Will India and China fight a war again?

There is an equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs that makes recourse to force extremely improbable. Both now read their semaphores well and know how much of the sword must be unsheathed to send a message 

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi 

While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it was in 1967 that Indian and Chinese troops last clashed at Nathu La. Nathu La, at 14,200 feet, is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa Trade Route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890, the Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate and the deployment of the Indian Army at that time. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La on the Sikkim-Tibet border. For some strange reason, the Mountain Division, under whose jurisdiction Jelep La was at the time, vacated the pass. It remains under Chinese possession till date. At the time of the clash, 2 Grenadiers was holding Nathu La. This battalion was under the command of Lt Col (later Brigadier) Rai Singh. The battalion was under the Mountain Brigade being commanded by Brig MMS Bakshi, MVC.

I am reproducing in full the account by a young officer of what he witnessed: “The daily routine at Nathu La used to start with patrolling by both sides along the perceived border which almost always resulted in arguments. The only one on the Chinese side who could converse in broken English was the political commissar who could be recognised by a red patch on his cap. Sentries of both the forces used to stand barely one metre apart in the centre of the Pass which is marked by Nehru Stone, commemorating Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s trek to Bhutan through Nathu La and Chumbi Valley in 1959. Argument between the two sides soon changed to pushing and shoving and on September 7, 1967, a scuffle took place. In order to de-escalate the situation, it was decided by the Indian military hierarchy to lay a wire in the centre of the Pass from Nathu La to Sebu La to demarcate the perceived border. This task was to be carried out by the jawans of 70 Field Company of Engineers assisted by a company of 18 Rajput deployed at Yak La pass further north of Nathu La. The wire laying was to commence at first light on the fateful morning of September 11, 1967…

That morning dawned bright and sunny unlike the normal foggy days. The engineers and jawans started erecting long iron pickets from Nathu La to Sebu La along the perceived border while 2 Grenadiers and Artillery Observation Post Officers at Sebu La and Camel’s Back were on alert. Immediately the Chinese political commissar, with a section of infantry, came to the centre of the Pass where Lt Col Rai Singh, Commanding Officer (CO), 2 Grenadiers, was standing with his commando platoon. The commissar asked Lt Col Rai Singh to stop laying the wire. Orders to the Indian Army were clear. They were not to blink. An argument started which soon built up into a scuffle. In the ensuing melee, the commissar got roughed up. Thereafter, the Chinese went up back to their bunkers and engineers resumed laying the wire…

Within a few minutes of this, a whistle was heard on the Chinese side followed by murderous medium machine gun fire from north shoulder. The pass is completely devoid of cover and the jawans of 70 Field Company and 18 Rajput were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties, which included Col Rai Singh who was wounded. He was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) later. Two brave officers — Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput — rallied a few troops and tried to assault the Chinese MMG, but both died a heroic death. They were posthumously awarded Vir Chakra and MVC, respectively. The 2 Grenadiers opened small arms fire on north shoulder but it was not very effective. Within the first ten minutes, there were nearly 70 dead and scores wounded lying in the open on the pass. Within half an hour, Chinese artillery opened up on the pass as well as in the depth areas but it was mostly prophylactic fire due to lack of observation and failed to do much damage. Meanwhile, we as artillery observation post officers asked for artillery fire, permission for which came a little later…

Because of excellent domination and observation from Sebu La and Camel’s Back, artillery fire was most effective and most of the Chinese bunkers on north shoulder and in depth were completely destroyed and Chinese suffered very heavy casualties that by their own estimates were over 400. The artillery duel thereafter carried on day and night. For the next three days, the Chinese were taught a lesson. On 14 September, Chinese threatened use of Air Force if shelling did not stop. By then the lesson had been driven home and an uneasy ceasefire came about. The Chinese, true to form, had pulled over dead bodies to their side of the perceived border at night and accused us of violating the border. Dead bodies were exchanged on 15 September at which time in the presence of Maj Gen Sagat Singh, GOC Mountain Division in Sikkim, Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora, 33 Corps Commander, and Lt Gen. Sam Manekshaw, the Eastern Army Commander…”

On October 1, 1967, this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and similarly not found wanting. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the PLA stand eyeball to eyeball, but the atmosphere now is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.

