Part 2: Interpreting Indian Behaviour. For part one click here.
The primary strategic objective of the Nehru regime, even as the dispute deteriorated after 1959, was to avoid a frontal collision with China. The more interesting and perhaps central question, therefore, is why did India find itself on the Himalayan battlefield in October 1962.
In retrospect, this author can discern five factors that shaped the Indian behaviour.
1: Indian Domestic Policy Decision
It is essential to appreciate the context that framed India’s geopolitical worldview, since this directly influenced the type of China policy adopted. The entry of Pakistan into the Western alliance system in 1954 led to an ideological model where Pakistan, backed by Western military aid, was deemed as the primary threat. India’s engagement of China and the 1954 Agreement emanated from Nehru’s unwillingness to open a second front.
After 1959, there emerged one group led by Nehru favouring non-alignment, resisting Pakistan, and avoiding conflict with China. Another group from the Congress right called for an entente with the West, a common defence pact with Pakistan, and a more robust policy vis-à-vis China. This was not simply a question of ideological threat assessments but a real military dilemma since the challenge was finding an appropriate deployment mix for the Pakistani and Chinese frontiers. If the idea of a domestic struggle for India’s worldview is plausible, it might explain the erratic pattern of Nehru’s policies that ensued after 1959. In trying to keep the Congress right at bay, Nehru was perhaps compelled to make a policy shift by adopting an unyielding posture of ‘no negotiations’, and also demonstrating resolve through the 1961 ‘forward policy’. In sum, even though Nehru did not intend for conflict with China, his actions inevitably led to it.
2: India’s Misconception of Chinese Intentions
Secondly, after 1959, the Indian government began to perceive both the superpowers’ tilt in favour of India on the dispute as a restraint on Chinese behaviour, as a sort of ‘soft’ external balancing. In 1959, India made requests to the Soviets to rein in the Chinese. Soviet support was expressed in the famous Tass statement of 9 September 1959, which by taking a neutral position on the dispute with India broke ranks with the Chinese. It was a dramatic international development as the Sino-Soviet split was out in the open. In retrospect, however, it was perhaps insufficient to help overcome India’s asymmetry with China and could even have shaped Delhi’s false sense of confidence in its subsequent dealings with Beijing. We also now know that the Soviet Union had told India that they “had done ‘as much as they were able to’ in cautioning the Chinese to exercise restraint…the Russians were clearly not in a position to dictate to Beijing”.
Nevertheless, after 1960 India was receiving generous material and psychological support from both the superpowers while China was growing increasingly isolated, which probably emboldened the Indian government to overestimate India’s importance in the superpowers’ grand strategies. The overall perception was that Chinese behavior would be restrained, which might have reduced incentives for India to make any concessions. The following anecdote exemplifies Indian perceptions of the time: On October 13, 1962, a week before the war, in an exchange between the Indian Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai and US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, Desai remarks that there “would be no extensive Chinese reaction because of their fear of the U.S. – ‘It is you they really fear’.” Of course, the Chinese had received assurances both from the US regarding the Taiwan Straits Crisis (June 23 and 27) and the Soviets (October 13-14) thereby freeing them to focus on the Indian front.
3: Assumptions About Chinese Non-Use of Force
Nehru and his advisors continued to believe that China's threat was a long-range one that could be dealt with by India’s industrial revival, and that the “Chinese could not sustain any major drive across the ‘great land barrier’”. According to the 1992 Ministry of Defence’s Official History, Military Intelligence’s assessment in 1959 was that a “major incursion” by the Chinese was unlikely. Even on the frontier, most stand-offs between 1959 to the fall of 1962 were local and in most cases the Chinese backed off without attacking Indian posts. These experiences shaped intelligence and military perceptions that the Chinese were not interested in a serious conflagration.
Such a conviction was reinforced by a broader strategic belief that a limited high intensity war had become structurally impossible in a nuclearised bipolar system. India’s calculations were shaped by a one-step escalation scenario: any Chinese use of force would involve an automatic escalation to the global nuclear level. Such a spectre of a global conflagration would deter a conflict on the Himalayan border.
The contrasting assessments of Nehru and Mao were evident from their 1954 encounter in Beijing. Nehru argued that the nature of force had undergone a radical shift in a nuclear world, and, the next war would be truly global in both scope and destruction. Mao’s response was that despite the introduction of nuclear weapons the basic nature of warfare had not changed except the casualties would henceforth be higher. The role of force still mattered and could not be ruled. Clearly, there was a difference in strategic culture and how each side viewed the relationship of military power to politics. In a Lok Sabha speech in December 1961, Nehru remarked that, “one must not go by all the brave words that are said in these communications to us by the Chinese government. But other factors work also.” This miscalculation is captured in Nehru’s view as late as on October 2, 1962: “he had good reasons to believe the Chinese would not take any strong action against us”.
