CHINA AND INDIA: ARE WAR CLOUDS GATHERING OVER DOKLAM AGAIN?
A fresh Chinese build-up in the Himalayan area of a summer stand-off raises fears in Delhi that the August peace deal may be unravelling, paving the way for an even bigger confrontation
27 JAN 2018 / UPDATED ON 28 JAN 2018
Indian Army personnel patrol the India-China border. Photo: AFP
Vinayak Bhat has been working hard these past months. The retired Indian colonel’s assiduous analysis of satellite images of Himalaya’s Doklam plateau has shredded the veil of peace laboriously woven by India and China since they pulled themselves back from the brink of war last summer, and is raising embarrassing questions for New Delhi on the deal it cut with Beijing to maintain peace in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet “trijunction” area.
In graphic reports on the online publication ThePrint, Bhat has been detailing the heavy deployment of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel close to last year’s site of confrontation and hectic build-up by the Chinese in North Doklam, including concrete posts, helipads, new trenches, and a concrete observation tower less than 10 metres from the Indian Army’s most forward trench. Fighting posts have been created on almost every hillock on the North Doklam plateau, according to his reports, confirming sporadic media reports of Chinese troops digging in rather than leaving the area.
Indian Army personnel guard Bumla pass on the India-China border. Photo: AFP
“All these structures have come up only after June 16, according to satellite images,” the retired colonel, who served the Indian Army for 33 years, told This Week in Asia. “China is trying to change the status quo in North Doklam. India must object because the entire area is Bhutanese land occupied by China.”
The Indian government is doing nothing of the sort and is, instead, insisting all is well. After the opposition Congress party last week cited the satellite images to accuse the government of misleading the country and “snoozing” while the Chinese plan “Doklam 2.0”, the government clarified that the status quo at the site of last year’s face-off still held. It dismissed news reports such as Bhat’s as “inaccurate and mischievous”, but added that it was using “established mechanisms” to resolve misunderstandings over Doklam.
Addressing the same concerns, Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat said Chinese soldiers are still present in the area, “although not in numbers that we saw them in initially”, and that the PLA has “carried out some infrastructure development, which is mostly temporary in nature”. But while stressing that “bonhomie” (between India and China) had returned to pre-Doklam levels, Rawat also said it’s time for India to “shift focus” from its western border with Pakistan to its northern border with China, in what Chinese experts like Wang Dehua see as signs of “border aggression from India”.
In an editorial headlined “Time for clarity”, The Hindu newspaper this week noted that conflicting messages from the government pointed to an unravelling of the agreement announced in August, and demanded Delhi “drop the ambiguity” over Doklam and share details of just what’s going on there.
“The Chinese build-up appears to be of a different order of magnitude than anything seen in the past and therefore should be a source of concern,” opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor told This Week in Asia. “The government chose to spin the mutual disengagement from the face-off site as a major diplomatic victory. Its silence seems to have more to do with its reluctance to dilute that ‘triumph’ than with any realistic appreciation of the situation,” said Tharoor, who also heads India’s parliamentary standing committee on external affairs. The issue, he said, had come up “repeatedly” in the committee, but declined to elaborate on the “closed-door deliberations”.
While the government claimed victory of “quiet diplomacy” to end the stand-off, the politics around Doklam has been anything but quiet.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, centre, hold hands as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prepares to chair a meeting at the East Asia Summit. Photo: AP
As an opposition leader before he became prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi would often criticise the then Congress-led government for its allegedly soft stance towards China. Doklam, coming as it did ahead of crucial regional elections, enhanced his muscular nationalist image as he was seen as having successfully stared China down in a high-stakes battle of nerves.
However, while India’s two-paragraph announcement of truce at the time said both sides were standing down, China never actually admitted it was pulling back its troops. Even as it confirmed that India was withdrawing its border personnel “illegally on the Chinese territory”, Beijing maintained that Chinese troops would continue to patrol the area.
“The brevity of the government’s statements then hid the reality that more than getting the Chinese back to their original position, there was very little we could do,” said Jabin Jacob, a fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi. “But it allowed politicians and the politically minded among the strategic community in India to crow about ‘victory’. The Chinese, on the other hand, can do all they want in the areas of Bhutanese territory that are within their effective control.”
Chinese soldier gestures next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India’s north-eastern Sikkim state. Photo: AFP
As the controversy in India over the fresh build-up snowballs, Beijing has again asserted that Doklam belongs to China and what it does there is nobody’s business. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang also warned India not to cross the border again like last time – the dispute over Doklam being one between China and Bhutan – and “learn lessons” from it to avoid another confrontation.
If there is another confrontation, it could be a lot more difficult to resolve as “India can’t get away by applying force, as we did last time”, said former army colonel and strategic analyst Ajai Shukla. “A major takeaway for the Chinese from the Doklam incident is the realisation that they need to ditch vehicle-based patrolling and establish a permanent presence on the ground, and that’s what they are doing now.”
Agrees Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, who sees the de-escalation agreement holding up just fine, but a more permanent Chinese presence as the price India has to pay for the tactical win last year.
A satellite image shows Chinese troop deployments in Doklam. Photo: Vinayak Bhat
“De-escalation was sold in India as a great victory of resolve compelling Beijing to back down. So there is great confusion over how this great victory that Modi won ended up with a larger and more permanent Chinese presence in Doklam, which India does not or will not contest. This is not how the endgame was supposed to be, and this confusion is the source of fears regarding China’s motivations in Doklam,” said Gupta.
