A last opportunity, missed

Three months before the war, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Hanfu warned R.K. Nehru of military action if India did not stop its advancements in the western sector

October 26, 2012 01:05 am | Updated 01:05 am IST

"Wings over the Himalayas" A wounder victim of Chinese Agression, being carried to an Air Force helicopter in NEFA (north east frontier area) for evacuation to a hospital.

"Wings over the Himalayas" A wounder victim of Chinese Agression, being carried to an Air Force helicopter in NEFA (north east frontier area) for evacuation to a hospital.

On July 17, 1962, three months before China launched its offensive, the country’s Ambassador in New Delhi, Pan Zili, sent a note to the leadership in Beijing discussing the stalemate in negotiations with India, and expressing concern about ties between the neighbours. Pan was of the opinion that India’s unwillingness — or inability — to negotiate and agree to a settlement reflected internal troubles. “In the contacts we have had these days, we have found that India has reached a deadlock with China on political and military issues because of its own economic difficulties,” Pan wrote. The note was among documents from 1949-65 recently declassified by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives in Beijing.

“India,” Pan added, “does not get on with its neighbours and conflicts among its internal factions are fierce, particularly on the issue of Nehru’s succession.” Pan wrote that the then Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, in his opinion, “showed the desire [to negotiate] and seemingly he considered that once India failed in war, his position would be greatly affected”.

Pan noted that handcuffed by domestic pressures, India would not be able to make any kind of concession that would lead to a mutually acceptable settlement. India, he said, had settled on a dual-track approach: “On the one hand, India seemed to be willing to negotiate peacefully; on the other hand, it looked for loopholes on the west border. It went forward into our interior, increased its posts, and changed the settled facts in order to bargain with us.” The Ambassador concluded that China needed to “strengthen military struggle on the west border and prevent India from going forward”. “But,” he cautioned, “we should be careful and not provoke military conflicts. Additionally, we may make more contacts with the India side.”

An opportunity and a warning

The Chinese government followed Pan’s advice, arranging two last-ditch meetings in Geneva — between its Vice Foreign Minister, Zhang Hanfu, and R.K. Nehru, and between Foreign Minister Chen Yi, a vastly experienced former People’s Liberation Army General, and Krishna Menon. The Chinese leaders saw the meetings as a final opportunity to ask Nehru to halt advancements in the west and avert a military confrontation.


In a July 20, 1962 note, the Foreign Ministry appeared to come to the conclusion that the meeting with R.K. Nehru was fruitless. “He did not put forward new issues,” the note said. “Our side emphasised that the border issue was serious and if India did not withdraw troops, it should bear all the results.” Reflecting on his meeting with Zhang, R.K. Nehru later acknowledged the significance of the warning, as A.G. Noorani recounted in a Frontline article. Nehru said: “[Zhang] said, in their notes they sent to us they had indicated, ‘It is bound to lead to a serious military conflict.’ May be the nature and scale and magnitude of the conflict was not anticipated, but I am not prepared to say that they did not give us sufficient warning that military encounters might follow. My own interpretation is that as in India, so also in China, there were various schools of thought. May be the military elements, coming on the top, wanted a clash.”

Disagreeable breakfast

Three days later, on July 23, Chen Yi met Krishna Menon in Geneva over breakfast. In a note of the meeting, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Chen had complained of India’s continuing “advancements” in the west. “Menon suggested that both sides make clear western border lines… and [regard] the area between the two lines as a controversial area,” the note said. “In the area, both sides could establish posts, but they would not attack each other. There should be a distance between posts of each side. Personnel in each post should be roughly equal, and patrols of each side should not cross the border line that it required. Mr. Chen instantly opposed the suggestion and said it was in fact to circle an area in China as an area where Indian border guards could walk freely. China could not agree it.” Chen suggested both sides issue a communique stating India and China would negotiate on the border to avoid conflict. Krishna Menon declined.

The two meetings left the Chinese convinced that negotiations would lead nowhere. On August 24, 1962, Ambassador Pan, sent a note to Beijing attacking Jawaharlal Nehru’s unwillingness to negotiate. “Nehru made the negotiation door seem open and closed, and overestimated his own cunningness.” He suggested to Beijing that the government make efforts to publicise its position more widely. “Our aim must be to make the Indian masses and middle classes know that it is actually China that desired to negotiate and ease the tension,” Pan said, “and that Nehru did not have sincerity for negotiation.”

Twelve days before China launched its offensive, Zhou Enlai, the Premier, almost appeared to lay out an explanation for military action in a meeting with the Ambassador of the Soviet Union in Beijing. Without offering any evidence, he claimed “India would possibly wage a large-scale war on the eastern section of the Sino-Indian border”. “If they launch the attack,” he said, “we will definitely defend ourselves.” Zhou also hit out at Soviet military support to India. “Indians have used MiG helicopters, made in the Soviet Union, to throw objects on the western and eastern sections of Sino-Indian border and transport military necessities. They sometimes even used transport airplanes from Soviet Union. It affects China’s soldiers on the front that India carried out provocation by aircraft made in the Soviet Union.”

Zhou and the Chinese leadership saw the final three months as making a military confrontation inevitable, and blamed Nehru entirely for the course of events. “This serious Sino-Indian border conflict is completely caused by the Indian Government’s long-term deliberate attempt,” Zhou alleged in a November 13, 1962 letter to Ayub Khan in Pakistan. The failure of the two meetings in July had emerged as a final turning point. Following his meeting with Krishna Menon in Geneva, Chen Yi flew to Beijing the next day and reported to Zhou Enlai. “After hearing Chen Yi’s report, Zhou commented, “It seems as though Nehru wants a war with us”“, John W. Garver writes in China’s Decision for War with India in 1962 . “Yes”, Chen replied. Menon had showed no sincerity regarding peaceful talks, but “merely intended to deal in a perfunctory way with China”. “At least we made the greatest effort for peace,” Zhou reportedly replied. “Premier,” Chen replied, “Nehru’s forward policy is a knife. He wants to put it in our heart. We cannot close our eyes and await death.”

(The series, China Files 1962, is concluded.)

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