Indo-China: Himalayan Crossroad
So what were the real causes of the 1962 India-China war?
Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi
In a recent Global Times article, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences writes: “Mao wanted to wake him [Nehru] up from the superpowers’ influence by giving him a heavy punch, so that he would come to his senses and end the war. War is an extreme means of communication between civilisations.”
This rather blunt quote sums up the war from the Chinese perspective: 1962 was primarily a pre-emptive punitive strike intended to, in Mao Zedong’s words, “guarantee at least 30 years of peace” with India. Liu Shaoqi is reported to have told Colombo conference representatives in January 1963 that the Chinese had to show the Indians that China was a great power and, for this reason, had to “punish” India once.
So what was the structural cause of the political dispute?
Both sides inherited frontiers that were either undefined in parts, such as the western sector or the Aksai Chin region where the British had neither produced a treaty line nor extended permanent administrative control to eastern Ladakh or were delimited but not demarcated, such as the 1914 McMahon Line in the eastern sector. By itself, this was not a situation
that was bound to lead to an irreconcilable conflict.
What complicated and defined the context of each side’s approach to the inherited borders was China’s entry into Tibet. But even this major geopolitical development was legally accepted by India in the 1954 agreement and that should have settled matters, at least from China’s side, which had attained national unification over all its strategic buffer regions. From India’s perspective, while its cartographic and de facto position remained unacknowledged, there was no reason for further conflict. In fact, the extension of Indian sovereignty over Tawang in 1951 and the reaffirmation of close relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim suggested a reasonable geopolitical position for India in the sub-Himalayan region.
Yet, the 1950s especially after the rebellion in Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama, saw a near-breakdown in bilateral relations, the main factor being Beijing’s failure to ensure stability and integration of Tibet with the People’s Republic of China. The flight of the Dalai Lama in March 1959 became a turning point which, some historians argue, made it extremely difficult thereafter for both sides to arrive at any short-term accommodation.
So, the centrality of Tibet in causing and perpetuating the border dispute is an important factor. Historian John Garver’s comment that “India became the main object of Chinese projection of responsibility” for China’s own misrule in Tibet sums up the phase of the 1950s.
For China, after 1959 the dispute with India was diplomatically costly and impacted not only its ongoing split with the Soviet bloc and ability to maintain its prestige among other communist regimes, but also its standing across Asia and the non-aligned Third World countries. By the first half of 1960, the Soviets had withdrawn all their experts from China and suspended all economic contracts. In such a deteriorating strategic environment, a Standing Committee meeting of the Politburo in January 1960 made a decision to take a more pragmatic line on the dispute with India and other unresolved frontier disputes with neighbouring countries. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to adopt a policy of restraint and avoid armed clashes.
The contrasting assessments of Nehru and Mao were evident from their 1954 encounter: Nehru agued that the nature of force had undergone a radical shift in a nuclear world, and the next war would be truly global in scope and destruction. Mao's response was that, despite nuclear weapons, the basic nature of warfare had not changed, except that the casualties would be henceforth be higher
It was also decided to avoid a public spat with the Soviet Union and attempts were made to prevent a further slide in Sino-Soviet relations. Importantly, the January 1960 Politburo meeting set out a guideline for Sino-American relations that were to be based on more flexibility. The combined effect of this overall adjustment in Chinese foreign policy was that China solved its boundary questions with North Korea, Burma, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan (a State allied with the West against China). The April 1960 Zhou Enlai visit to Delhi was also motivated by Chinese efforts to demonstrate their willingness to defuse tensions with India.
By 1961, the consequences of the Great Leap Forward strategy in terms of economic crises, especially an agrarian crisis of declining production and a drop in industrial activity, were being felt by the Chinese leadership. Between 1959 and 1962, China’s GDP declined by 30 per cent. This prompted a further effort in foreign policy adjustment to prevent a further slide in the economy. Attempts were made to overcome the ideological dispute with the Soviets by focusing on common national interests and restoring elements of the economic relationship.
By late 1961 and early 1962, however, China again perceived threats on its border regions, especially on its Southeastern coast vis-à-vis Taiwan, in South East Asia where there was increasing American involvement in Vietnam, on the Sino-Soviet border in Central Asia/Xinjiang where 60,000 refugees to Soviet Central Asia. The threat from India’s forward probing was probably the least potent of these threats.