The Sino-Indian War Was “A Masterstroke That Placed China as the Leader of the Third World”

22 October, 2017

More than 55 years ago, on 20 October 1962, China launched a series of attacks on Indian positions in the former North Eastern Frontier Agency—present-day Arunachal Pradesh—in the eastern front, and in the Aksai Chin region on the western front. Both regions formed part of the disputed territories along the border between the two countries. The attacks marked the beginning of the Sino-Indian War, which ended unexpectedly a few weeks later. On 21 November, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew to a position 20 kilometres north of the Line of Actual Control—the disputed border between the two nations.

In the aftermath of the war, India was largely perceived as the provocateur, due to the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Forward Policy, as part of which India allegedly established a string of outposts on and beyond the Line of Actual Control. This narrative gained currency after the release of Neville Maxwell’s 1970 book, India’s China War. Maxwell, a journalist, said he had received access to classified intelligence reports. In the book, he argued that China’s offensive was triggered by India’s decision to set up an outpost in Dhola, in the eastern front of the border, which had been dormant until then.  

Nearly 50 years after Maxwell’s book, Bertil Litner, a journalist and author, has written an alternative account of the war in his 2017 book China’s India War. Lintner argues that China began planning the war as early as 1959. He writes that he accessed the classified documents on which Maxwell based his arguments, and that they “state little more than that India was ill-prepared for the war.” In the following extract from the book, Lintner argues that the motivation to attack India was not a response to India’s outpost in Dhola, but a part of China’s strategy to establish its international political dominance.

It is also astonishing to note how many Western writers, not only Maxwell and Alastair Lamb, have decided to accept China’s crude propaganda and fanciful interpretations of the border conflict and related issues such as the reason for the war in 1962. This could be because Lamb and the others who accept the Chinese view do indeed present the issues in “much clearer and persuasive terms than the Beijing Government,” to quote the Berkeley professor Leo E Rose. In other words, they present the general Chinese view minus crazed outbursts about “Indian expansionists,” “British imperialists,” and “traitorous and subversive Tibetan cliques.”

The claim that Indian troop movements around the Dhola Post and some skirmishes between the Indians and the Chinese in mid-October determined the timing of the attack is part of this twisted interpretation of the causes of the 1962 War. A much more plausible explanation is that an event that was taking place far from the Indian subcontinent made the Chinese decide that 20 October would be the most appropriate day to launch an attack and that, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted from 22 to 28 October.

From the Chinese point of view, it was a masterstroke to decide to wage war on India at the same time that the American President John F Kennedy was preoccupied by such an immediate threat to national security. A direct American intervention supporting India in the war would be out of the question, but if it did happen, it would force India to compromise its commitment to non-alignment. On 26 October, as war was raging in the Himalayas, Nehru made an unprecedented appeal for international sympathy and support.

Three days later, when the Cuban missile crisis was essentially over, the United States did decide to send military aid after Ambassador John K Galbraith had had a private meeting with Nehru. The Soviets had agreed to withdraw their ballistic missiles from Cuba after a secret agreement had been reached according to which the United States would dismantle its missile bases in eastern Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally of the US.

The message was conveyed through Galbraith that Kennedy had agreed to send arms to India “without strings and the terms would be settled later.” Nehru is also reported to have requested American warplanes, and, on 19 November, India sought full defensive intervention by the United States. That did not happen, but a US aircraft carrier had already set course for the Bay of Bengal, and a squadron of transport planes had arrived in India. It is believed that Kennedy sanctioned supplies of a million machine-gun rounds, 40,000 land mines, and 100,000 mortar rounds to India, while Time magazine at the time reported that shipments had been even more substantial and were complete with US crews and maintenance teams. But it was too little, and too late. The Chinese had already achieved their objectives by the time Western military assistance arrived.

China did not miss the opportunity to denounce Nehru as “a lackey of US imperialism” and “a pawn in the international anti-China campaign.” The tone and content of the 15,000-word vitriolic article in the official party paper [of the Communist Party of China] the People’s Daily on 27 October was, according to British analyst Roderick MacFarquhar, “consonant with that of Beijing’s anti-Soviet polemics of 1960 and prefigured in its anti-Soviet polemics of 1963–64, thus marking it as a weapon in the ideological struggle with Moscow rather than in the military struggle with India.”

