to Tibet in the 1950s, unfounded or otherwise, were not Beijing’s only major consideration in the lead-up to 1962. Declassified internal Chinese documents detail how the Forward Policy, by the summer of 1962, began to be seen in Beijing as an attempt by Nehru to unilaterally grab territory that had to be firmly stopped. The changing dynamics between China, India and the Soviet Union emerged as another factor in Mao Zedong’s decision-making. Nevertheless, Chinese internal communications from the time establish that the Tibetan issue emerged as perhaps the most significant driving force behind China’s decision to launch an offensive against India on October 20, 1962.

Following the March 10, 1959 uprising in Tibet and the Dalai Lama heading to India in exile, Chinese officials began to be alarmed by the political climate in India. In an internal diplomatic note sent to Beijing, Chinese officials quoted a leader of an Indian Opposition party as describing the relationship between India and Tibet as “like between a mother and her child.” “When the son is being attacked, can his mother be a silent passer-by?” the leader was quoted as saying. “Tibet’s issues are issues that affect India’s flesh and blood, and it would be wrong to view Tibet’s issues as China’s internal affairs.”

On March 25, 1959, Mao convened a meeting of top leaders to discuss the situation in Tibet, during which he blamed India for the unrest, declaring that China would not “condemn” India openly but would instead give India “enough rope to hang itself.” Outwardly, Chinese leaders continued to affirm “good relations” with India. The Foreign Ministry, in a note to the Indian government on March 29, said it “welcomed” a statement made by Nehru “of not interfering in China’s internal affairs.” “China has never interfered in India’s internal affairs, never discussed India’s internal affairs in its National People’s Congress or its Standing Committee, and thinks that it is impolite and improper to discuss the internal affairs of a friendly country,” the note said.

According to an internal note dated March 30, the Communist Party directed the People’s Daily newspaper to publish a “friendly observer comment” on April 15, declaring that “Sino-Indian friendly relations shall not be harmed” by the Tibetan problem. While the commentary pointed out that “it had been a public secret that Tibetan rebels had established a foreign base in Kalimpong and colluded with Imperialists to plan a rebellion,” it added that “those who dislike Sino-Indian friendliness are attempting to take the opportunity of the Dalai Lama being in India to incite Tibetans.”

Indian ‘expansionism’

Privately, however, Mao became increasingly convinced of Indian “expansionist” designs on Tibet. Mao appeared to have little evidence to back this conviction — instead, he increasingly began to deflect the responsibility for the unrest in Tibet, sourced in the colossal failures of the Communist Party’s reforms, on to India. On April 19, he directed the Xinhua news agency to issue a commentary which he personally revised, as John W. Garver notes in his essay “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962.” The commentary, which finally appeared on May 6, 1959, accused Nehru of encouraging the rebels in India, arguing that Nehru and the “bourgeoisie” in India had sought to maintain Tibet as a buffer and restore its semi-independent status. Mao’s suspicions were fed by internal notes from Lhasa. A January 15, 1960 note from the Foreign Affairs Office in Lhasa in great detail reported of Indian “expansionist” activities in Kalimpong. “The Indian expansionists cannot be reconciled to their failure, and have not given up their conspiracy on Tibet,” the note said. “They have a set of practices such as.. maintaining reserve forces. If the Indian expansionists lose their relationship with these Tibetan serf-owners, all of their plans will have no way out. Therefore, they try every possible way…”

In April 1961, the Foreign Affairs Office in Tibet in another memo said India’s attitude on Tibet had gotten “worse” in the two years after the uprising. The note explicitly linked Tibet to the boundary dispute, and put forward suggestions for revising the 1954 agreement on Tibet. “The present Tibet has been radically changed when compared with that in 1954,” the note said. “The Indian attitude is worse; it was friendly to China then and now India opposes China…. The Sino-Indian border issue…is the pretext India uses to oppose China and has become an essential issue for present Sino-Indian relations.”

Chinese suspicions that linked Tibet and the border continued to heighten towards the end of 1961, when the Forward Policy began to be implemented. By then, Zhou Enlai’s 1960 visit to New Delhi had ended in stalemate. The deadlock was further reinforced by India’s demand for the Chinese to withdraw from the Aksai Chin region before any talks could be held. Nehru’s demand further stoked Chinese suspicions. “Nehru’s insistence on Chinese abandonment of Aksai Chin established a link in Chinese minds between the border issue and China’s ability to control Tibet,” Garver writes in his essay, as the road connecting Xinjiang and Tibet was crucial to China sustaining military posts. Garver concluded that “very probably the powerful but inaccurate Chinese belief about India’s desire to ‘seize Tibet’ led to an incorrect Chinese conclusion that Nehru’s insistence on Aksai Chin was part of a grand plan to achieve that purpose.”

East west swap

China’s concerns on its sovereignty in Tibet continue to cast a shadow on the boundary dispute. As Garver notes in his seminal work “Protracted Contest,” China twice proposed — or at least, hinted at — an “east west swap” to resolve the boundary dispute. The swap involved China giving up its claims to Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh, whose geography is crucial to India’s defence of the northeast. India would, in turn, give up its claim to Aksai Chin, which provides the People’s Liberation Army the most crucial land link between Xinjiang and Tibet. The first hint was during Zhou Enlai’s 1960 visit, and the second suggested by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. India rejected the swap offer — for Nehru, giving up Aksai Chin in the political climate of the time appeared politically untenable.

When the sixth round of border talks between India and China began in late 1985, as Garver notes, China for the first time pressed its claims in the eastern sector on Tawang, south of the McMahon Line. “The Indian side was stunned,” Garver writes. “They had assumed that China implicitly accepted that line…” While the current status and progress on the boundary talks is unclear given the secrecy it is shrouded in, China has appeared to hold on to this position since. One Chinese scholar, who did not want to be identified citing the sensitivity of the issue, said from Beijing’s point of view, Tawang was now the central question at the heart of the boundary dispute. As long as China fails to arrive at any kind of resolution with the Dalai Lama and remains concerned about stability in Tibet, China is unlikely to entertain the thought of giving up all its claims on Tawang, the scholar suggested.

With increasingly frequent invocations of China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh as “south Tibet” in State media outlets since the 2000s and harsh denunciations of the Dalai Lama, the Communist Party, the scholar added, would perhaps even find it difficult to sell a settlement that involved conceding its claims in the eastern sector, particularly against the rising tide of nationalism and criticisms of a “weak government” evident during recent anti-Japan protests. The history of Chinese suspicions on India’s intentions on Tibet, even if unfounded, remains hugely relevant to the boundary question even five decades later.

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