The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

The Presidency 1971
On the morning of November 4,  I met in the Oval Office with the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Her visit to Washington came at a critical time. Eight months earlier there had been a rebellion in East Pakistan against the government of President Yahya Khan. Indian officials reported that nearly 10 million refugees fled from East Pakistan into India. We knew that Yahya Khan eventually would have to yield to East Pakistan’s demands for independence, and we urged him to take a more moderate and conciliatory line. We could not have known the extent to which India would seize this opportunity not just to destroy Pakistan’s control of East Pakistan but to weaken West Pakistan as well.
Mrs. Gandhi complimented me highly on the way I was winding down the war in Vietnam and on the boldness of the China initiative. We talked about the uneasy situation in Pakistan, and I stressed how important it was that India not take any actions that would exacerbate it.

She earnestly assured me that India was not motivated in any way by anti-Pakistan attitudes. “India has never wished the destruction of Pakistan or its permanent crippling,” she said. “Above all, India seeks the restoration of stability. We want to eliminate chaos at all costs.”

I later learned that, even as we spoke, Mrs. Gandhi knew that her generals and advisers were planning to intervene in East Pakistan and were considering contingency plans for attacking West Pakistan as well.

Even though India was officially neutral and continued to receive foreign aid from us, Mrs. Gandhi had gradually become aligned with the Soviets, and received substantial economic and military aid from Moscow. President Ayub Khan and his successor, Yahya Khan had responded by developing Pakistan’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. With Moscow tied to New Delhi and Peking tied to Islamabad, the potential for the subcontinent’s becoming a dangerous area of confrontation between the Communist giants was great.
In our conversation that morning I was disturbed by the fact that although Mrs. Gandhi professed her devotion to peace, she would not make any concrete offers for de-escalating the tension. Yahya Khan had agreed to move his troops away from the border if India would do the same, but she would not make a similar commitment.

I said, “Absolutely nothing could be served by the disintegration of Pakistan. For India to initiate hostilities would be almost impossible to understand.” I said that in some respects the situation was similar to that in the Middle East: just as American and Soviet interests were involved there, so Chinese, Soviet and American interests were at stake in South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. “It would be impossible to calculate precisely the steps which other great powers might take if India were to initiate hostilities,” I said.
A month later, primed with Soviet weapons, the Indian army attacked East Pakistan. Fighting also erupted along the border with West Pakistan, but it was impossible to tell whether the Indian objective there was to pin down Pakistani forces or whether the action was the prelude to a full-scale attack. Battle plans of such dimensions are not formulated in less than a month, and I could not help thinking that Mrs. Gandhi had purposely deceived me in our meeting. I was also concerned that the Soviets had ignored several, clear signals from us that we would react very unfavourably if they supported India in an invasion of Pakistan. I felt that one of the primary Soviet motives was to show the world that, despite the much-heralded Sino-American rapprochement, the U.S.S.R. was still the premier Communist power. In fact, the Soviets moved troops to the Chinese border in an unsubtle attempt to tie up Chinese forces and prevent them from going to the aid of Pakistan.

In the Lincoln Sitting Room with Henry Kissinger

I felt it was important to discourage both Indian aggression and Soviet adventurism, and I agreed with Kissinger’s recommendation that we should demonstrate our displeasure with India and our support for Pakistan. To coordinate our planning, Kissinger convened a meeting of the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG), composed of representatives from State, Defense, CIA, and the NSC. He found that the State Department felt that independence for East Pakistan was inevitable and desirable, and that India had limited aims in East Pakistan and no designs on West Pakistan. The risk of Soviet or Chinese intervention, according to this reasoning, was small. The State Department, therefore, argued that we should keep calm, sit back, and let the inevitable happen.

