The Himalayan Border Dispute and the 1962 Sino-Indian War

“By 1962, barely a decade after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, China had fought a war with the United States in Korea and engaged in two military confrontations involving the United States over the offshore islands of Taiwan. It had restored Chinese authority to imperial China’s historic frontiers (with the exception of Mongolia and Taiwan) by reoccupying Xinjiang and Tibet. The famine triggered by the Great Leap Forward had barely been overcome. Nevertheless, Mao did not shrink from another military conflict when he considered China’s definition of its historic borders was being challenged by India.

The Sino-Indian border crisis concerned two territories located in the high Himalayas in the trackless and largely inhabitable region of plateaus amidst forbidding mountains between Tibet and India. Fundamentally, the issue arose over the interpretation of colonial history.

China claimed the imperial boundaries along the southern foothills of the Himalayas, encompassing what China considered ‘South Tibet’ but which India administered as the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian perception was of relatively recent vintage. It had evolved out of the British effort to demarcate a dividing line with the Russian Empire advancing towards Tibet. The final relevant document was between Britain and Tibet, signed in 1914, that delineated the border in the eastern sector, called the McMahon Line after the principal British negotiator.

China had a long relationship with Tibet. The Mongols had conquered both Tibet and the Chinese agricultural heartland in the same wave of conquest in the thirteenth century, bringing them into close political contact. Later the Qing dynasty had regularly intervened in Tibet to expel the forces of other non-Han peoples making incursions into Tibet from the north and west. Eventually Beijing settled into a form of suzerainty exercised by ‘imperial residents’ in Lhasa. Beijing, since the Qing dynasty, treated Tibet as part of the All Under Heaven ruled by the Chinese Emperor and reserved the right to eject hostile interlopers; but distance and the Tibetans’ nomadic culture made full Sinicization impractical. In this manner, Tibetans were afforded a substantial degree of autonomy over their day-to-day life.

By the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, with China’s governance severely strained, the Chinese governmental presence in Tibet had shrunk. Shortly after the collapse of the dynasty, British authorities in India convened a conference in the hill station of Simla with Chinese and Tibetan representatives, with the goal of demarcating the borders between India and Tibet. The Chinese government, having no effective force with which to contest these developments, objected on principle to the cession of any territory to which China had a historic claim. Beijing’s attitude to the conference was reflected by its representative in Calcutta—then the seat of Britain’s Indian administration—Lu Hsing-chi: ‘Our country is at present in an enfeebled condition; our external relations are involved and difficult and our finances embarrassed. Nevertheless, Tibet is of paramount importance to both (Sichuan and Yunnan, provinces in south-west China) and we must exert ourselves to the utmost during this conference.’

The Chinese delegate at the conference solved their dilemma by initialing, but not signing the resulting document. Tibetan and British delegates signed the document. In diplomatic practice, initialing freezes the text; it signifies that the negotiations have been concluded. Signing the document puts it into force. China maintained that the Tibetan representatives lacked the legal standing to sign the border agreement, since Tibet was part of China and not entitled to the exercise of sovereignty. It refused to recognize the validity of Indian administration of the territory south of the McMahon Line, although it initially made no overt attempt to contest it.

In the western sector the disputed territory was known as the Aksai Chin. It is nearly inaccessible from India, which is why it took some months for India to realize, in 1955, that China was building a road across it linking Xinjiang and Tibet. The historical provenance of the region was also problematic. Britain claimed it on most official maps, though never seems to have administered it. When India proclaimed its independence from Britain, it did not proclaim its independence from British territorial claims. It included the Aksai Chin territory as well as the line demarcated by McMahon on all of its maps.

Both demarcation lines were of strategic consequence. In the 1950s, a certain balance existed the positions of the two sides. China viewed the McMahon Line as a symbol of British plans to loosen Chinese control over Tibet or perhaps to dominate. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru claimed a cultural and sentimental interest in Tibet based on historical links between India’s classical Buddhist culture and Tibetan Buddhism. But he was prepared to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty in Tibet so long as substantial autonomy was maintained. In pursuit of this policy, Nehru declined to support petitions to table the issue of Tibet’s political status at the U.N.