For defence experts like Shukla, these fears are mostly misplaced as India holds the higher ground in the southern edge of Doklam compared to Northern Doklam. The spate of infrastructure building may be good optics for the Chinese, they say, but it does not change the status quo on the ground as India is at an advantage there. But with China now beginning to build close-in light infrastructure across parts of the frontier, the real concern for India lies beyond Doklam.
“A much greater worry are other areas where the Indians are at a disadvantage or can’t reinforce as quickly. And it is certain Indian and Chinese forces will come into contact more often along the disputed boundary post-Doklam,” said Jacob. ■
China’s troop buildup in Doklam means India can’t protect Bhutan
RAVI RIKHYE18 January, 2018
The Chinese buildup at Doklam signifies that encroachment and road-building will accelerate, and India cannot protect Bhutan, because it doesn’t have a plan.
Representational image | Getty Images
Thanks to diligent hard work by Col. (retd) Vinayak Bhat and ThePrint, the Indian public knows the result of our Doklam adventure last summer. Anyone studying China’s national security policy knew the Chinese would return, with force. Nonetheless, I underestimated the Chinese buildup, expecting an additional border battalion.
Instead, Col. Bhat estimates that infrastructure for 4,000-5,000 troops, an entire brigade, is under construction, in addition to improvements in the Yadong salient that might house a division, where I expected a new brigade.
Responding to continued Chinese border provocations in the 2000s, the Indian Army requested seven to eleven additional mountain divisions, according to Mandeep Singh Bajwa, the leading expert on the Indian and Pakistani armies. As ThePrint readers know, two divisions were raised in 2008, followed by a two-division strike corps.
The government of India went wobbly after the first raising, with the Ministry of External Affairs warning against provoking the Chinese, and the Ministry of Finance saying we didn’t have the money. Neither is true, but that’s another discussion. Consequently, the raising of XVII Strike Corps was stretched out, and plans to go beyond four divisions dropped.
The Chinese had no reaction to this major increment to Indian strength. From 1963 itself, they have been remarkably indifferent to the post-1962 buildup, where we added eleven divisions to the China border. Today, they have only six border regiments and three regular brigades in Tibet. China believes, correctly, that India has no will to attack Tibet. The new buildup saw India add six brigades to Ladakh, Himachal and Uttarakhand, plus four divisions, plus four more brigades to the strike corps (two of these may not have been raised yet).
One reason for China’s non-reaction has been the phenomenal expansion of its road and rail network in Tibet, permitting the rapid arrival of reinforcements. In the 1986-87 confrontation over Sumdorong Chu in the east, it moved eight divisions plus independent regiments opposite the Eastern Command in eight weeks. Today, it speaks of the first division reinforcement arriving in 36-48 hours.
The Chinese have become the world’s best engineers, replacing the Americans. Since 2000, they have built a railroad to Lhasa and Shigatze with a spur to Yadong, to be completed in 2018, aim to complete Shigtaze-Gyirong (on the Nepal border) by 2020, begun studies for an extension to Kathmandu-Pokhara and then to the Indian border, are building an east-west line paralleling the Arunachal border to Nyangtri in the east (also for 2020 completion), and begun work on linking Nyangtri to Chengdu.
From the Chengdu end, 350 kilometres of railroad will be completed by 2018; the whole will be operational by 2030. They are working on two lines to better link Xinjiang and central China. This will permit rapid transfer of troops from Xinjiang and central China’s strategic reserves to our eastern border. In the west, they have opened a new railroad Kashgar-Hotan, which eventually will ease their logistic problems on our Northwest front.
They now have the second largest navy in the world, are ridding themselves of obsolete combat aircraft, and have reorganised their entire army for information-driven mobile warfare.
On our side, we’ve cut the defence budget to 1.56 per cent of our GDP. This has added to a 30-year equipment modernisation backlog. We’ve depleted our war reserves for the new raisings, and are struggling to rebuild ammunition and parts restocks to be capable of 10 days of combat.
The air force is losing squadrons every year because of faulty procurement decisions. In terms of blue water ships, the Chinese now have three times as many as India, and are stepping up new warship construction to make it six times as many by 2030-35. We are sitting on the sidelines as China is taking over Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
In Pakistan, they are investing $90 billion in power and infrastructure, equivalent to 30 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP. It is like $1 trillion in India. Their Navy now exercises in the Baltic, the North Pacific, and has even sent a five-warship task force to America’s doorstep off the Aleutians. China’s GDP is $13 trillion to our $3 trillion, and US’s $20 trillion. In 1978, India and China’s GDP was about the same.
At Doklam, we humiliated the Chinese. We had no choice, because they are out of control not just against India, but against the US in the China Seas, South-East Asia, Japan, and South Korea. What New Delhi failed to understand is that our success was only the start of confrontation, not the end. The Chinese buildup at Doklam signifies that (a) encroachment and road-building will accelerate, and (b) India cannot protect Bhutan. Bhutan’s best interest is in accepting China as its new overlord. As usual, we have no plan to counter.
Ravi Rikhye has written about 16 books on defence, and coauthored about ten others. He is completing a book which examines the two-front war question in detail.
ROAD TO DOKLAM: WHEN WILL CHINA AND INDIA START TALKING ABOUT THE 1962 WAR HONESTLY?