In the Oval Office in 1970 with staff aides John Ehrlichman, Henry Kissinger and Bob Haldeman (seated)

I completely disagreed with this bland assessment. I wanted to let the Soviets know that we would strongly oppose the dismemberment of Pakistan by a Soviet ally using Soviet arms. Kissinger, therefore, summoned Soviet Charge Vorontsov to the White House and told him that this crisis had once again brought our relations to a watershed because we considered that promoting a war in the Indian subcontinent was inconsistent with improved relations with us.
Kissinger said that we wanted a cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Indian troops from Pakistan. Once the fighting had stopped, the parties could begin to negotiate a political settlement of the problem. We recognized that political autonomy for East Pakistan would be the probable outcome of a political solution, and we were willing to work in that direction. The main point was that the fighting should stop and the danger of a great power confrontation should be removed.

The next day I wrote a letter to Brezhnev that left no doubt about my feelings:

The objective fact now is that Indian military are being used in an effort to impose political demands and to dismember the sovereign state of Pakistan. It is also a fact that your government has aligned itself with this Indian policy . . .
I am convinced that the spirit in which we agreed that the time had come of us to meet in Moscow next May requires from both of us the utmost restraint and the most urgent action to end the conflict and restore territorial integrity in the subcontinent.

At eleven that night, Vorontsov delivered a note replying to the points Kissinger had made the day before. It accused the United States of not being active enough in maintaining peace, and it proposed an immediate cease-fire coupled with a demand that Pakistan immediately recognise the independence of East Pakistan. The Soviets clearly intended to play a hard line. What we had to do, therefore, was remain absolutely steadfast behind Pakistan. If we failed to help Pakistan, then Iran or any other country within the reach of Soviet influence might begin to question the dependability of American support. As Kissinger put it, “We don’t really have any choice. We can’t allow a friend o ours and China’s to get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia’s.”

On December 9 Vorontsov arrived with a long letter from Brezhnev. In an attempt to put the shoe on the other foot, he said that the crux of the problem lay in finding ways to exert influence on Yahya Khan to give up East Pakistan. Kissinger felt that the cordial tone of the letter at least indicated some responsive movement on the Soviet side, but I expressed my doubts.

In the meantime, the crisis had taken a disturbing turn. Through intelligence sources we learned that at a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Mrs. Gandhi had led a discussion of plans to expand the war on the western front and to invade West Pakistan. Kissinger called the Indian Ambassador, virtually told him that we knew his government’s plans, and demanded that the Ambassador urge New Delhi to reconsider any precipitate action.

The Soviet Minister of Agriculture happened to be visiting Washington at this time. I knew he was a close friend of Brezhnev’s, so I asked him to carry back a personal message to Brezhnev from me, conveying my seriousness in saying that it was incumbent upon the two of us as the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers not to allow our larger interests to become embroiled in the actions of our smaller friends.
Late that afternoon I authorised Admiral Moorer to dispatch a task force of eight ships, including the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise, from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal.

The military situation in East Pakistan was hopeless. The numerically superior Indians had been joined by fierce Bengali rebels, and Yahya Khan’s forces were in total retreat. The almost unbelievable cruelty of the fighting on both sides had turned the situation into a nightmare. Millions of people were left homeless before the fighting ended.
Finally, Yahya recognised that he should follow the course of action we had been recommending: that he could no longer defend East Pakistan and that he should concentrate his forces in the defence of West Pakistan, in which event I indicated he would have my complete support. On December 9 Pakistan accepted the UN General Assembly’s call for a cease-fire. India rejected it, however, and tension was still rising along the border in West Pakistan, as I wrote another letter to Brezhnev calling on him to join me in ending the crisis before we ourselves were dragged into it. I began by stating that, in our view, his proposal for the political independence of East Pakistan had been met by Pakistan’s own action. Then I wrote:

This must now be followed by an immediate cease-fire in the West. If this does not take place, we would have to conclude that there is in progress an act of aggression directed at the whole of Pakistan, a friendly country toward which we have obligations.
I therefore propose an immediate joint appeal for a complete cease-fire. Meanwhile, I urge you in the strongest terms to restrain India with which, by virtue of your treaty, you have great influence and for whose actions you must share responsibility.

