Another October 20 is at hand. It’s the day on which the 1962 Sino-Indian border war began. Most Indians still rightly see the 1962 border war between India and China as a relatively small military defeat but a major national panic, as a cathartic event and one that is never forgotten. While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it is in 1967 when Indian and Chinese troops last clashed with each other at Nathu La that now defines it. Since then, not a shot has been fired across the border by either side.
On September 11 that year, jostling over the laying a barbed wire fence by Indian troops to demarcate the border at Nathu La escalated when the People’s Liberation Army suddenly opened withering machine gunfire, killing many officers and jawans of 18 Rajput and 70 Field Company. The Indian Army retaliated with a blistering artillery fire that obliterated PLA positions. On October 1, 1967, this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the PLA and similarly not found wanting. The lesson had been driven home and the ceasefire that followed still holds.
The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the PLA stand eyeball to eyeball, but the atmosphere now is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.
In 1971, as the Pakistani armies in the east as well as the west were crumbling, Henry Kissinger, then US national security adviser, met China’s ambassador at the UN, Huang Hua, at a CIA safe house in Manhattan. William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives, quoting from declassified transcripts of the secret talks in his just-published book, wrote: “Kissinger told Hua ‘the President wants you to know that it’s of course up to the People’s Republic to decide its own course of action in this situation, but if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation in the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, and it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others (Soviet Union) to interfere with the People’s Republic”. The Chinese declined the invitation.
After the incidents at Depsang and Doklam, we come to the question that still bothers many Indians. Will China provoke a conflict with India, or even vice-versa? I don’t think so. Both countries are now well settled on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In Ladakh, China is pretty much on what it desired pre-1962, which is along the old McCartney-MacDonald Line. In 1942, spooked by reports of a Russian presence in Xinjiang. British India hastily abandoned it in favour of the Johnson Line, which encompassed all of Aksai Chin. In the eastern sector, India pretty much holds on to the alignment along the McMahon Line.
Thrice in the past, the Chinese offered to settle this vexatious issue on an “as is where is” basis, but India baulked because the compulsions of domestic politics did not allow it, as they still do. In his last conversation on this with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Chairman Deng Xiaoping had suggested freezing it as it is and leaving it to history to resolve. Good and sagacious advice!
In the mid-1980s when the two leaders met, China’s and India’s GDPs were about the same. Since then, China’s GDP has grown to become more than three times as big as India’s. Its rapid economic ascent has now more or less conferred on it the role of the world’s other superpower. China today is also a technology powerhouse and has built a modern military-industrial complex, far bigger and superior to India’s. India’s ascent is a more recent story and there are still some decades to go before it can aspire to be once again at par with China.
In recent years, China has built as many as 18 forward airbases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan that put most cities in northern and eastern India, industrial centres and military targets within striking range of its new-generation fighter-bombers like the JF-10 and JF-17. By contrast, most Chinese cities and industrial centres are deep within and not easily reached by Indian aircraft, though the new batch of upgraded SU30 MKI fighters fitted with long-range supersonic Brahmos missiles will put several major Chinese centres within reach. It’s somewhat ironical that Tibet, which India used to see as a buffer against China or Russia, has now become a buffer for China.
Yet China has built a huge military infrastructure and of a kind that would be quite redundant against any threat that the freedom-loving Tibetans may pose to its control over their motherland. This is the kind of power you need to assert your will over a neighbouring country. India has taken note of this, and has sought to suitably counter it with a buildup of its own. But buildups also lead to more buildups and put you on an ascending spiral of mistrust.
But of one thing we can be sure. If there is a conflict again, it will not be the limited war of the kind seen in 1962. The early use of airpower is implicit. China had threatened it in 1967 when it got bloodied at Nathu La. Both countries now maintain large and powerful air forces. There is also every possibility that the conflict could extend into the Indian Ocean region soon after, where India has a strategic advantage.
Conflicts are generally the result of a serious military asymmetry or by misjudging intentions or by local conflicts spiralling out of control or when domestic failures require a diversion of attention or when domestic dynamics make rational discourse impossible. In 1962, we saw the last two at play. After the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward and after over 30 million died of starvation between 1959 and 1962, Chairman Mao desperately needed a diversion to assert his control of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA. His challenger, the popular Marshal Peng Dehuai, was still in Beijing despite being purged by Mao. Many speculate that anticipating a putsch against him by the reformers opposed to the personality cult, Mao busied up the PLA in a low-cost high-return limited conflict.
On the Indian side the unthinking escalation of attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru by the Opposition, and from within the Congress Party, forced the government to adopt a strident note and embark on the ill-fated Forward Policy. This was despite written advice by its Northern Army commander, Lt. Gen. Daulat Singh, that a policy without the military means to support it would have grave consequences.
The serious asymmetry of 1962 does not occur now. India’s arms buildup makes it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean region. Both countries have sufficient arsenals of nuclear weapons and standoff weapons to deter each other. But above all, both countries have evolved into stable political systems, far less naïve and inclined to be far more cautious in their dealings with each other.
This leaves a local conflict rapidly spiralling out of control, or another Gavrilo Princip incident, where a single shot at Austrian Archduke Ferdinand plunged the West into the First World War, highly improbable. After 51 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being at the same contested space at the same time, the two armies have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behaviour and local bonhomie that is very different from rigid formalities of international politics. Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace and tranquility of the frontier.