Both countries have been peddling a simplistic narrative of the last war, each blaming the other. Is it any surprise there’s so much loose talk of a new one?
5 AUG 2017 / UPDATED ON 8 AUG 2017
Chinese troops hold a military drill in Tibet amid a standoff with India on the border. Photo: Handout
As the Doklam military standoff in the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction enters its second month, the memories of a border war in 1962 have been stirring back to life. Chinese state media is warning of teaching India a lesson similar to 1962. The cover of the India Today magazine this week is asking ‘Will there be war?’ The People’s Liberation Army is urging the Indian Army to learn from history and stop “clamouring for war”. India’s defence minister is warning that India is not what it was in 1962. Neither is China, Beijing is warning back.
The wider world has largely forgotten that short border clash 55 years ago, playing out as it did in the shadows of the more momentous Cuban missile crisis at the peak of the cold war. But in this part of the world, the ghost of that war still lurks – it is the key to how the world’s two most populous nations imagine one another.
India Today’s front cover. Image: India Today
For Indians, spooked more by that distant war for the shame its defeat inflicted on a young nation, 1962 remains an open wound desperate for closure. From warmongering television anchors to bloodthirsty Twitter warriors, the craving for revenge is ubiquitous. As editor and author Shekhar Gupta succinctly said in a column on the 50th anniversary of the war, “for generations, the loser wishes he could fight the same battle, the same war, again, this time with different results of course”.
For the Chinese, their superiority irrefutably established by the overwhelming military triumph in 1962, silent disdain is more the norm. As Fang Zhenjun, a researcher from the China Institute of Cyberspace Strategy, is quoted by the strident state-run newspaper Global Times as saying, the war with India is “scarcely mentioned in the Chinese government statements, official news reports or textbooks, largely out of concerns that it might affect bilateral ties”.
No wonder then there’s so much talk about another war, because neither side learnt much from the last one. There’s little knowledge, understanding or debate over the complex mesh of factors that whorled into the war of 1962, and that’s because neither India nor China has been completely honest about the war. Each state churned out a simplistic narrative that blamed the other. These half-truths have over time crystallised into myths, providing the monochromatic, self-righteous prism through which the Chinese and the Indians see each other today. Any suggestion that their own actions may have contributed to the war verges on the blasphemous.
In China, the state-constructed rationale for the war was Indian intransigence and aggression, which forced Beijing’s hand. In this storyline there’s little room for other factors like the internal power struggles in the Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet split, Beijing’s own handling of Tibet ( 西藏 ), and the cold war politics of the day. All of these would coalesce into a perfect geopolitical storm. With its stubborn refusal to negotiate and empty bravado, India marched right into it, like a moth to a flame. In the 1962 war, India was actually as much a combatant as it was the collateral damage.
In India, the humiliating defeat necessitated the construct of a surprising and unprovoked attack by China in a shocking act of betrayal. “It’s a very simple narrative about ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ (the slogan popularised by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that means Chinese and Indians are brothers) and then India being stabbed in the back by the duplicitous Chinese, and that therefore India can no longer trust the Chinese. It also includes the notion that Nehru was naive in his blind trust of China,” says Dibyesh Anand, head of the department of politics and international relations at the University of Westminster.
In this Indian formulation, Nehru is at once the trusting fool and the tragic hero whose idealistic gullibility led him to play into the hands of the land-grabbing Chinese. For Chinese scholars, he was the archetypal bourgeois reactionary playing dirty with communist China.
The truth is more complex. Nehru, no matter how much the Chinese scholars hate him, was the original “China bull”. But his love for China was neither blind nor unconditional, as his Indian detractors claim. And the war was neither unexpected nor unprovoked. As a secret Indian war report shows, India picked both the place and the time. Only Nehru misjudged the enormity of the Chinese response that would follow.
Zhou Enlai, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in China in October 1954. Photo: AFP
“If there was an identifiable core to Nehru’s foreign policy it was that China, whether it was communist or not, was going to be central to the post-war international world,” writes Anton Harder, reviewing archival evidence of India rejecting US feelers of a seat on the Security Council at a crucial juncture of the cold war.
In a 1950 letter from Washington, Nehru’s sister and then ambassador to the United States, tells him: “One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place.” Nehru replies: “We are not going to countenance it…We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council. India, because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.”
In a conversation with Nikolai Bulganin five years later, when the Soviet premier makes a similar offer, Nehru says: “Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it…I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”
Nehru’s internationalist stance was a product of his strong belief in the inevitability of China’s rise and the importance of integrating China into the global system to guarantee peace. It may sound like a no-brainer today but it was not an easy conclusion to reach in the 1950s, and certainly not an easy one to fight for in those ideologically charged cold war days. At home, Nehru staked substantial political capital to push forward his vision of an amicable relationship with China, deftly outmanoeuvring the powerful right-wing nationalists in his own party and in the opposition. And, in his mind at least, he expected a pay-off for his troubles. That’s where the problem lay.
The Dalai Lama arrives in India in 1959. File photo
INDIA’S HIMALAYAN BLUNDER
“In all, after 1959, China’s determination to delimit new strategic borders, using both diplomatic and military methods, would conflict sharply with India’s post-1947 determination to have historic borders. The two concepts of proper border determination have never been reconciled,” writes Steven Hoffman in India and the China Crisis.
