A Sino-Indian War in 2017 will not be a repeat of 1962

The Sino-Indian border dispute in 2017 is strikingly similar to that of 1962; however, the respective outcomes could be radically different

Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NR Mohanty

As the Sikkim standoff continues, China is increasingly taking a more belligerent position, with its latest month-long advisory to its citizens already in India or travelling to India to take all safety precautions, and India is refusing to back down from its stand to obstruct the illegal Chinese advance in its immediate neighbourhood. There are intense speculations that the two large nations in Asia are hurtling down the path of a war a la 1962.

There is a significant difference though between the two situations. In 1962, India and China faced a direct border conflict; in 2017, India is facing the Chinese wrath for defending the Bhutanese territory. But then, Bhutan is merely a pawn on the politico-strategic-military chessboard of the Himalayan region; India and China are the principal rivals battling it out for regional hegemony.

China has come down strongly against India accusing it of intervening in the affairs of a third country. China has even threatened India that if it continued to put a road block on the Chinese road construction, it might have face a third country intervention in its border dispute with Pakistan.

It is a threat that India has to live with. But India cannot buckle down under the Chinese pressure to disown its commitment to Bhutan. After all, protecting Bhutan’s interest is in the larger interest of India as well.

India and Bhutan have an almost seven-decade-long agreement to cooperate with each other in view of the historical relations that have existed between the countries and the manner in which these relations have evolved and matured over the years into a model of good neighbourly relations. The original India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was signed in 1949 when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. The treaty was renewed and updated under the auspices of the Manmohan Singh government in 2007.

Article 2 of the Treaty reads: “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.”

India has defended its action in the light of this bilateral agreement. It is not surprising that the standoff resulting from the Indian defence of the Bhutanese territory against Chinese encroachment in 2017 has created a similar situation that had developed in 1962 when India was seeking to protect its own territory from the advancing Chinese forces.

Communist China under Mao, which came into existence in 1949, had then refused to accept the Sino-Indian border delineated by the British. It claimed that it was unilaterally imposed on the Chinese authorities. Mao’s government had strongly objected to the inclusion of Aksai Chin in Kashmir and, to a lesser extent, of Arunachal Pradesh in the north-eastern territory of India.

Mao had then asked Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, to make amends for what he called gross historical injustice in the border settlement. But Nehru categorically declined to make any alterations in the existing border arrangments and minced no words to declare that Aksai Chin belonged to India.

China then did not publicly contradict Nehru’s claim. However, taking advantage of India’s post-Partition woes and Nehru government’s larger attention to the country’s economic development, China surreptitiously made military advances in the disputed territories, especially in the high-altitude and largely uninhabited Aksai Chin region.

But, in the aftermath of India granting asylum to the Dalai Lama, and the consequent Chinese denunciation of Nehru, Maoist China began to make loud claims on both Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. It was then that India started on a road of what came to be known as the Nehru government’s Forward Policy – to checkmate the Chinese forces wherever they were trying to make inroads into the disputed territory.

The impasse that existed then is strikingly similar to what is the ground situation today. The Indian forces then, as it is now, had succeeded in stalling the Chinese advancement. In July 1962, China too had lodged diplomatic protest against India’s actions but India stood its ground. In fact, Nehru made a public statement that the Indian Army was under instructions to “free our territory”.

But what Nehru could not envisage – or possibly did not anticipate – was that China would not take the Indian assertion lying down, that China would resort to a full-scale war to claim the disputed territory. Of course, the Chinese put the onus on India for the mess.

Just as the current media war that China is waging against India, the Chinese authorities then too used the media to threaten India. On October 14, 1962, an editorial in People’s Daily had this to say: “So it seems that Mr Nehru has made up his mind to attack the Chinese frontier guards on an even bigger scale… it is high time to shout to Mr Nehru that the heroic Chinese troops, with the glorious tradition of resisting foreign aggression, can never be cleared by anyone from their territory… if there are still some maniacs who are reckless enough to ignore our well-intentioned advice and insist on having another try, well, let them do so. History will pronounce its inexorable verdict… At this critical moment… we still want to appeal once more to Mr Nehru: better rein in at the edge of the precipice and do not use the lives of Indian troops as stakes in your gamble.”

Nothing could be a more open declaration of the prospect of an impending war. But Jawaharlal Nehru sincerely believed that the dispute could be resolved by diplomatic means. India did not back down from its Forward Policy but initiated dialogue to come to an agreement.

Despite the continuing dialogue, full-frontal attack by the Chinese Army in both the western and eastern sectors on October 20, 1962, took many in India by surprise. As India was not ready for the war, the outcome was humiliating for it. The limited number of Indian troops deployed on the border were outnumbered by the large battalions of war-ready Chinese troops. By October, 24, China offered to withdraw its claim from the eastern sector if Nehru agreed to Chinese suzerainty in the Aksai Chin. But Nehru insisted on China’s return to the “boundary prior to 8 September 1962”, before any negotiation could happen.

After China received Nehru’s reply, it resumed the war against India and made further advancement in both eastern and western sectors, completely overrunning Aksai Chin and reaching the outskirts of Tezpur in Assam.

Incidentally, this Chinese attack coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The USA was then not in a position to immediately come to the aid of India against China as it was engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Soviet bloc in Latin America. As soon as the US announced air strike support to India, on Pandit Nehru’s request, China declared unilateral ceasefire and announced its withdrawal from the eastern sector.

How would the outcome in 2017 be different from 1962 in the eventual possibility of a war? Well, a full-scale war may not actually happen now as both India and China are nuclear-armed states and because conventional war has the potential of escalating into a nuclear war.

Another major difference is that, with the hindsight of 1962, successive governments in India have invested in a big way in modernising its defence forces. But then, India lost to China in 1962 not so much because the Chinese Army was better equipped than the Indian Army but because India did not have a war plan on its table then.

Today, too, China has a much bigger military establishment compared to India (its annual military budget is to the tune of 150 billion dollars where as India spends almost one–third of it for its defence expenditure), but Indian defence forces today are in a perpetual state of readiness to take on any military challenge at short notice.

That is why, even if the India-China stand-off in 2017 is reminiscent of the 1962 episode, the outcome would be radically different, in case China decides to go to war with India to settle its territorial claims.

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