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The 1962 War: Will China speak about it?

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 16, 2012

    50 years ago on 20 October 1962 China launched a war against India because of differences on the boundary issue. The attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was concurrently from both west and east. In the Western Sector, the targeted area was Chushul, and the PLA went on to capture the Chip Chap Valley in the Aksai Chin region. In the Eastern Sector, it captured both banks of the Namka Chu River and finally reached Tawang. While the memory of that war is fading away at many levels, India still needs to explore the reasons behind the Chinese decision to attack in 1962 and China’s current approach to that episode of unhappy historical memory.

    It is very likely that figuring out the exact reason why China attacked India may not be possible. Six major reasons are often cited for the Chinese attack: (a) differences over the McMahon Line; (b) growing political differences between Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru; (c) China’s construction of roads in the Aksai Chin area, which compelled India to initiate military patrols; (d) Mao’s attempt to divert the attention of the Chinese people from domestic crisis; (e) China’s resentment towards India on the refuge given to Dalai Lama and over the Tibetan issue; and (f) the global situation, which was not in favour of China. Each of these arguments has its own merits in the historical discourse. But what is less understood today is the current Chinese thinking about the war.

    While India lost the war as well as some territory and the defeat came as a moral shock for Nehru leading to his downfall as a leader, for China the war has almost been a non-issue. In the Chinese official and public discourse, the boundary negotiation process with India has been the prime subject along with the issue of Dalai Lama and Tibet rather than the 1962 war itself. The Chinese media, which has played a critical role in shaping the public discourse on the issue, has reflected this tendency from the 1960s itself. During the war, Jen-Min Jih-Pao (Wade-Giles Romanization of Renmin Ribao) published an editorial on 27 October 1962 mainly blaming Nehru for the war. The editorial noted that it was Nehru’s ‘British legacy’ that primarily triggered the war and that Nehru was using “China’s Tibet region as an Indian sphere of influence”.1 It further stated:

    “Nehru’s policy on the Sino-Indian Boundary question and the whole process by which he engineered the Sino-Indian border clashes have shed new light on the expansionist philosophy of the Indian big bourgeoisie and big landlords”. 2

    Nothing much has changed in Chinese thinking since then. 50 years later, China still blames Nehru and India for the war. And instead of talking about the war per se or about its consequences, the focus of the Chinese discourse has been upon ‘India’s fault’ and the boundary negotiation process. For instance, on 21 November 1963, Jen-Min Jih-Pao published an editorial, in which it focused more on starting the negotiation process and finding ‘peaceful’ solution to the boundary issue rather than the scale or consequences of the war. The editorial noted:

    As far as China is concerned, the door is wide open for reopening Sino-Indian negotiations and for a peaceful settlement of the boundary question. China has patience. If it is not possible to open negotiations this year, we will wait until next year; if it is not possible next year, then the year after next.3

    One can see similar formulations expressed in current commentaries as well, including putting the blame on Nehru and pious sentiments about boundary negotiations, even though the Chinese media has become more open, flexible and articulate on conflicting or sensitive issues. A reference can be made to the article “China won, but never wanted, Sino-Indian war” recently published in Global Times on 28 June 2012.4

    Hong Yuan, its author, who is an expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), mainly traces the event as a political clash of interests and quarrel between Nehru and Mao. While indicating primarily that “India’s provocation eventually breached China’s bottom-line”, the piece notes that “the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was forced to join the battle in self-defense”, and “the PLA’s performance in the war shocked Western strategists and did its country proud”. Most alarmingly, the piece notes: “War is a negotiating approach, but not a goal. Similarly, China’s decision to fight back against India in the 1962 border war was to strike a peace with its neighbour”. The article justifies Mao’s decision to attack India and notes that Mao thought that the “battle with India was also a political combat, and the real target was not Nehru but the US and the Soviets that had been plotting behind the scenes against China”.

