Imaginary lines

Understanding how the 1962 border war impacted relations between India and China, in the backdrop of the Doklam standoff

August 19, 2017 09:05 pm | Updated 09:05 pm IST

The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives
Edited by Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz Luthi
Routledge India

The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives Edited by Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz Luthi Routledge India ₹850

Where do Indo-China relations stand? As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the U.S. in June and struck up an equation with President Donald Trump, a seemingly unnerved China raised the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan border issue at Doklam, even cautioning India by reminding it of the 1962 war loss. Over the past few years, China has inched closer to India’s neighbours including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In this well-researched timely book on Indo-China relations, 11 scholars analyse the cause and effect of the 1962 Sino-Indian war, an important turning point in history. Edited by Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz M. Luthi, who provide an excellent introduction, this volume moves away from the military history of the war and goes into details of the background and the build-up by China that caused the war.

A project that started as an academic conference with international participants at the National Archives of India in Delhi on the 50th anniversary of the war, resulted in these papers and subsequent compilation as a book, in three parts. The collection has four essays each on bilateral, international and domestic perspectives. The editors observe that India and China remember the war fundamentally in different ways. For India it meant diplomatic miscalculations and poor defence-preparedness leading to a major political impact, while for China it was a quick and overwhelming victory.

Blind spot

The British did not pay much attention to the north and north-eastern area of India bordering China resulting in changing perceptions on border issues from the 19th century. Two areas of India that protrude into Chinese land are the main cause of dispute. One, along the Ladakh border, Aksai Chin, is claimed by India and not accepted by China. In the northeast, New Delhi sticks to the McMahon Line, which is also disputed by China.

Since Aksai Chin was “about as desolate (and remote) as the surface of the moon” and had no intrinsic value, there were no serious attempts to establish its territorial affiliation to India in the past.

This area remained a blind spot and came into focus only when the Chinese built the Xinjang-Tibet road in 1957. The first major Indian appreciation of the border issue was highlighted when K.M. Panikkar wrote When China goes Communist, and warned of a “Machiavelli Marx combination” that would cause problems in Tibet. Again this issue was raised by Vallabhai Patel and the then foreign secretary G.S. Bajpai.

However, Nehru was not convinced by their arguments. Nehru firmly believed that after his visit to China and meeting Zhou Enlai in 1954, China had no intention of altering border lines. It was Zhou Enlai during his visit to India in 1956-57 who repudiated the McMahon line. The People’s Liberation Army was by this time engaged in border skirmishes and then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, much against the advice of the military top commanders, ordered the use of “force to throw the invaders out.”

In 1961, the Indian Army clarified that it was not prepared for any war in the Himalayan region and when full-scale war started with the Chinese attack on October 20, 1962, in a few days the Chinese army occupied large chunks of area.

Swinging nature

In India’s relations with China, 1945-74, part of Bilateral Perspectives Lorenz M. Luthi details the swinging nature of relations between the two major countries. As early as 1945, Nehru saw the possibility of China and India assuming importance in the international arena and advocated for admission of China in the UN as a member. It was a principled position and did not endorse China’s domestic or foreign policies. When China’s Zhou Enlai offered to negotiate with India on Tibet, the McMahon line was not mentioned by China that irritated Nehru, though he was convinced that there were only two options; engage militarily or seek a modus vivendi.

Even during this fluid situation, as Nehru believed in Panch Sheel, a conciliatory approach was taken to demand China’s accommodation in the international arena, and Nehru thought border problems could then be hammered out. But the Tibetan Uprising in 1954 and the Dalai Lama seeking refuge in India changed the situation. It was also clear from China signing generous border agreements with other neighbours of the region, that China was bent upon taking on India.

During the Zhou-Nehru meeting in Delhi in April 1960, Zhou wanted to propose a deal, leaving the then North Eastern Frontier Agency to India and taking over much smaller but more strategically important Aksai Chin. Nehru was unwilling not only because he did not like to bargain but also because giving land to China needed parliamentary clearance. Disbelief caused by the massive military build-up and eventual attack by China led him to seek the assistance of Washington, Moscow and London along with other friendly nations, much against his non-aligned theory.

The nuclear bomb test by China in mid-1964 changed the international position considerably. The Indian debate now focused on equipping itself with better armaments. India also realised that nuclear weapons was an avenue to get even with China in the international arena. A principled Nehru rejected the engagement of an Indian nuclear bomb programme, that Homi Bhabha proposed, an idea that Nehru opposed till his death.

Eric Hyer explains Sino-India relations in the context of the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward, Mao’s rapid industrialisation and collectivisation programme and China’s strategic and regional context of the Sino-Indian border conflict. “To Chinese eyes,” he says, “Nehru’s unwillingness to negotiate looked like intransigence and even preparation for military aggression.”

Jabin T. Jacob argues that the security dimension is unlikely to disappear even if the boundary dispute is solved. He suggests that India and China should be able to look beyond the ‘blip’ of a border conflict to pursue new ways of engagement and cooperation.” Wishful thinking?

The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives ; Edited by Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz Luthi, Routledge India, ₹850.

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