For China, the border was a muddle left behind by colonial powers that needed to be sorted through negotiation between Asia’s newly independent nation states. For Nehru, India’s borders had been historically determined by “custom and usage” and could not be negotiated. As far as he was concerned, there was simply no border dispute, a position that has flummoxed historians like Neville Maxwell and A.G. Noorani.
“The stark truth is that India became independent in 1947 with the legacy of a boundary problem, and Nehru and his principal advisers were fully aware of that. The boundary dispute did not arise all of a sudden in 1958-59, as was made out later,” according to Noorani.
Nehru wouldn’t just refuse to talk, he even unilaterally determined the border and expected China to abide by it. India’s official maps of 1948 and 1950 showed the entire northern boundary as “undefined”. On July 1, 1954, Nehru issued an order to withdraw old maps and print new ones with “a firm and definite one [line] which is not open to discussion with anybody”. The new border line included Aksai Chin in the western sector of the China-India border. But even as late as September 17, 1959, he was telling the Parliament: “This place Aksai Chin area is in our maps undoubtedly. But I distinguish it completely from other areas. It is a matter for argument as to what part of it belongs to somebody else. It is not at all a dead clear matter.”
Click to enlarge.
In the eastern sector of the border, Nehru similarly expected the Chinese to accept the McMahon Line as the border, knowing full well that it was a product of secret negotiations between the Tibetans and the English in 1914, and had never been accepted by Beijing. But China was still open to it, as premier Zhou Enlai told Nehru on a trip to Delhi in 1960. China had after all drawn a border with Burma on the basis of the McMahon Line. What Zhou offered was a land swap, under which China would accept India’s McMahon-based claims on the east in lieu of China’s claims to Aksai Chin, which it needed for the vital road link between Xinjiang (新疆) and Tibet. New Delhi would have none of it.
Time magazine cover from 1962 featuring Mao and Nehru. Image: Time
While he kept rebuffing Chinese requests for talks, Nehru forced the military to push forward and stake out new territory. His yes men in the army, who were quickly promoted to key posts, would force this so-called “forward policy” from 1961 down the throats of ground commanders, overriding their objections to provoking the Chinese without the means to handle a backlash.
The increasingly egregious forward patrolling would snowball into major confrontations, provoking a Chinese counterattack that came on October 20, 1962, and ended exactly a month later after the Chinese delivered a crushing defeat. The war claimed the lives of 1,383 Indian soldiers, many of whom died not in enemy firing but of the cold, as the government didn’t have enough winter clothing even as it rushed headlong into a war.
“We were mute witnesses of our own impending destruction. We had to stand by helplessly, as we were outweaponed, outnumbered and tethered to indefensible ground, with the order to defend useless logs of wood at all costs,” writes Brigadier John Dalvi in his moving memoir, Himalayan Blunder, which was banned by the Indian government immediately after its publication.
THE TIBET FACTOR
The “forward policy”, disastrous as it was, would still have probably been glossed over by Beijing as an incremental escalation had it not become entwined with Tibet, that too at a time of an unprecedented power struggle in the communist world.
Addressing a Nepalese delegation in 1964, Mao said it was not the McMahon line that was China’s main problem with India, but Tibet. “In the opinion of the Indian government, Tibet is theirs,” he said.
“It was a deeply pernicious Chinese misperception that contributed powerfully to the decision for war in 1962,” according to John Garver, author of Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, who holds that Nehru’s insistence on autonomy for Tibet was wrongly misconstrued as his evil plan to annex Tibet. “This fundamental attribution error must be laid at Mao’s door. It was he who first determined, at the central meeting on 23 April 1959, that ‘Indian expansionists’ wanted to ‘seize Tibet’. Mao completely dominated China’s foreign policy decision making process by 1959. Once Mao made that determination, China’s other leaders were compelled to chime in. Indeed, even today China’s scholars are still compelled to affirm Mao’s erroneous judgment,” says Garver in his essay titled China’s Decision for War with India in 1962.
Mao Zedong with Jawaharlal Nehru in Beijing in 1954. Photo: AFP
“If the forward policy had not been seen – as Mao saw it – as part of an effort to seize Tibet, but as arising from a desire on the part of Nehru to demonstrate toughness and resolve in the face of mounting domestic criticism, such a firm Chinese rebuff as the one that came in November 1962 might not have been deemed necessary.”
The Communist Party leadership, which in any case had deep-rooted ideological suspicions of Nehru, was convinced he was hand-in-glove with the CIA in training Tibetan rebels in 1957. “India was more important to Chinese leaders than is generally understood. Nehru and other Indian leaders were seen as tools of the West, working to subvert Chinese influence in the Himalayas and supporting an American agenda around the globe,” says Jonathan Ward, who specialises in China-India relations at the University of Oxford.
Tribal women visit bunkers from the India-China war at a memorial near the border. Photo: AFP
While there is plenty of evidence that India helped the Tibetans in 1949 and 1950 with small doses of arms, it is still unclear if Nehru was aware of the CIA operation in 1957. But what is irrefutably clear is that Nehru overcame considerable resistance at home on China’s presence in Tibet following the PLA’s entry there in October 1950, a momentous occasion for India. As the No 2 in the Nehru cabinet and his arch-rival, Vallabhbhai Patel, warned in a letter to Nehru within days, “for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously”, the other one being the front with Pakistan.