In 1971, as the Pakistani army in the east and the west was crumbling, Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, met China’s ambassador at the UN, Huang Hua, at a CIA safehouse in Manhattan. William Burr, a Senior Analyst at the National Security Archives, has gathered the transcripts of the secret talks, which were only recently declassified (against Kissinger’s wishes), in a just-published book. According to the transcripts, Kissinger told Hua: “The President wants you to know that it’s, of course, up to the People’s Republic to decide its own course of action in this situation, but if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation in the Indian sub-continent a threat to its security, and it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.”

The Chinese declined the invitation. Manekshaw was now Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and Aurora was the Eastern Army Commander, not men of straw like BM Kaul and PN Thapar who were at the helm in 1962. And, above all, Indira Gandhi was not Jawaharlal Nehru. She was made of sterner stuff and also knew when to leave things to the generals.

When Bomdila fell, Nehru went on AIR and announced the abandonment of Assam by saying his heart went out to the people of the state in their moment of dire peril. Members of his coterie embarked on theatrical ventures like seeking to raise a guerilla army and fight behind the Chinese lines in Assam

Now, we come to the question that bothers many Indians. Will China provoke a conflict with India or even vice versa?

I don’t think so.


Both countries are now well settled on the actual positions held. In Ladakh, China is pretty close to what it desired pre-1962, which is along the old Ardagh Line, which British India hastily abandoned after being spooked by reports of Soviet presence in Xinjiang. This line, long favoured by Whitehall, was dispensed with and in 1942 British India reverted back to the more forward Johnson Line that encompassed the Aksai Chin as Indian territory.

In the eastern sector, India pretty much holds on to the alignment along the McMahon Line. Three times in the past, the Chinese offered to settle this vexatious issue on this ‘as is where is’ basis, but India baulked because the dynamics of its domestic politics did not allow it, as they still do not. In his last conversation on this with the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, chairman Deng Xiaoping suggested freezing it and leaving it to history to resolve. Good and sagacious advice, if the dynamics between the two countries would not change.

In the mid-1980s, when the two leaders met, the Chinese and Indian GDPs were about the same. Since then, China’s GDP has grown to more than three times India’s. Its rapid economic ascent has now more or less conferred on it the role of the world’s other superpower, the Soviet Union having ended in 1991. China today is also a technology powerhouse and has built a modern military industrial complex far bigger and superior to India’s. India’s ascent is a more recent story and there are still some decades to go before it can aspire to be once again on a par with China.

China’s rise has now seen the manifestation of a visible and more strident nationalism. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said, it is China’s growing assertiveness that is causing concern. We see newer manifestations of this assertiveness in its conduct with Japan over the Senkaku Island chain, now in Japan’s possession; and its claims in the South China Sea, to make it effectively the Chinese backwater.

In doing so, China has stirred up concerns among all the littoral ASEAN states, and even in more distant India which has had oil assets there since the early 1990s. The entire international community with interests in the region, with the possible exception of North Korea, has insisted that China’s bullying is unacceptable. Yet, China persists with its strident tone and posture. While India has made its position clear, that it considers the South China Sea an international commons and passageway, and that it will not be deterred from oil exploration in Vietnamese waters, there are concerns that still find resonance in New Delhi’s dovecotes.

In recent years, China has built as many as 18 forward airbases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan that put most northern and eastern Indian cities, industrial centres and military targets within striking range of its new-generation fighter-bombers like the JF10 and JF17. By contrast, most Chinese cities and industrial centres are deep within its territory and not easily reached by Indian aircraft. It’s somewhat ironical that Tibet, which India throughout history had seen as a buffer protecting it from China, has become a buffer the other way around.

