The recent confrontation along the Sino-Indian border has escalated once again, and there have even been incidents of Indian troops illegally crossing the line and firing provocative shots, shattering the peace that has prevailed along the Sino-Indian border since 1975 free of the sound of gunfire and pushing up the risk of a shoot-out or even a military conflict. At the same time, Indian domestic public opinion is boasting of “Indian victory” and the numbers of those calling for a “hot war with China” is also increasing, reminiscent of the bellicose noise in India before the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. In fact, from the Longju incident in 1959 to China’s counterattack in self-defense against India in 1962, to the border conflict in 1987, India’s strategic miscalculation and military adventures have time and again cost it heavy. India should not forget the lessons of history, and must not miscalculate and boast again, lest the dream of the “Indian Dream” is shattered.
File photo: Confrontation between the Chinese and Indian armies in 1962]
One of the lessons is that India must not misjudge the international situation to be in its favour and place its hopes on the support of external forces. The international strategic environment is an important framework for the formulation and implementation of India’s foreign policy and an important consideration for India’s adventurous and provocative policies on the border. Though the border dispute between the two countries had begun to emerge in the early 1950s as a result of India’s attempts to put forward the illegal red “McMahon Line” as the official border between China and India, it was around the late 1950s that India’s policy on the China-India border became more aggressive, with the gradual worsening of Sino-Soviet relations, improved U.S.-Indian relations and China’s tremendous domestic economic difficulties.
The Indian military and political top brass of the day saw China’s domestic and international environment in a very unfavorable light. In contrast, India, the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the darling of U.S.-Soviet aggression, considered its own international environment to be very favorable, taken in by U.S. and Western public opinion applauding its “(India’s) resistance to the expansionism of Red China”.
Such an assessment of the international situation greatly contributed to India’s adventurous border policy, with New Delhi believing that “China would not take any military action against India”. However, after the outbreak of the conflict between China and India, facts proved that China would not give up territorial sovereignty under external pressure, and that the United States and the Soviet Union could not provide any substantial support to India; rather they would use India more as a market for arms sales. Many subsequent materials also revealed that the United States was hesitant to aid India. And the then Soviet leader Khrushchev even argued on October 23, 1962 that “Nehru was oscillating between imperialist, neutral, and socialist countries… and recently seems to have fallen even more towards imperialist countries”.
The second lesson is that India must not underestimate China’s determination and capacity to safeguard its sovereignty, and mistakenly regard China’s tolerance for compromise. In the history of the Sino-Indian border dispute over the past few decades, China has always been committed to maintaining peace and avoiding border conflicts, and has tried to maintain rationality and observe restraint even in the face of encroachment and provocation by the Indian army. This rationality and restraint is evident in China’s consistent advocacy of peaceful consultation to resolve disputes, its restraint in responding to Indian provocations (often times failing to expose Indian provocations in the interest of the overall situation), and its commitment to the disengagement of frontline troops as its first priority in avoiding conflict. There are numerous such examples, such as the suspension of Chinese border guard patrols after the 1959 Kongkha Pass incident and Premier Zhou Enlai’s personal visit to India in April 1960 to do his job.
However, the Indian government has taken China’s sincerity in seeking reconciliation and restraint as a sign of weakness and compromise, believing that China does not dare, is unwilling and will not respond to India’s military provocations — the logical premise of India’s “forward policy” on the border. The Indian army’s war intimidation, even by authorizing frontline troops to fire, eventually proved to be a dangerous act that exacerbated miscalculation and triggered war.
The military confrontation between India and China in the Galwan Valley in July and August 1962 was a typical example of this. As the Chinese side exercised restraint and did not “take out” the Indian posts, Indian public opinion hailed it as a victory for the Indian army, believing that “as long as the Indian army is resolute, China will not take any action other than mere intimidation”. The Indian Government even went to the extent of modifying its order to the frontline troops from “fire only when fired upon” to “fire if China approaches close”, which eventually proved to be a dangerous act that exacerbated miscalculation and triggered war.
The third lesson is that India must not be blindly self-confident, overestimate its combat strength, or get hot-headed. The Indian Government’s determination to display “resolve in the face of uncertainty” comes out vividly in successive military provocations along the border. From the 1962 conflict, when Nehru ordered “the removal of Chinese troops”, to the 1987 attempt to use military exercises to encroach on Chinese territory, this has been a consistent trend.
The reason for this was that, on the one hand, the head of military intelligence had a “monopoly of power” that misled and pandered to the supreme leader. Nehru’s close aide, Mullik, was in charge of India’s only intelligence agency at the time, the Intelligence Bureau, and another close friend, Kaul, was the Chief of Staff and then Commander of the 4th Army. The two indicated to Nehru that “the Chinese army will not attack. Even after India’s defeat, Kaul tricked Nehru maintaining that “the Indian Army would be able to drive the Chinese Army away in due course at a suitable moment”. The 1987 conflict was also the result of the then military hawkish leaders misleading the top brass that they could defeat China with Soviet-style equipment.
On the other hand, there was the instigation of the opposition parties and public opinion. The media were keen to hype up the Sino-Indian border dispute, forcing the ruling party to take risky moves to pander to the nationalist plank and even misleading it into believing that the whole country “shared their hatred of the enemy”. In addition, there were some military and political officials intent on sending strong signals to the media to cater to public opinion; in the end, they only further reduced the room for policy manoeuver. Many materials confirm that Nehru didn’t want to start a war with China at first, but persecution by opposition parties, agitated public opinion, and the misinformation by cronies eventually led him to go astray and start a war against China.
History is the best teacher. Although the world has changed with time, and the national strength and relationship between China and India are not what they used to be, the current military adventures and provocations of India on the Sino-Indian border seem to have reverted the pages of history.
A September 1959 Xinhua News Agency report noted, “The Indian government has recently cooperated with the military advances on the border, exerting constant diplomatic and public opinion pressure on China over the border issue. … the Indian government, the Congress and the so-called public opinion and a section of politicians are using the border issue to cry foul, slandering us for invasion of India, denigrating us as imperialists and stirring up a new wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in India. Imperialism is also taking the opportunity to fan the flames and is trying its best to stir up Sino-Indian relations.”
How similar the situation is today ! With the border situation so delicate and sensitive, I sincerely hope that the Indian government will learn from history and cherish peace.
(The author is the Deputy Director of the South Asian Research Institute of China Institute of Modern International Relations)