Patel was heading an influential section within the government that wanted a policy revision to forge greater cooperation with the Western powers. Declassified American documents show that within three days of Patel’s letter to Nehru, US ambassador Loy Henderson was relaying to Washington Patel’s efforts to strengthen India’s military establishment to effectively “face its Communist neighbour”.
The PLA’s march next door had put both Nehru’s much-avowed non-aligned foreign policy and China tilt in jeopardy. He still held his ground, repeatedly saying in public and government memos that Tibet was indisputably China’s. In 1954, he led India to formally recognise China’s ownership of Tibet, among the first countries to do so. India also gave up the extra-territorial rights in Tibet that it had inherited from the departing British in 1947, such as trading missions, telecommunications facilities and limited military presence. India refused to support a Tibetan appeal to the United Nations in 1959 and 1960. After the Dalai Lama fled to India in March 1959, Nehru prevailed on him to refrain from demanding independence, but seek autonomy, instead.
Indira Gandhi and Zhou Enlai in New Delhi, 1960. Photo: AFP
But again, Nehru was expecting a quid pro quo, and believed he and Zhou had a deal whereby India had agreed to recognise China’s sovereignty over Tibet in exchange for China’s granting of a significant degree of autonomy to Tibet. “This ‘agreement’, according to Nehru, accommodated India’s ‘sentimental’, ‘cultural’ interests in Tibet, and China’s security and sovereignty concerns in that region, and thus provided a foundation for Sino-Indian partnership,” writes Garver.
The March 1959 Tibetan uprising saw Beijing discard all notions of autonomy as it set about tightening its grip over Tibet. The ensuing crackdown brought Chinese soldiers right up to the Indian border.
After years of semantically laden boundary deliberations, the exchanges became more open and increasingly bitter. China now began to make specific claims, in a marked departure from its earlier equivocation that its maps were from the Kuomintang days and needed to be examined afresh.
In a letter to Zhou in December 1958, an edgy Nehru reminded him of the personal assurances on the boundary. As far as India was concerned, he said, there had never been a boundary dispute and there was no question that “large parts of India being anything but India”. Zhou in January 1959 replied that the Sino-Indian border was not a settled matter and that “border disputes do exist between China and India”.
A Cultural Revolution propaganda poster featuring the image of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Image: Internet
Nehru had already been under pressure at home since the People’s Dailyreported the near completion of a road in the Aksai Chin area in September 1957. In August 1959, the border began to stir again. The PLA took an Indian prisoner at Longju. Two months later in Aksai Chin’s Kongka La, nine Indian frontier policemen were killed by Chinese troops, widely described in the Indian press as a “massacre”. With Zhou’s unsettling letters, growing border skirmishes and a marked change in tone of the Chinese ideological statements emanating from Beijing from around the middle of 1959, Nehru began to reverse his policy of friendship that would culminate in the “forward policy”. This decision, according to Hoffman, was “heavily influenced by Nehru’s belief that China had become hostile to India in a fundamental and permanent way”.
LEFT TURN IN CHINA
Nehru was right, China had changed fundamentally, and so had its rules of engagement.
As cold war historian Niu Jun writes in 1962: The Eve of the Left Turn in China’s Foreign Policy, an extreme leftist foreign policy was beginning to take shape at the Eleventh Plenary Session of the Eighth Party Congress in September 1956. This heralded an era of turmoil in Chinese foreign policy that would intensify in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and draw India into the violent vortex of a gathering ideological storm next door.
Prior to the Eighth Congress in 1956, the broad thrust of Chinese foreign policy was peaceful coexistence irrespective of ideology. Its signing of the “Five Peaceful Co-existence Principles” in 1954 with India on Tibet in 1954, a high point of China-India relations, encapsulated this approach. The two things that would change this peaceable policy was the Sino-Soviet split and the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s deluded policy of rural industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation that ended in mass starvation and killed millions.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward ended in mass starvation and killed millions. Photo: Internet
Apart from a host of dogmatic differences with the Soviets, China also began to strain at the leash after the revolts in Poland and Hungary in 1956 against Soviet-imposed policies. It saw an opportunity to rise in the socialist camp but would have to find out “how far it had risen and to what extent Moscow would tolerate such a change”, according to Niu, a professor at Peking University. India served itself up as a perfect test case.
The new, leftist foreign policy would preclude the possibility of global peace or détente that the Soviets sought, seek greater confrontation with imperialism and the capitalist world, “exaggerate China’s position and influence in world politics”, and would have zero tolerance of divergent opinions. This ideological extremism in foreign policy was an extension of Mao’s strategy of using doctrinal purity to mute any opposition to the Great Leap Forward at home. The purge of defence minister Marshall Peng Dehuai in August 1959 on the grounds of being a “rightist opportunist” showed the extent to which Mao could go to push his plans of deliberate disruption at home and abroad.
It was against this backdrop that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reached Beijing in September 30, 1959, hoping to persuade Mao to drop his “adventurist” policy towards India and Taiwan, and invited Mao’s fury. As the transcripts of their increasingly heated exchanges – much of which centred on their differences over India – show, this summit would set the stage for the formal Sino-Soviet split. China’s India policy would no longer be filtered by India’s Soviet friends.