The Chinese military build-up has been unprecedented and quite unnecessary. It has built a huge military infrastructure of a kind that would be redundant against any threat the freedom-loving Tibetans may pose to its control over their motherland. This is the kind of power you need to assert your will over a neighbouring country. India has taken note of this, and has sought to suitably counter it with a build-up of its own. But every build-up leads to another build-up and  an ascending spiral of mistrust.

India has for decades had good reason to distrust China and sees its malevolence manifested in its increasingly close military relations with Pakistan and its constant supply of nuclear weapons technology and an array of missiles. Every Pakistani missile threatening to deliver nuclear weapons on distant Indian cities is of Chinese origin. India draws the logical conclusions from this.


Conflicts are generally the result of a serious military asymmetry, ofmisjudging intentions, of local conflicts spiralling out of control or of domestic failures requiring a diversion of attention or domestic dynamics making rational discourse impossible. In 1962, we saw the last two at play. After the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward and after over 30 million died of starvation between 1959 and 1962, Chairman Mao desperately needed a diversion to assert his control over the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the PLA. His great rival, the popular marshal, Peng Duhai, was still in Beijing after being purged by Mao. Many speculate that, anticipating a putsch against him by the reformers opposed to the personality cult, Mao busied up the PLA in a low-cost, high-return limited war.

On the Indian side, the unthinking escalation of attacks on Nehru by the Opposition, and from within the Congress party, forced the government to adopt a strident note and embark on the ill-fated Forward Policy. This was despite advice by its Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen Daulat Singh, that a policy without the military means to support it would have grave consequences.

As Indian and Chinese forces jostled for space on the narrow ridges of the eastern Himalaya, India’s declaratory policy and Chinese realpolitik clashed and the die was cast. As wars go, it was a small war. In all three, Indian divisions and maybe a few more PLA divisions took part. But the dramatic Indian debacle in the Tawang Tract led to a panic that had the nation cowering in fear and its leaders flopping around like headless chicken. When Bomdila fell, Nehru went on AIR and effectively announced the abandonment of Assam by saying his heart went out to the people of the state in their moment of dire peril. Members of his coterie embarked on theatrical ventures like seeking to raise a guerilla army and fight behind the now-expected Chinese lines in Assam.

But Mao was made of wilier stuff. After administering a quick and telling blow, he ordered the PLA to withdraw to pre-conflict positions. Fifty years later, India still rankles with the memory of those dark days, never allowing the wound to quite heal.

After 45 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being in the same contested space in the same time, local commanders have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behaviour and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics

Neither India nor China is now ruled by imperious emperors. In their place we have timid bureaucrat-politicians, vested with just a little more power than the others in the ruling collegiums. Collegiums are cautious to the point of being bland and extremely chary of taking risks.

As for serious asymmetry, it does not occur now. India’s arms build-up and preparations make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalaya but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean. In 2012, both countries have sufficient arsenals of nuclear weapons and standoff weapons to deter each other. But, above all, both countries have evolved into stable political systems, far less naïve and inclined to be far more cautious in their dealings with each other. This leaves the likelihood  of  a local conflict rapidly spiralling out of control, or another Gavrilo Princip incident, when a single shot at Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, plunged the western world into WWI, highly improbable.

After 45 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being in the same contested space at the same time, local commanders have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behaviour and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics. Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace and tranquility on the frontier.

While China has ratcheted up its show of assertiveness in recent years, India has been quietly preparing for a parity to prevent war. Often, parity does not have to be equality in numbers. The fear of pain disproportionate to the possible gains, and the ability of the smaller-in-numbers side to do this in itself confers parity.

There is an equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs that makes recourse to force extremely improbable. Both modern states are inheritors of age-old traditions and the wisdom of the ages. Both now read their semaphores well and know how much of the sword must be unsheathed to send a message. This ability will ensure the swords remain sheathed and the plowshares continue to be out at work.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012