    Recent commentaries and editorials also indicate that China is still in no mood to accept its own fault. A further reference in this regard may be made to an article written in Beijing Review (12 July 2009) by a well-known expert on India, Prof. Ma Jiali a former professor of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). The article, titled “Fanning the Flames”,5 strongly opposed the proposed decision of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to grant loans for infrastructure development in Arunachal Pradesh and stated that “the eastern section, which contains the largest area of disputed territory, is under Indian control known as Arunachal Pradesh”. Ma went on to note:

    The border issue between China and India is attributed to the Western colonists’ invasion of China’s southwest frontiers … India inherited the legacy of the British imperialists after its independence in 1947. It even went so far as to illegally seize areas north of the McMahon Line. By 1953, it gained control of most territories south of the McMahon line. The border disputes between China and India culminated in an armed conflict in 1962.

    This article suggests that the 1962 war has always been linked in the perception of the Chinese with various complicated issues that relate to British India, the McMahon Line and India’s control over most areas near or around the historic McMahon Line. But this perception clearly demonstrates a contradiction in the Chinese perspective: China and Chinese scholars have time and again refused to accept, endorse or acknowledge the legitimacy of the McMahon Line, but this article seeks to make capital out of the McMahon Line.

    1962 still remains an uncomfortable issue in the broader Chinese strategic circles. Though it is discussed in many academic and other gatherings, unlike India, China tries to avoid talking about the actuality and operation of the 1962 war and tries to blame India for its consequences. Mostly, a passing reference is made to the war in news reports and articles, without even faintly acknowledging that China could have avoided attacking India. There seems to be no regret or realisation in China that the attack on India ossified the “China threat” perception in a large neighbouring country like India, which had supported China’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council, something it could easily desisted from. Instead of introspection, Chinese strategic circles have pushed the anti-India notion in recent times both with regard to the border dispute and overall bilateral relations. The result of an online poll carried out by the popular in June 2009 suggested an overriding perception in China that “India poses a big threat to China”. The poll came after India’s decision to deploy some troops in Arunachal Pradesh.6 More alarmingly, the number of anti-India pieces or articles has also increased in the mainstream newspapers like Global Times, China Daily and Renmin Ribao.

    The larger public discourse and scholarly views mostly blame India for the failure of the boundary negotiation process. Not many in China seem to be aware that India is largely seen as a “peace-loving” or “non-aggressive” country because it has not attacked any country in the history of its existence as an independent nation. One of the brighter aspects of India’s freedom struggle against British colonial power was the non-violent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, but he is less well known in China than Rabindra Nath Tagore. Today, China does see India in a different light, perhaps because of India’s rise. Though, China is likely to be extremely cautious about launching another attack on India, there is certainly great regret among experts about their government’s decision not to gain control over Arunachal Pradesh in the war, that “it was a costly error on the part of China” to have declared a unilateral cease-fire on 21 November 1962 without really gaining control over Tawang vis-à-vis Arunachal Pradesh.7 Military experts even go to the extent of dismissing India’s capability in the event of a possible future war with China. A PLA captain, Dai Xu, states in a news blog that India cannot win a war against China because the “Indian troops do not have military spirit” and India lags behind China on many fronts.8

    Officially too, a clear and unambiguous public explanation is still missing from China on the issue of the 1962 war. For example, when in a recent interview India’s Chief of Army Staff remarked that a China-India clash would not be repeated, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said, while answering the question “What is China’s response?”: “Pending the final settlement, we should maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area”.9 This stated reply does indicate that China does not want to talk about the 1962 war in public.

    China must utilise the 50th anniversary of 1962 to ponder why the war took place when it could have perhaps avoided attacking India. Two policy affirmations are called for. First, China needs to make a firm public commitment that no matter how complicated the situation on the boundary dispute or over the negotiating process on the issue, an incident like the 1962 war should never be repeated. China must learn to be patient and take into account India’s emotions and demands on this score. Second, the time has come for the Chinese government to publicly acknowledge, if not apologize for, the damage that the 1962 war has caused to India or the kind of distrust that it has brought to Sino-Indian relations. China is no more a rising power: it has emerged as a global power in many respects. And a global power must not hesitate to acknowledge its historical mistakes: it needs to have sufficient self-confidence to withstand the consequent discomfort and embarrassment.