Mao Zedong with Nikita Khrushchev during the latter’s August 1958 visit to China. Photo: AFP
In 1960, about 50,000 residents of China’s Xinjiang province crossed over to Soviet Union. The turmoil in Laos plunged China’s immediate neighbourhood into chaos and the US increased intervention, fuelling Mao’s paranoid world view of a rising “anti-China tide”, complete with the threat from India. He would use this external threat to his advantage in domestic politics.
“War with India killed many birds with one stone for Mao,” writes India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon in a recent piece for The Wire. “It stopped the territorial jostling with India on the ground; it distracted attention from the calamitous domestic situation he had caused; it damaged the irritating domestic and foreign policy of the Indian bourgeoisie and Nehru; it weakened the Soviet position in the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute; it thwarted US machinations that he saw in Tibet and Taiwan; and, it sought (unsuccessfully) to replace the non-aligned movement with a China-led Afro-Asian bloc. But I suspect that far more significant than all these external factors was the fact that it was the beginning of his taking back control of the party.”
China and India shut each other out for over two decades after the war. When they began the process of rapprochement, they focused on commerce. Good politics, it was thought, would follow good economics. China is now India’s second largest trading partner and Chinese and Indian companies are doing business in each other’s country on an unprecedented scale.
But the dispute over their unsettled border, which triggered the 1962 war, is nowhere near resolution. Any border deal will require give and take on both sides, which is not possible without the support of the people. That, in turn, would require informing public opinion. That can never happen as long as China and India do not start talking honestly about their problems.
After the war, the Indian government commissioned an operational review of India’s military debacle. The so-called Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, submitted to the government the following year, rips into the “forward policy” and details the plight Indian soldiers were put through as a result of the political brinkmanship with China. Even after all these years, the government refuses to declassify the report.
A Chinese and an Indian soldier install a barbed wire fence at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Photo: AFP
Maxwell, who authored the controversial India’s China War, which turns on its head the Indian conventional wisdom of 1962 being a product of unprovoked Chinese aggression, outed a part of the first volume of the report in 2014. And, the impact on public discourse was immediate. Gupta, the editor and author, lambasted the government for hiding the truth of the war from the people to “protect our carefully crafted and preserved mythologies of 1962”. After that brief spurt of objective reflection, public opinion has since returned to the default Sinophobia.
In China, where public awareness about India has been traditionally low, whatever little India-related scholarship is available follows the tight script laid down by the state anyway. So does the new burst of media coverage of India surrounding Doklam. Given that only 24 per cent of Chinese have a favourable view of India, according to the last Pew survey, it’s not difficult to imagine what this is doing to public opinion in China. If the Indian government is uninterested in the political risks associated with a truthful retelling of the war, the risks are infinitely higher for China. They are both trapped in their myths. And the soldiers trapped in the mountains.
1962 robbed India of its leadership of the third world and laid bare its poor state capacity.
For China, relations with India would be irreparably damaged after 1962 and mark it out as an aggressive power in the eyes of the world. As Menon points out, Mao told the Politburo that the effect of the war on India-China relations would last 30 years, after which it would be forgotten. Yet, here we are.
The similarities between 2017 and 1962 are striking. The trigger, like last time, is a road in the high mountains. China is still jumpy about India’s dalliance with Tibet’s “splittists”. The leader of the Communist Party is consolidating his grip on the party and stressing ideological purity. China’s relationship with the US is riven with strategic tension. And as in 1962, it sees India as working in tandem with America to encircle and contain it. India is as convinced of its greatness and military might as it was in 1962. And Indian public opinion about China remains as inflamed.
In 1962, nobody won. India lost the war, China lost the peace. Yet they don’t seem to mind doing it all over again in 2017. ■
Rebasish Roy Chowdhury is the deputy editor of This Week in Asia
Neville Maxwell discloses document revealing that India provoked China into 1962 border war
Journalist’s Snowden-like revelations about 1962 war boost China’s claims of ‘peaceful rise’
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 3:51pm
At an official banquet in Beijing in 1971, Neville Maxwell had the shock of his life. Premier Zhou Enlai and Pakistan’s then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rose from the head table and walked to the foreign correspondents’ table, where The Times reporter was seated.
“Mr Maxwell,” said Zhou through his interpreter, “your book has done a service to truth, and China has benefited from that.” Zhou called for a glass of mao-tai and offered him a toast.
“That moment at the banquet is deeply engraved in my memory, failing as it sometimes is,” Maxwell said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
The 87-year-old Australian journalist and historian likes to make jokes about his supposedly fading memory. But he won’t let India forget its past errors which, he says, led to the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
For nearly half a century he has been going against the grain of Indian collective memory that remembers the humiliating defeat in the month-long border war as an unprovoked act of aggression by a country it considered a friend.
This month he pulled a Snowden on India. He exposed a top-secret Indian war report that returned the spotlight to a period in history that still sours public opinion in India and bars normal ties between the two Asian giants.
In a specially created blog, Maxwell published a chunk of the secret war report that harshly criticised the highest echelons of power in India at the time for pursuing a flawed strategy of provoking China without the means to handle a backlash.
India’s toll in that short war in the high Himalayas was 1,383 killed, 1,047 wounded and 1,696 missing. China never declared its losses. The war ended when Beijing suddenly called a unilateral ceasefire and ordered its troops to retreat to their previous positions – all after dealing India its worst military drubbing.