But when the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 and was granted asylum in India, China began to treat the issue of demarcation lines increasingly in strategic terms. Zhou offered a deal trading Chinese claims in the west, in other words, acceptance of the McMahon Line as a basis of negotiations in return for recognition of Chinese claims to Aksai Chin.

Almost all post-colonial countries have insisted on the borders within which they achieved independence. To throw them open to negotiations invites unending controversies and domestic pressure. On the principle that he was not elected to bargain away territory that he considered indisputably Indian, Nehru rejected the Chinese proposal by not answering it.

In 1961, India adopted what it called the Forward Policy. To overcome the impression that it was not contesting the disputed territory, India moved its outposts forward, close to Chinese outposts previously established across the existing line of demarcation. Indian commanders were given the authority to fire on Chinese forces at their discretion on the theory that the Chinese were intruders on Indian territory. They were reinforced in that policy after the first clashes in 1959 when Mao, in order to avoid a crisis, ordered Chinese forces to withdraw some twenty kilometers. Indian planners drew the conclusion that Chinese would not resist a forward movement by India; rather they would use it as an excuse to disengage. Indian forces were ordered to, in the words of the official Indian history of the war, ‘patrol as far forward as possible from our (India’s) present position toward the International Border as recognized by us. . (and) prevent the Chinese from advancing further and also to dominate any Chinese posts already established on our territory.’

It proved a miscalculation. Mao at once cancelled the previous withdrawal orders. But he was still too cautious, telling a meeting of the Central Military Commission in Beijing: ‘Lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans. We must pay attention to the situation.’ It was not yet an order for military confrontation; rather a kind of alert to prepare a strategic plan. As such, it triggered the familiar Chinese style of dealing with strategic decisions: thorough analysis; careful preparation; attention to psychological and political factors; quest for surprise; and rapid conclusion.

In meetings of the Central Military Commission and of top leaders, Mao commented on Nehru’s Forward Policy with one of his epigrams: ‘A person sleeping in a comfortable bed is not easily roused by someone else’s snoring.’ In other words Chinese forces in the Himalayas had been too passive in responding to the Indian Forward Policy—which in the Chinese perception was taking place on Chinese soil. (That, of course, was the essence of the dispute: each side argued that its adversary had ventured onto its own soil).

The Central Military Commission ordered an end of Chinese withdrawals, declaring that any new Indian posts should be resisted by building Chinese outposts near them, encircling them. Mao summed it up: ‘You wave a gun, and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage.’ Mao defined the policy as ‘armed coexistence.’ It was in effect, the exercise of wei qi* in the Himalayas.

*China’s most enduring game like chess is called ‘we qi’ (way chee): It implies a concept of strategic encirclement and a protracted campaign. The we qi player seeks relative advantage. While chess produces single-mindedness. we qi generates strategic flexibility.

Precise instructions were issued. The goal was still declared to be to avoid a larger conflict. Chinese troops were not authorized to fire unless Indian forces came closer than fifty meters to their positions. Beyond that, military actions could be initiated only on orders from higher authorities.

Indian planners noted that China had stopped withdrawals but also observed Chinese restraint in firing. They concluded that another probe would do the trick. Rather than contest empty land, the goal became ‘to push back the Chinese posts they already occupied.’

Since the two objectives of China’s stated policy—to prevent further Indian advances and to avoid bloodshed—were not being met, Chinese leaders began to consider whether a sudden blow might force India to the negotiating table and end the tit for tat.

In pursuit of that objective, Chinese leaders were concerned that the United States might use the looming Sino-Indian conflict to unleash Taiwan against the mainland. Another worry was that the American diplomacy seeking to block Hanoi’s effort to turn Laos into a base area for the war in Vietnam might be a forerunner of an eventual American attack on southern China via Laos. Chinese leaders could not believe that America would involve itself to the extent it did in Indochina (even then,  before the major escalation had started) for local strategic stakes.