Apart from condemning Nehru for seeking military aid from the United States, China also wanted to hit out at the Soviet Union, which had been closer to India than any other Western power before the conflict began—and the Soviet Union was China’s main rival for control over what it termed “The Third World.” The rivalry had begun in the 1950s and first came out in the open when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Politburo of the CCP, had an argument at the congress of Romania’s ruling communist party in 1960. Khrushchev branded Mao “a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist,” while the Chinese denounced Khrushchev as “patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical,” and, eventually, as a “revisionist renegade” who had betrayed true Marxism-Leninism. Khrushchev responded by withdrawing 1,400 Soviet experts and technicians from China and cancelling more than 200 projects in the world’s most populous communist country.

In the beginning of the conflict between India and China, the Soviet Union had been cautious. Although Khrushchev’s sympathies were with India, he could not afford to get too tough with China. On the other hand, India’s defence minister, Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, who was known for his pro-Soviet leanings, was forced to resign on 31 October, after being held responsible for India’s lack of preparedness for the 1962 War. In the midst of the crisis, Nehru himself temporarily took over the defence portfolio. The Soviets, who had provided India with defence equipment long before the war, found themselves in a severe dilemma. According to Mohan Ram, an Indian journalist and a specialist on Sino-Indian relations, the Soviets had begged the Chinese to stop their military operations and offered mediation, for which India was ready. “They tried hard to prevent India from looking to the United States and Britain. Thus, years of striving for India’s neutrality went to waste and capitalists were supplying arms to India thanks to the Chinese aggression.”

Another disclosure, according to Ram, was the Soviet concern over the ouster of Menon from the Indian government. Ram quotes a rejoinder from the Soviets saying that “Chinese aggression also had the consequences that we lost one of our most faithful friends among the Indian leaders, and that because he relied on our help.”

Khrushchev had remained neutral during the skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 1959, which had angered the Chinese. As tension between India and China was brewing in 1962, [Ram quotes in his 1973 book Politics of Sino-Indian Confrontation,] the Chinese called upon the leaders of the Soviet Union to “denounce the Indian bourgeoisie as a lackey of imperialism”—which they refused to do. Instead, on 12 December, when the war was over, Khrushchev came out in support of India, saying “we absolutely disallow the thought India wanted to start war with China.” Thus, China managed to force India to seek help from the United States, and also put the Soviet Union in the same anti-Chinese camp. It was a masterstroke that placed China as the leader of the Third World.

According to MacFarquhar, “Nehru’s appeal for Western aid in his hour of need dented, if it did not destroy, India’s image as a non-aligned nation, thus diminishing its status both in the Communist bloc and the Third World ... Beijing had also demonstrated to a deaf Moscow the unwisdom of choosing India over China as an ally.” But, most importantly, MacFarquhar states that rising tension with India even in early and mid-1962, which eventually led to outbreak of hostilities in October, “had signalled to its erstwhile communist partner that the banner of militant Marxism-Leninism had once more been unfurled over Beijing.” The year of 1962 saw China, with Mao back at the helm, successfully challenging both India and the Soviet Union and, in the end, becoming the leader of the Third World’s progressive and revolutionary forces.

There has been much speculation among scholars and analysts as to why the Chinese decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November and then withdraw to its former positions behind the McMahon Line [a disputed eastern border between India and China]. Some have suggested that the American decision to intervene was a factor, others that the Soviet Union had threatened to take action unless the Chinese halted their advance into Indian territory. Indian military analysts have pointed to that the fact that winter was approaching in the high Himalayas, making it impossible to maintain long and vulnerable supply lines from forward bases in Tibet.

But none of these explanations are consistent with the broader picture of China’s overall policies and strategic ambitions at the time of the war. It was a limited action aimed at punishing India, dethroning it from its leadership position in the non-aligned movement, and at forcing the Soviets to take sides in the wider conflict that had been raging within the international communist movement since 1960. There is nothing to indicate that the Chinese ever intended to hold the territory it had captured in October and November 1962. China wanted to demonstrate its military might and superiority and, by withdrawing, it had showed its “goodwill” towards its neighbours and the rest of the world, demonstrating that it was not an aggressive power bent on capturing land from other countries. It was against the backdrop of these events that China emerged as the winner and the road now lay open for China to become the leader of the Third World.

This is an extract from China’s India War, by Bertil Lintner, published by Oxford University Press in 2017.