Millennium Post

The shadow between India and China

The Sino-India 1962 war might not be the longest or the bloodiest battle in the history of the two nations but it remains a reminder of a much complex dynamics of mistrust that govern the relationship between the two countries.

Fifty years on, the two countries are trying hard to find their place on the global high table in a world where both the economies play a pivotal role in defining peace and war. It would be a matter of pure speculation that whether there could be a redux of 1962 or not but largely the mistrust that prompted Nehru to take an aggressive posture then, still remains intact. However, in the face of a leadership that has been matured under the complexities and compulsions of global economic pressures, the possibility of a full-scale war are only but remote. Ironically, both the countries are talking peace while ramping up defences in key sectors and filling up their war stores with ever new warfare technologies.

The situation on the ground has not changed much in the context of the key issues that led to the 1962 war between the two countries. Tibet and the Dalai Lama issues continue to be the thorn in China’s flesh while Beijing’s increased incursions in Arunachal Pradesh and presence of its soldiers in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have been India’s pet peeves. The talks on resolving the border issue between the two countries have stalled. Much to New Delhi’s discomfort, Beijing has continued to widen its arc of influence in the Indian Ocean Region by forging maritime linkages with Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar and Pakistan along with eastern Africa and Seychelles. Moreover, a Sino-Pak entente cordiale confronts India with the prospect of a two front war with China using Pakistan as a balance of power to constrain India.  

There is no dearth of reasons and deterrents to speculate the possibility of a full scale offensive from either side. What has kept the two nations off from firing the first bullet, even while continuously holding the gun at each other, is the ambition to grow and to become ‘important’ in the current world order. While China, despite its massive economic might and probably one of the biggest arsenals after the US would not like to engage in a skirmish which could derail its plans to play a greater role in world politics. It might also be wary of India’s close ties with the US and Japan – two of its biggest competitors.

India on the other hand realises that its huge dependence on foreign arms technologies can be no match for the Chinese might. However, it has been quietly attaining parity to prevent war. India no longer depends solely on Russia for arms but has been diversifying its sources. Though Moscow’s recent decision to not sell arms to Pakistan to ‘ensure safety in the region’ has warmed many in New Delhi. The US has also cranked up its arms sales pitch to New Delhi mainly with a view of balancing China’s power. This has resulted in more joint military exercises, exhaustive training, increasing defence sales and technology cooperation between the two countries.

Notably, New Delhi’s close alignment with Washington has the potential to anger Beijing that can accuse it of being a part of ‘anti-China combination’. The policy pundits in New Delhi seem to be mindful of the fact and thus try to balance India’s military and diplomatic engagement with the US while keeping Chinese sensitivities into consideration.  The Chinese on their part also understand that taking a stand against India for being close to the US and Japan could boomerang and any such misadventure might give Washington a reason to make it a pariah like its ‘rogue’ allies such as North Korea and Iran.

Speculation aside, 1962 events are still a raw nerve for the both the countries and very much define their understanding of each other. Probably this is the reason why even after 50 years, the Henderson Brooks Report commissioned after the 1962 debacle to examine the conduct of military operations during the conflict still remains classified on the account of holding sensitive information with security implications. The non-availability of the report in the public domain has not been able to bring out authors’ speculation as to what were the reasons behind India’s failure – equipment and weaponry, military planning or military and political leadership, etc.

However, the recent declassification of the two letters by the American authorities written by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to US President John F Kennedy has to some extent shown the gravity of the situation in 1962. Scholars have also marked it as India’s cathartic move from being a non-aligned country to forming a tactical military alliance with the US.  Nehru in his letters pleaded Kennedy for ‘assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India.’ China ended the war soon after and Kennedy did not get a chance to answer Nehru’s call. The US-India entente nevertheless carried on. In November 1962, the State Department’s Policy Planning Council considered the imposition of ‘a total western embargo against China’ if Beijing chose to resume hostilities. The US military sales to India also increased in the following years though was stopped in the wake of 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.

Notably, excerpts of the Brooks - Bhagat report have also been cited in certain sections of media pointing out that it was not the shortage in ammunition and equipment but poor military leadership that cost the Indian side.  Coming down heavily on the military leadership, the report is particularly critical of then Chief of General Staff Lt Gen B M Kaul, who was made General Officer Commanding (GOC) the northeast just ahead of the war citing him as a bad example of ‘poor general-ship’.

The 50th anniversary of the dramatic debacle, which has attracted commentary and reminisces from the Indian side, poses a frequent question whether the twain will meet again in the battle field. However, both the nations at present are more cautious in dealing with each other. It is a given fact that in the coming years India and China will rival each other on several strategic issues. This rivalry, however, need not be played out into a sustained conflict. Both the countries should rather concentrate on amplifying their shared interests such as economic exchange, closer educational contacts and a positive diplomacy towards keeping the peace at the frontier.

Shreya Upadhyay is a research scholar at School of International Studies, JNU
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