On December 11 we waited all day for a reply from Brezhnev. This delay was intolerable, since the possibility of an Indian attack on West Pakistan increased with each passing hour. On December 12, shortly before I was to fly to the Azores for a Franco-American Summit with President Pompidou on the international monetary crisis, a brief reply arrived from Moscow, stating simply that the Government of India had no intention of taking any military action against West Pakistan.
I immediately sent back a message that the Indian assurances lacked any concreteness. In view of the urgency of the situation and the need for concerted action, I proposed that we continue consultations through the secret Kissinger-Dobrynin channel. I added that I could not emphasise too strongly that time was the essence to avoid consequences that neither of us wanted.
Despite the urgent tone of my message, the hot-line wires were cold until 5 A.M. the next day, when a three-sentence message arrived that the Soviets were conducting a “clarification” of the circumstances in India and would inform us of the results without delay.
In Washington on December 14, Vorontsov handed Haig another message from the Kremlin. Once again it offered only vague assurances that India had no intention of taking any military action against Pakistan. Since this reply offered no improvement over the earlier message, I agreed with Kissinger that Haig should call Vorontsov and tell him so.
On the flight from Azores back to Washington, Kissinger talked to the three pool reporters flying aboard Air Force One. One of them asked if there was any danger that the crisis might deteriorate to the point that it would affect my plans to go to the summit. “Not yet,” Kissinger replied, “but we will have to wait and see what happens in the next few days.the reporters immediately realised that they just been given a big story. “Should we infer from statement that if the Russians don’t begin to exercise a restraining influence very soon, the plans for the President’s trip might be changed?” one asked.
Kissinger replied, “We are definitely looking to the Soviets to become a restraining influence in the next few days, and if they continue to deliberately encourage military actions, we might have to take a new look at the President’s plans.”
As soon as the plane landed, the reporters rushed to share their notes with their colleagues and file their stories. The early evening news programs flashed the report around the country and around the world.

Kissinger summoned Vorontsov to the White House and told him that I had been concerned that the Soviet leaders were not doing everything possible to arrive at a settlement. In view of their continued delays, I had begun to believe that they were dealing only in words, with the intention of letting events on the ground dictate the ultimate outcome.
“It is not President Nixon’s style to threaten, ” Kissinger said. “He has long sought a genuine exchange in U.S.-Soviet relations. Despite his desire, however, your government has proceeded to equip India with great amounts of sophisticated armaments. If the Soviet government were to support or to pressure other foreign leaders to dismember or to divide an ally of the United States, how can they expect progress in our mutual relationships?”

The next day, Kissinger called Vorontsov back and showed him the text of a letter I had written to Kosygin urging that our countries take prompt and responsible steps to ensure that the military conflict not spread and that assurances be given against territorial acquisition by either side.

Vorontsov complained that the Indians were proving very resistant to Soviet pressure. Kissinger replied, “There is no longer any excuse. The President has made any. Umber of personal appeals, all of which have been rejected, and it now time to move.”

Vorontsov said that the Soviets were prepared unconditionally to guarantee that there would be no Indian attack on West Pakistan or on Kashmir. But to do this publicly would mean that they were, in effect speaking for a friendly country. In other words, the Soviets would urge the Indians to accept a cease-fire as long as they did not have to do so publicly. Without the prospect of Soviet support and aid, the Indians were almost certain to agree to a settlement.

The next day Yahya Khan’s forces in East Pakistan surrendered unconditionally. On December 17, the explosive situation on the western front was also resolved when Pakistan accepted the Indian offer of a cease-fire there. By using diplomatic signals and behind-the-scenes pressures we had been able to save West Pakistan from the imminent threat of Indian aggression and domination. We had also once again avoided a major confrontation with the Soviet Union.

The Indo-Pakistan war involved stakes much higher than the future of Pakistan–and that was high enough. It involved the principle of whether big nations supported by the Soviet Union would be permitted to dismember their smaller neighbours. Once that principle was allowed the world would have become more unstable and unsafe.

