China’s India War

It’s been 50 years since Maoist China inflicted a humiliating military defeat on Nehruvian India in the mountain border areas of the Aksai Chin and what is today called Arunachal Pradesh. India’s strategic community has already begun quiet dissections of the war. The Indian political class is too focused on the crumbling Manmohan Singh government to care.

Much of the Indian debate is about the poverty of the Indian response. This includes Nehru’s naivete about the conduct of dispute diplomacy. It is not that Nehru trusted China, but that he got it into his head that a military response had somehow been ruled out. He was little helped by the likes of Krishna Menon (why does A.K. Anthony remind me of him?) who believed only Western imperialism was a threat. There is also no dearth of Indian accounts of the mess that underinvestment in military everything, politicized appointments and so on had made of the soldiery.

What continues to interest me is why did Mao Zedong feel the need to authorize such a huge military response to Indian incursions which while provocative were hardly threatening.

Based on what we have since learnt, whether Chinese memoirs, Beijing leaderships’ conversations with foreigners and other declassified sources, Mao did not see India as a threat by itself. And when he authorized Chinese troops to go on the offensive, he wasn’t even sure his troops would win. If we loose, he told his generals, we have only ourselves to blame.

So what made him take such a risk? Let us count the ways.

One, which Zhou Enlai was to tell the Mongolians, India was getting too close to the West and needed to be taught a lesson. A number of scholars have dug up the Beijing Review articles and People’s Daily editorials in the run up to the war making similar warnings, and there is no doubt that the US and India were drifting together — largely because the democracies shared concerns about China after the conquest of Tibet.

Two, Zhou Enlai also told the Americans that India had become “too cocky” and had to be taken down a notch. This reflects Mao’s concerns that Nehru’s third world leadership ambitions were running interference with his own.

Three, there is evidence Mao wanted to humiliate India to teach the Soviet Union a lesson. Khrushchev had begun wooing India at this point as part of the new Moscow line of “peaceful coexistence”. In 1959, when the first skirmishes broke out, an angry Khrushchev told Beijing to stop undermining Soviet policy and being “irresponsible”.

Four, the international stars were in alignment in 1962. Moscow gave him a green light against India because it was planning the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had got word from the US that it would not support a Taiwan invasion of China — which removed Mao’s fear of a two front war. As were the domestic ones: Mao was reconsolidating by then after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and other socialist nonsense.

A lot of Beijing’s analysis of India is wrong. The border war didn’t stop India from moving closer to the US. In fact, Nehru called for a military alliance which the US rejected. What stopped India moving westward was the US’s refusal to sign a five year defense cooperation agreement with India after the war. New Delhi went and signed it with Moscow instead. China seemed oblivious to how its own actions in Tibet had led India to tilt against it. Zhou told the Mongolians that Pakistan had been ready to give away Kashmir to India if it hadn’t been for China’s trouncing of India — something that will surprise any South Asian.

Sadly, Chinese knowledge of India is only marginally better today. And Indian understanding of China is about the same.

Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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