The Chinese leaders managed to obtain reassurance on both points in the process of demonstrating the comprehensive way in which China policy was being planned. The Warsaw talks was the venue chosen to determine American intentions in the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese ambassador to these talks was recalled from vacation and instructed to ask for a meeting. There he claimed that Beijing had noted preparations in Taiwan for a landing on the mainland. The American ambassador, who had not heard any such preparations—since they were not, in fact, taking place—was instructed to reply that the United States desired peace and ‘under present circumstances’ would not support a Nationalist offensive. The Chinese ambassador at these talks, Wang Bingnan, noted in his memoirs that this information played a ‘very big role’ in Beijing’s final decision to proceed with operations in the Himalayas. There is no evidence that the United States government asked itself what policy might have produced the request for a special meeting. It was the difference between a segmented and a comprehensive approach to policy making.

The Laotian problem solved itself. At the Geneva Conference of 1962, the neutralization of Laos and withdrawal of American forces from it removed Chinese concerns.

With these reassurances in hand, Mao in early October 1962 assembled Chinese leaders to announce the final decision, which was for war:

We fought a war with old Chiang (Kai-shek). We fought a war with Japan, and with America. With none of these did we fear. And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. We cannot give ground, once we give ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province . . . Since Nehru sticks his head and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity.’

On October 6, a decision in principle was taken. The strategic plan was for a massive assault to produce a shock that would impel negotiation or at least an end to the Indian military probing for the foreseeable future.

Before the final decision to order the offensive, word was received from Khrushchev that, in case of war, the Soviet Union would back China under the provisions of the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance of 1950. It was a decision totally out of keeping with Soviet-Chinese relations in the previous years and the neutrality heretofore practiced by the Kremlin on the issue of Indian relations with China. A plausible explanation is that Khrushchev, aware of the imminence of a showdown over Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba, wanted to assure himself of Chinese support in the Caribbean crisis. He never returned to the offer once the Cuban crisis was over.

The Chinese attack took place in two stages: a preliminary offensive starting in October 20 lasting four days, followed by a massive assault in the middle of November, which reached the foothills of the Himalayas in the vicinity of the traditional demarcation line. At this point the PLA stopped and returned to its starting point well behind the line it was claiming. The disputed territory has remained disputed until today, but neither side has sought to enforce its claim beyond the existing lines of control.

The Chinese strategy was similar to that of the offshore islands crises. China did not conquer any territory in the 1962 Sino-Indian War—although it continued to claim the territory south of the McMahon Line. This may have reflected a political judgement or recognition of logistical realities. The conquered eastern sector territory could be held only over seriously extended supply lines across forbidding terrain.

At the end of the war, Mao had withstood—and in this case, prevailed in—another major crisis, even while a famine was barely ended in China. It was in a way a replay of the American experience in the Korean War: an underestimation of China by its adversary; unchallenged intelligence estimates about Chinese capabilities; and coupled with grave errors in grasping how China interprets its security environment and how it reacts to military threats.

At the same time, the 1962 war added another formidable adversary for China at a moment when relations with the Soviet Union had gone beyond the point of no return. For the Soviet offer of support proved as fleeting as the Soviet nuclear presence in Cuba.

As soon as the military clashes in the Himalayas escalated, Moscow adopted a posture of neutrality. To rub salt into Chinese wounds, Khrushchev justified his neutrality with the proposition that he was promoting the loathed principle of peaceful coexistence. A December 1962 editorial in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, angrily noted that this marked the first time a Communist state had not sided with another Communist state against a ‘bourgeois’ country. ‘For a communist the minimum requirement is that he should make a clear distinction between the enemy and ourselves, that he should be ruthless towards the enemy and kind to his own comrades.’ The editorial added a somewhat plaintive call for China allies to ‘examine their conscience and ask themselves what has become of their Marxism-Leninism and what has become of their proletarian internationalism.’

By 1964 the Soviets had dropped even the pretence of neutrality. Referring to the Cuban Missile crisis, Mikhail Suslov, a member of the Politburo and party ideologist, accused the Chinese of aggression against India at a moment of maximum difficulty for the Soviet Union:

It is a fact that precisely at the height of the Caribbean crisis the Chinese People’s Republic extended the armed conflict on the Chinese-Indian border. No matter how the Chinese leaders have tried since then to justify their conduct at the time they cannot escape the responsibility for the fact that through their actions they in effect aided the most reactionary circles of imperialism.

China, having barely overcome a vast famine, now had declared adversaries on all frontiers.”

Courtesy: On China by Henry Kissinger Published By Penguin Group Canada, Toronto,  2011

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