India called the “attack” a stab in the back. But China maintained it was a necessary counterattack to fend off India’s advances on its territory – Maxwell’s thoughts exactly. “I had been trying for years to get the report on to the public record but it had begun to look as if the report might never be published, and I thought that would be dreadful,” Maxwell told the Post in an exclusive interview. Speaking from Sydney, it was the first time he discussed his disclosure that has made waves in India.
Maxwell covered the 1962 war as The Times‘ India correspondent. Like all Western journalists, he unquestioningly accepted India’s line that China had been the aggressor and reported it as such. Later, when he took a sabbatical to study the conflict more deeply, he said he began to see China’s side of the story.
“I was blinded by ideology … liberal anti-communism. You’ll see the same affecting many journalists today, as American policy continues the cold war,” he said.
In 1970, a converted Maxwell published an influential yet controversial revisionist tome, India’s China War – the object of Zhou’s praise at the banquet the following year. The book chronicled how India provoked Beijing into the fight, challenging the narrative of Chinese aggression. For his conviction, Indians denounced Maxwell as a China apologist and an India-basher.
The inspiration for Maxwell’s epiphany was widely believed to be a document that gave him a rare insight into the workings of the then Indian establishment. The so-called Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report was an operational review of India’s military debacle commissioned by New Delhi that Maxwell managed to obtain.
Compiled by Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Singh Bhagat in 1963, it has been kept secret by the Indian government despite repeated appeals that it be declassified. The government’s excuse for keeping the report under wraps “for national security” has few takers in India. The predominant view is that the government aims to protect the legacy of the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Disgraced by the 1962 defeat, Nehru died a broken man within two years. But the Nehru-Gandhi clan, through its grip on the ruling Congress Party, has continued to maintain a near monopoly on the levers of power.
The report is a dry army operations review, its terms of reference narrowed to military preparedness to insulate the civilian leadership from a witch hunt. But the authors still manage to make a scathing implicit attack on top civilian and military authorities.
In particular, they rip into the so-called “forward policy” pushed by the Nehru government, under which Indian troops were told to advance from their existing positions to stake out new territory and force out the Chinese.
The report details how this brinkmanship was forced down the throats of ground commanders despite their repeated warnings about reversing the border’s status quo without sufficient preparation. Such moves, they said, were bound to provoke the Chinese.
Half a century on, as India and China struggle to overcome the mutual suspicion left over from the war, peaceniks hope Maxwell’s outing of the secret war report might lead to more critical examination within India about its own role in the war and help reset bilateral relations.
Indian media organisations have been widely covering the report, long seen as the key to bringing closure to a national shame. Opposition parties have renewed demands for the report to be declassified, but the government has refused to budge. In a moving piece thanking Maxwell, Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta wrote that the report was still being treated as top secret only to “protect our carefully crafted and preserved mythologies of 1962”.
For China, the significance of the disclosure goes beyond India. At a time when there is growing disquiet in the region over China’s claim to a “peaceful rise”, a revisiting of the 1962 war helps it polish its credentials while reaffirming its ideological steel in view of its disputes in the South China and East China Seas.
“Beijing would welcome the revived attention to their India dispute,” Maxwell said. “Its lessons are that China is conflict-averse and will do all it can to reach peaceful solutions, but that it can’t be pushed around and will never back away from defending what it sees as its basic security concerns. If the issue becomes fight or surrender, the PRC will always fight.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A hiding to nothing for India
Neville Maxwell interview: the full transcript
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 3:51pm
In his first interview after a Snowden-style disclosure of the contentious secret report on the 1962 China-India war, Neville Maxwell tells Debasish Roy Chowdhury of the South China Morning Post what the 50-year-old document means for the future of China-India relations.
Post: The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report (HBBR) was filed in 1963. You, it appears, gained access to it soon after. What took you so long to come out with it?
NM: I had been trying for years to get the report on to the public record. In 2012, I’d made the text available to several newspapers in India.
Post: What reasons did they give you for not carrying it?
NM: Well, they agreed it should be made public, but they thought that had to be done by the government. If the press did it, the result, they said, would be a fierce row, accusations of betrayal of national interest, fierce attacks on the journals who had leaked. In short, nothing good, a lot bad.
So it had begun to look as if the report might never be published, and I thought that would be dreadful, wasting all the efforts of the authors, denying historians access to a crucial aspect of that unnecessary but hugely consequential border war – so I decided to do it myself.
I must apologise, by the way, for the clumsy way in which it was done. The blog collapsed under its own weight soon after it was launched, not because of government censorship, as was thought in India. I saw reports in India on speculation that the government was blocking the site.
Post: Why have you disclosed only a chunk of Volume I of the report? Where’s the rest?
NM: I uploaded what I had. I never saw Volume Two. I understand it is mainly memos, written statements and other documents on which the authors based the report.
Post: What do you hope to achieve with this disclosure?
NM: I hope to achieve what I have been trying to do for nearly 50 years! To rid Indian opinion of the induced delusion that in 1962 India was the victim of an unprovoked surprise Chinese aggression, to make people in India see that the truth was that it was mistakes by the Indian government, specifically Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that forced the war on China.
My putting the report online now deprives the government of India the excuse they’ve used to keep it secret, the false claim that it was to preserve national security. It’s clear to anyone who reads the report that it has no current military or strategic significance. So there is no good reason for the government to persist in refusing to declassify the whole report, including Volume Two, which I never saw.
