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Future friends?

By Colonel (retd) Dr Anil Athale
Last updated on: April 09, 2005 17:15 IST
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To mark the occasion of what is clearly a historic visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, presents a series on the India-China relationship, which will help readers understand China, its complexities and the directions forward in India's relation with the Middle Kindgom.

Earlier in this series: Chinese ogre has a giant appetite

Talk about an imminent breakthrough in India-China relations has been in the air for over a decade now.

If the Indo-Soviet friendship is our past, the Indo-US friendship is the present (with a pinch of F-16s) then surely the India-China friendship is the future.

We Indians have a habit of being caught in the time warp. With all due respects to the Mahatma, his decision to launch the Quit India moment in 1942 was most inopportune and proved disastrous for the country. We lost the support of the US and gave the crafty British a free rein to divide our country. Our Anglophile leadership hardly read the writing on the wall.

China, India pledge more talks

The later half of the 20th century belonged to the Americans. With Uncle Sam (again) ready to play Santa Claus with F-16s, it is time for the Indians to realise that the US has decided to make our turbulent Western neighbor as the Western fulcrum of its Central Asia policy. The hunt for Osama is an excuse for the consumption of the gullible.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to India this weekend provides yet another opportunity to mend our fences on the northern border.


India and China, two of the world's oldest surviving civilisations, have had remarkably peaceful relations throughout their long history. The formidable barrier of the Himalayas bordered by the high Tibetan plateau and the long distance from the heartland of China are reasons that remain valid to date.

There were sporadic military expeditions by Mohammad bin Tughlak in the 13th century and Zorawar Singh in the 19th century. Tibet remained a semi-independent state as and when the central power in China weakened. The border between India and Tibet remained undefined and inconsequential, with no vital resources or population.

A brief look at the history of the border dispute is necessary to understand the present state of relations between the two countries.

An alliance of the future

The Sino-Indian border dispute centres on the remote areas of Aksai Chin lying north of Ladakh. The origin of the Indian border being placed on the remote Kun Lun mountains goes back to the early 20th century when the British, afraid of Russian expansion in the east and a possible Russo-Tibetan alliance, placed a wedge of Aksai Chin between Sinkiang and Tibet.

This was done with the tacit understanding of the Chinese government, which was weak and saw in this move the benefit of weakening Tibet.

As the Russian threat waned, Aksai Chin essentially remained a border only on the map, and the truth is that neither British India nor Tibet attempted to exercise any effective control over this inhospitable region that proved to be of no strategic significance.

There matters stayed right till 1956, when China built a highway linking its two troubled provinces of Sinkiang and Tibet, primarily to facilitate military movement. The peculiar geography of the area is such that it is only through Aksai Chin that this link is possible. The link is of obvious strategic importance for the Chinese.

The Indian position in Ladakh was precarious as there was no road link to Leh.

China & India: What next?

Nehru realised the Indian weakness and tried to downplay the issue. But goaded by an uninformed media and vociferous Opposition, he embarked upon a 'Forward Policy' of establishing small posts with 5 to 10 men in the areas claimed by the Chinese as theirs. These posts were militarily and logistically unviable.

Under amateurish advice, India activated the border in NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) to 'divert' Chinese attention from Ladakh. In a military sense it is illogical to expect any effect of events in NEFA on Ladakh, since the two areas are nearly a thousand miles apart.

India downplays China's stand on Arunachal

China has always laid claim to the entire NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), but this was bargaining ploy to get Aksai Chin in which she was interested.

As events unfolded, an inept military leadership led India into a disaster in NEFA. The Chinese were careful to synchronise their attack with the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, and acquired enough territory to safeguard the Aksai Chin highway and that is where they stay today. A status quo on the border suits the Chinese.

In India, the 1962 conflict evokes the memories of an unimaginable defeat. This is not strictly true.

In the northern sector, on the Ladakh front, the Indian Army, despite heavy odds, gave a good account of itself and Chinese gains were small. The airfield at Chushul, a major prize, remained in Indian hands.

Remembering a war: The 1962 conflict

The impression that it was an unmitigated disaster is fostered by the Indian rout at Sela. But for the Sela defeat and panic retreat, 1962 would have at worst been classed as a setback, but not a disaster.

But the biggest 'mystery' of 1962 is the non-use of offensive air power by India. The whole conflict was being run as a personal show by individual generals and there was very little coordination with the air force.