The Chinese played a very cautious role in this period. They had troops poised on the Indian border, but they would not take the risk of coming to the aid of Pakistan by attacking India, because they understandably feared that the Soviets might use this action as an excuse for attacking China. They consequently did nothing, but the presence of their forces probably had a deterrent effect on India.
Three days after the cease-fire was arranged, we sent the Chinese a brief description of its major points. We concluded, “It is the U.S. view that recent events in South Asia involve sobering conclusions. The governments of the People’s Republic of China and the United States should not again find themselves in a position where hostile global aims can be furthered through the use of proxy countries.”
As a result of the Indo-Pakistan crisis, my respect and regard for Mrs. Gandhi diminished. A few months later, in March 1972, after having seen a film biography of Mahatma Gandhi–who was no relation to her–during a weekend at Key Biscayne, I dictated a brief reflection in the diary I had begun keeping in November 1971.

As I saw Gandhi’s assassination and heard his words on violence, I realised how hypocritical the present Indian leaders are, with Indira Gandhi talking about India’s victory wings being clipped when Shastri went to Tashkent and her duplicitous attitude towards us when she actually made up her mind to attack Pakistan at the time she saw me in Washington and assured me she would not. Those who resort to force, without making excuses, are bad enough– but those who resort to force while preaching to others about their use of force deserve no sympathy whatever.

One of the most serious incidents of the Indo-Pakistan crisis occurred on our domestic front. On December 14, while we were still uncertain whether India would attack West Pakistan, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson published verbatim excerpts of the minutes of the WSAG meetings of December 2,4, and 6. The minutes revealed Kissinger’s statements to the group relaying my strong pressure to “tilt” toward Pakistan, which differed from the posture that had been adopted by some State Department sources as well as from the more neutral public position we embraced in order to exercise greater leverage on all parties. From a diplomatic point of view, the leak was embarrassing; from the point of view of national security, it was intolerable.
The leak came as a shock because WSAG meetings had been attended by only the highest-ranking members of the military intelligence organisations and the State Department. We learned that Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander believed that one of the leaked documents had to have come from his office, which handled liaison between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council. Bud Krogh and David Young were assigned to investigate.
Suspicion centred on a young Navy yeoman assigned to Welanders’s office. In the course of questioning, Young learned that for some time the yeoman has been making copies of secret NSC documents. He had rifled burn bags for carbon or xerox copies, and in some cases, he actually took documents for copying out of Kissinger’s and Haig’s briefcases. On one occasion, he copied a memo of Kissinger’s conversation with Chou En-lai during the first secret mission to Peking. He passed the documents to his superiors in the Pentagon.
We were not able to establish beyond doubt that the yeoman was Anderson’s source. However, circumstantial evidence was strong. They were personally acquainted and had met on several occasions. Whether or not he had disclosed classified information to Anderson, the fact remained that he had jeopardised the relationship of the JCS to the White House.
I was disturbed–although not perhaps really surprised–that the JCS was spying on the White House. But I was, frankly, very reluctant to pursue this aspect of the case because I knew that if it were explored, like so many other sensitive matters it would wind up being leaked to the media where it would be completely distorted, and we would end up doing damage to the military at a time when it was already under heavy attack.
The yeoman himself presented a similar problem. I felt the circumstantial evidence that he had provided information to Anderson was convincing, and I knew that such actions could not be tolerated.

What concerns me about this story is the Ellsberg complex that drove the yeoman to put out the information. His spying on the White House for the Joint Chiefs is something that I would not particularly be surprised at, although I don’t think it’s a healthy practice. But his proceeding to put out top secret information to a newspaper columnist, because he disagreed with the policy on India is the kind of practice that must, at all costs, be stopped.

I felt, however, that it would be too dangerous to prosecute the yeoman. He had travelled with Kissinger and others on a number of secret missions and had had access to other top-secret information, which if disclosed, could have jeopardized our negotiations with China and with North Vietnam. In this respect, he was a potential time bomb that might be triggered by prosecution. We had him transferred to a remote post in Oregon and kept him under surveillance, including wiretaps for a time, to make sure that he was not dispensing any more secret information. It worked: there were no further leaks from him.

By courtesy:



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