Post: That’s not how Indians see it.
NM: Start with seeing that India inherited a border dispute with China, it was congenital to independent India. The British created it in the mid-1930s when they decided that for strategic reasons they should push their north-eastern frontier out some 60 miles. They knew China would not agree to that, because they’d failed to persuade Beijing to give them that belt of territory by diplomatic pressure in the Simla Conference in 1914, and so beginning about 1936 they just took it, by force.
China was too weak to put up any military resistance but it was late in the day for the Empire to get away with that sort of action. The British parliament wouldn’t stand for it. So they falsified the record of the Simla conference by withdrawing and pulping a volume of the series recording India’s treaties and replacing it with a forged version that indicated that at Simla in 1914, China had accepted the new border alignment that they now called the McMahon Line, after the man who had in fact failed to get that agreement at Simla!
Post: Why would independent India follow Britain’s line?
NM: It was a Faustian offer: “You keep quiet about what we did, and you get to keep the McMahon frontier: baulk, expose our trickery, give up the McMahon frontier territory, and what would your public and opposition think about it, Mr Nehru?”
Post: Why do you hate Nehru so much? Didn’t you start off as an admirer?
NM: “Hate” is too strong a word. I have only criticised his border policy. I knew Nehru well and liked him immensely, he was a man of great charm. I was twice the head of the foreign correspondents association, and that brought me into personal contact with him, and as the Times man, I could sometimes get in to talk to him.
That access and friendliness shows, to my shame, in my reporting of the dispute with China as that developed – throughout I took the Indian side, never seeing what should have been obvious, that China was not aggressive but was consistently trying for a settlement on mutually beneficial terms.
I became a marked man in Beijing, they said the Times correspondent must be either stupid or hired. I wasn’t either, but I was blinded by ideology…liberal anti-communism. You’ll see the same affecting many journalists today, as American policy continues the Cold War.
Post: Ever wondered why Nehru, a known China ally, took such a strong line?
NM: On that, I have come to some answers, guided by scholars like David Hoffman and Perry Anderson. Their reading is that the Indian leaders felt insulted by Zhou Enlai’s insistence on negotiations as they felt it impugned India’s character as an ancient nation with defined boundaries.
Post: Ok, back to HBBR. What’s the significance of this 50-year-old report today?
NM: It proves that all that talk about China’s “unprovoked aggression” is utterly false, the truth is that India was the aggressor in 1962. But of course it’s not spelled out in those terms, the political conclusion is buried in dense military jargon, written by soldiers for soldiers, the report is hard reading for unversed civilians.
But nevertheless, the story emerges. From its very beginning as an independent state India, which is to say Nehru in this context, took the view that the alignments of India’s borders was a matter for India alone to decide, unilaterally, privately and definitively.
Without for a moment considering that good sense and good international manners pointed to the need to bring Beijing in to discuss their common border, Nehru and his close advisers selected the alignment themselves and put out new maps showing them as full, formal, final international boundaries … and including an area beyond what Britain had ever claimed, the Aksai Chin.
Post: Your book India’s China War, whose account of the Indian Army’s collapse, was obviously based largely on the HBBR, challenged the entrenched “aggressive China” notion. The book came out in 1970, Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 – how much do you think your book influenced Western thinking on China?
NM: A great deal, and indeed Nixon personally! Kissinger read the book, in 1971 I suppose, when it came out in America and it changed his thinking on China, and he pressed the book on Nixon – all that’s on the record now, in the transcripts of Nixon-Kissinger-Mao talks. While Kissinger was in Beijing, Zhou Enlai sent me a personal message to tell me that Kissinger had said to him, “Reading that book showed me I could do business with you people.”
You have to remember, the belief that China had suddenly attacked an innocent India had really blackened the international view of the PRC, so my revelation that it was a frame-up came like a flash of light everywhere. At a banquet in Beijing, Zhou publicly told me: “Your book did a service to truth which benefited China.”
Post: Your book, India’s China War, didn’t go down very well in India when it first came out in 1970. What’s been the reaction like this time?
NM: I always saw the danger that if I published the report, there would be another outbursts of animosity against me but in fact there’s only been one such – and oddly enough from an old friend. Otherwise, there’s been concentration on the content and implications of the report.
Post: Any charges laid on you yet? After all, you are messing with one of India’s top national secrets.
NM: Not that I know of, this time. The Indian government had laid charges against me, breach of Official Secrets Act, soon after India’s China War came out. I was asked by the British government to keep out of India to avoid request [for arrest] – and for eight years I did so! Until at last Morarji Desai as prime minister annulled the charges, enabling me to return.
Post: Now that India and China seem to be talking again, do you see the border problem as ever being solved?
NM: Yes, I certainly do, and my hopes are rising. I noted with great relief that the magic phrase, the hey presto or abracadabra, “package deal” has recently emerged as jointly used in the official correspondence.
That points to the only, but simple and obvious, solution to the dispute: India recognises that since there is no legal foundation for the McMahon Line, it must be submitted to re-negotiation – but knows that China will accept the basic McMahon alignment. And China is glad to negotiate the western sector, knowing that in those negotiations India will retreat from its absurd, ahistorical claim to ownership of Aksai Chin. The negotiations will have to be lengthy, but both parties will know from the outset that at their conclusion lies the precious, buried treasure of the Sino-Indian friendship which Nehru once sought.