At that time the Chinese had barely two airfields in Tibet and their fighter aircraft were decidedly inferior to the Indian British made Hunters. The Indian Air Force was guaranteed virtual air superiority on the battlefield.

With air power on its side, India could have overcome the tactical disadvantage of lack of artillery in Ladakh and could have intercepted the foot and mule columns of the Chinese in the Tawang area.

But such was the irrational fear of Chinese retaliation against Indian cities that India did not use its air power.

At the very basic level, the Indian Army was fighting a repeat of the 1947-1948 Kashmir war, a campaign against the tribal invaders. While the Chinese, veterans of Korean war, were a well oiled military machine.

The story of 1962 can be summed up in one sentence, while the Indians were foolishly provocative, the Chinese were more calculated, efficient and therefore successful.

At a tactical level, China had the advantage of operating on the Tibetan plateau while India had to cross the formidable Himalayas to reach the border. China also had a major strategic disadvantage as its bases were far and ill connected, but this was obviated as large forces were already stationed in Tibet to deal with the internal situation.

Aksai Chin for Arunachal ?

November 20, 1962 was the darkest day in the history of Independent India.

The previous evening, a distraught Nehru addressed the nation. 'Huge Chinese armies are marching into North East of India. Yesterday we lost Bomdila, a small town in Kameng division. My heart goes to the people of Assam.'

The whole nation was stunned by the reverses on the battlefront. Rightly or wrongly (from a military point of view at least), people perceived that the very existence of India was at stake.

But in these otherwise dark winter days, there was a silver lining. As if in a flash, all internal political bickering and fights ceased.

On October 23, 1962, the guard at Teen Murti house, the prime minister's official residence, was confronted by an elderly couple from a rural area near Delhi.

When they demanded to see the prime minister, the sentry directed them to his officer, thinking that they must have come with some petition. The officer was stunned into silence when the old man took out the papers donating his land for the defence of the nation.

Women gave their jewelry, including their mangalsutras, to the National Defence Fund to buy guns to fight the Chinese.

All over the country people queued up to join the defence forces. In Rajasthan, 250 families from Bardhana Khurd village decided to send one son from each family into the army. Trade unions all over India gave up their right to strike till the national emergency lasted. The donations in cash were more than $220 million, the total amount needed in the supplementary budget.

The battle for the border 

The 1962 India-China border conflict is a classic case of misunderstandings, lack of effective communication and mutual mistrust.

In the initial stages when the Chinese Aksai Chin highway was discovered, Nehru tried to play down the issue by stating in Parliament that Aksai Chin was a useless area where 'not a blade of grass grows.'

But soon the issue was seized by the Opposition and Nehru was forced to take a stand. While the border tension was increasing, the situation in Tibet worsened and the Dalai Lama fled to India. Given the ancient cultural linkages between Tibet and India and the Indian tradition of never refusing asylum, the Dalai Lama and his followers were given refuge in India.

In 1960, King Mahendra of Nepal took over direct control of the government. When pressured by India to restore democracy, he began to play the China card. China escalated the border dispute by claiming the entire NEFA area and repudiated the MacMohan line.

To silence his domestic critics Nehru embarked on the legalistic 'Forward Policy', a form of political brinkmanship without the backing of military force. Given the Indian relations with Soviet Union and the US, he felt confident that 'there will be no open war with China.'

The Great India China Game 

The Chinese mistook Nehru's move as some sort of 'Grand Design' by India to interfere in Tibet and Sinkiang. When the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 engaged the attention of the US and USSR, China seized the opportunity and brushed aside the posts in Akasi Chin and secured its highway.

The inept Indian operations in NEFA gifted it a victory that it possibly did not even want.

The effect in India was dramatic as the people were jolted out of euphoria of 'Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai' and there was a sense of betrayal.

For the first time after independence in 1947 Indians sensed a threat to their country. The situation was akin to what the Chinese must have felt on November 24 ,1950 when General Douglas MacArthur began his offensive to go across the Yalu river.

The Chinese unilateral cease fire on November 21, 1962 and subsequent withdrawal in NEFA to the MacMohan line coincided with the end of the Cuban missile crisis. In dire military straits, India requested and got massive military aid from the US, and for a brief period India became a virtual US ally against China.

It is noteworthy that while fighting raged in Ladakh and NEFA areas, the Central Sector, opposite the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh as well as the areas bordering Sikkim, remained peaceful.

Next: The road ahead

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Colonel (retd) Dr Anil Athale