Beyond the 'Himalayan Pearl Harbor'

Gyanesh Kudaisya considers how the Sino-Indian war of 1962 has shaped relations between Asia’s two largest nations.

Refugees fleeing the Sino-India border war. Getty Images/Time Life/Larry BurrowsChina and India share the longest disputed frontier in the world, extending over 4,000 km, with a contentious Line of Actual Control across the Himalayas. On October 19th, 1962, border skirmishes between China and India escalated into a full-scale war across the mountainous border. Hostilities continued for over a month, during which China wrestled 23,200 sq kms of territory from India and inflicted heavy casualties. The Indian government acknowledged the loss of over 7,000 personnel, with 1,383 dead, 1,696 missing in action and 3,968 captured by the enemy. The Chinese also conceded ‘very heavy’ losses. Then, quite suddenly, on November 21st, China announced a unilateral ceasefire and a return to border posts held by its army prior to the conflict, while retaining some 4,023 sq km of territory in the Ladakh region.

This brief war has come to define relations between Asia’s two largest countries and the border issue remains unresolved. Beijing still claims over 92,000 sq km of territory, mainly in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

The war was a dramatic turning point for India. Most Indians saw it as a ‘stab in the back’, a grave act of betrayal by the Chinese leadership, whom Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister (1947-64), had lauded as brothers in the heyday of a friendly relationship in the mid-1950s. This was reflected in Panchsheel, ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, upon which in 1954 China and India inked a bilateral treaty, and the 1955 Bandung conference, where Nehru had personally introduced Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to Afro-Asian delegates in order to minimise China’s isolation.

Indian elites took a more critical view of the war, attributing the defeat to Nehru’s altruistic policy of Non-Alignment, forged in response to the superpower dynamics of the Cold War and his failure to take a realistic stance vis-à-vis China. They also blamed his defence minister and protégé, Krishna Menon, for the appalling state of the nation’s defences and for his inept, often idiosyncratic, handling of the military top-brass. Nehru himself offered the explanation that China’s intolerance of India’s stature in international affairs and its championing of Non-Alignment among the Afro-Asian nations lay behind the aggression. No one either could fail to note China’s annoyance over Tibet, particularly the anti-Chinese propaganda put out by the Dalai Lama, whom India was hosting in exile. There was also the assertion of sovereignty by China over borders that had not yet been formally delineated and were seen as a difficult colonial legacy.

Fifty years later references to the 1962 conflict are likely to be mired in national amnesia in both India and China for complex and divergent reasons. In India the war continues to be seen as a moment of trauma, a humiliating episode of post-colonial history which the nation has not been able to come to terms with. In China the event is usually dismissed as a mere ‘border clash’, not a war, and history textbooks barely refer to it. Moreover, the stand-off came in the wake of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic experiment of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), which aimed to transform China’s agricultural sector through collectivisation but brought about famine and human misery on an immense scale. For obvious reasons this phase of China’s national history is best forgotten. 

Furthermore the terms of discourse in the China-India engagement have shifted dramatically from the tenets of national pride and self-reliance to increasing economic co-operation in a global environment. Over two decades bilateral trade increased 200 times to an estimated $73 billion in 2011. The figure is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015. In dollar terms China and India rank as the world’s second and 11th largest economies, respectively. Together, they contribute nearly a 12th of global GDP and a fifth of global exports. Proponents of globalisation would like to believe that China-India ties in the future will be defined not by the ‘B’ of ‘Border’ but of ‘Business’.

Such aspiration often overlooks unresolved issues of the past, not least the divergent perceptions China and India have of each other in the 21st century. At the same time there seems to be a mutual rejection of the possibility that a coming to terms with the past might help bring about reconciliation and trust.

A reassessment of the Sino-Indian war might usefully start by viewing it not simply in bilateral terms but within a wider global context. For instance, as the clouds of war gathered over the Asian horizon, there loomed an even greater crisis that threatened to bring humanity to the brink of Third World War. On October 21st, 1962, after Chinese troops started marching into Indian territory, US President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba. The ensuing Missile Crisis engaged the US and the USSR in brinksmanship and near combat, making it ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’. For much of the duration of the Sino-Indian war, Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood ‘eyeball to eyeball’, preoccupied with the concern to avoid a larger global confrontation.

At this most heightened moment of the US-Soviet stand-off, an equally contentious rift was threatening to fracture the Communist Bloc. The priority of national interest over Communism, competition for global hegemony and divergent interpretations of Marxism were rapidly driving the Soviet Union and China apart. The Sino-Indian war aggravated this fissure.

It is now known that, when Indian morale stood at its lowest ebb, on November 19th, 1962, Nehru wrote two letters to Kennedy, describing India’s situation as ‘desperate’ and asking for comprehensive military aid, specifically ‘immediate support to strengthen our air arm sufficiently to stem the tide of the Chinese advance’. He asked for ‘a minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’, radar cover and US airforce personnel ‘to man these fighters and radar installations’. ‘Any delay in this assistance,’ Nehru warned, ‘will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country.’ Nehru also wrote to Khrushchev and to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to enlist support. Nehru’s assiduously crafted policy of Non-Alignment now lay in shambles.

But, if we are to take a broader comparative view of the Sino-Indian war, it is time to move away from narrow ‘national’ histories and to dispel myths and stereotypes. For example, two generations of Indians have accepted the fabrication that the Chinese carried out a sudden, unprovoked act of aggression in 1962, ‘a Himalayan Pearl Harbor’. But contemporary accounts testify to a steady build-up of tension dating from at least 1959. Likewise analysis must move away from explanations centred upon the personality of Nehru.

The grand narratives of globalisation conjure a vision of an ‘Asian century’, with China and India in concert. Yet emotive, bullish nationalism of the past cannot simply be wished away. Recent disputes between China and Japan in the East and South China seas are manifestations of such aggressive nationalism. If India and China are to avoid similar tensions, they must address the fault-line of 1962. They have a hope of doing so, not by shying away from history but by appreciating the complex factors that led the two Asian neighbours to war. There is no other recipe to fix the trust deficit that blights their relationship.

Gyanesh Kudaisya teaches Contemporary South Asian History at the National University of Singapore.


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