4: India’s Overestimation of Chinese Threat Perception
The economic and ideological crisis after the debacle of the Great Leap Forward Strategy led India to overestimate Chinese threat perceptions. The assumption drawn was that given China’s deteriorating strategic environment after 1959, China would bark but not bite. Chinese signals conveyed both, via limited skirmishes and diplomatic channels, to dispel this presumption on India’s part were either ignored or misread.
Another local reason why Indian intelligence inferred that the Chinese were not looking for a serious fight was the fact that since September 1959, China had reduced the intensity of its patrolling, only resuming in summer of 1962. Mao took this decision in a September 1959 meeting where the PLA was instructed to cease patrolling in the forward zone within 20 kilometres of China’s line of actual control. Using this limited time period as their reference, the India’s Intelligence Bureau estimated that the Chinese were unlikely to use force against any Indian post even if they were in a position to do so. It was during this phase that India’s forward policy of probing disputed areas in the western sector found expression.
The reality was the Chinese had already accomplished most of their objectives by their own forward policies of 1956-1959, and, by 1960, had established a ‘line of actual control’ in the western sector or Aksai Chin region. They would adopt a holding pattern until the second half of 1962. From March 1962 onward Chinese policy began gradually responding to India’s forward policy. As John Garver writes, these measures included, “…ceasing withdrawal when confronted by Indian advances and adoption of a policy of “armed coexistence”, acceleration of China’s own advance, building positions surrounding, threatening, and cutting off Indian outposts, steady improvement of PLA logistic and other capabilities in the frontier region, increasingly strong and direct verbal warnings, and by September 1962, outright but small-scale PLA assaults on key Indian outposts – did not cause India to abandon its illusion of Chinese weakness.” To be sure, there was a renewed attempt by the Indian Government to explore a diplomatic settlement in the summer of 1962. These initiatives were, however, again tentative and did not explicitly abandon India’s pre-conditions for a negotiation process: namely, Chinese evacuation of Aksai Chin.
5: Indian Inability to Reconcile the Western/Eastern Sectors of Dispute
In April 1960, in his last visit to Delhi, Zhou Enlai had stated, “As China was prepared to accommodate the Indian point of view in the eastern sector, India should accommodate China in the western sector…We hope, that the Indian Government will take towards the western sector an attitude similar to that which the Chinese Government had taken towards the eastern sector…an attitude of mutual accommodation”. As late as March 1962, the Chinese were probably open to a swapping of claims as a path to a settlement.
India, however, was unable to accept a swap deal. From India’s perspective, the Eastern sector was a done deal – “a settled frontier” – via the 1914 McMahon Line. In contrast, India’s claim to ownership of the Western sector – mainly eastern Ladakh – was more ambiguous. Of course, it is true that the Chinese too had no legal or administrative provenance to Aksai Chin and backed their claims on the basis of their recent control. For India, there was legitimacy in the eastern sector that could not be matched by China’s claims in the Western sector. In Nehru words, “there can be no question of horse trading in this matter – that you take this and we take that”.
Steven Hoffmann, who has studied the perceptions of the Indian side, says that, “the Indian government was determined not to grant legitimacy to the concept of a Chinese ‘line of control’ in Ladakh”. Again, this perception is captured in Nehru’s response to Zhou Enlai’s suggestion (in his April 1960 visit) of both sides renouncing all territorial claims: “Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there; that we are unable to do”. The Officials Report, a culmination of Indian, Chinese, and other evidence in support of their respective claims, published in 1961 gave the Indian position an element of righteousness and legal superiority, with Nehru calling it “almost foolproof” and hoping that the pressure of facts might persuade the Chinese to recognize their mistake. This perception made negotiations even less probable.
India’s ‘no-negotiation’ stance with China, however irrational in retrospect, was exacerbated by the careless conception and reckless implementation of the forward policy. It was this latter development that converted what would probably have remained confined to a political argument into a military confrontation. On the Chinese side, Mao’s intense ideological struggle with the Soviet Union and its impact on domestic Chinese politics expressed via a struggle between radical Maoists and moderate pragmatists could certainly have shaped the nature and timing of the Chinese response and its decision to use overwhelming force.
(Text of a paper presented at the IIC-Subbu Forum-SPS Round Table on “50 Years after 1962: Recall and Review” on September 6, 2012 at New Delhi. This was first published in South Asia Monitor
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.