1962 – The view from Beijing

Revelations in the Henderson Brooks Report should be examined in the light of archival material that is now available on Chinese perceptions and decision-making leading up to the conflict

Shyam Saran

Shyam Saran

By Shyam Saran

ON THE WEB, 8 April 2014

The release of a substantial section of the top-secret Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 India-China border war by Neville Maxwell has re-ignited the debate over why India suffered a humiliating defeat then and whether lessons have been learnt even now, given China’s relentless march towards superpower status. The refusal of successive governments in Delhi to make the report public has only made such periodic and selective leaks all the more damaging and distracting. The country’s interests would be better served by releasing the full report with a commentary that identifies the lessons that have been learnt and the remedial steps taken to ensure that we do not fall into a similar and, perhaps even bigger, disaster again.

A reading of the document, now widely available on the internet, does not reveal any fresh, earth-shaking revelations or insights. Much of the report has been leaked in bits and pieces over the years and supplemented by considerable details supplied by other actors involved in this unfortunate saga. The main conclusions of earlier analyses remain valid:

  • Right up to the point when China launched a major offensive, both the political and the Indian Army top brass were convinced that military engagement at the contested border would never go beyond small-scale skirmishes and limited operations. There was no expectation and hence preparation for dealing with a large-scale assault, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
  • The so-called Forward Policy was a political initiative and not a military operation, designed to strengthen Indian territorial claims and forestall further Chinese ingress. China had been putting in place its own version of a forward policy through the relentless advance into the unoccupied border zones separating the two countries. This had intensified after the Tibet revolt and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959. That same year, the first serious incidents of Chinese aggression took place, one in Longju in the eastern sector and the other at Galwan in the western sector. Chinese territorial assertiveness continued thereafter, accompanied by a significant build-up of both logistics and forces. It was only in November 1961 that the Forward Policy was adopted in response but without corresponding means in men and material to respond to a serious military attack, the capabilities for which were being steadily built up on the Chinese side. The ill-considered probing missions and the setting up of additional and mostly isolated and indefensible posts were, therefore, more in the nature of “showing the flag” operations rather than military manoeuvres.

The revelations in the Henderson Brooks Report should be examined in the light of considerable archival material that is now available on Chinese perceptions and decision-making on India-China relations leading up to the breakout of hostilities on 20 October 1962.

The first important point to note is that the India-China border dispute took on an altogether different dimension in Chinese perceptions as a result of the Tibet revolt of 1959 and the subsequent grant of refuge by India to the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetans, who were escaping a violent Chinese crackdown. Indian statements and actions on the border were increasingly interpreted as aimed at undermining Chinese control over Tibet. Even contemporary Chinese studies of the 1962 conflict, such as those by Xu Yan and Wang Hongwei, make this point repeatedly, accusing Nehru of trying to “convert Tibet into a buffer zone” and to “instigate Tibet to leave China”. In 1964, while speaking to a visiting Nepali delegation, Mao Zedong said the major problem between India and China was not the McMahon Line but Tibet, which Indians considered to be theirs.

A second conclusion to emerge from the archives is the key role played by Mao himself in the events leading up to the war. The failure of the Great Leap Forward and three years of economic distress and famine between 1959 and 1961 had forced Mao to retreat to the “second line of leadership”, yielding place to pragmatists such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen. By the summer of 1962, however, Mao was already in the process of regaining his control over the levers of power, using the People’s Liberation Army under a new commander, Marshal Lin Piao, as his ally. From the summer of 1962, it was Mao who was personally issuing directives on the evolving military situation on the India-China border. It was his decision in August 1962, to launch a full-scale military assault on Indian forces and to “liquidate the invading Indian army”.

Interestingly, it now transpires that this decision was a contested one. A Chinese TV feature on the 1962 war, broadcast in January 2005, reveals that there were differences of opinion among the leadership with some arguing that it would be unwise to make an enemy out of India just when China was confronting both domestic and external challenges. However, according to the broadcast, these elements were denounced as “right opportunists” and the military offensive went ahead.

It is also clear now that China made a careful assessment of the regional and international situation before undertaking these military operations. There were fears in China that the US may help the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan launch attacks on China across the Taiwan Straits. These were laid to rest when China’s ambassador to Warsaw, Wang Bingnan, was able to get a categorical assurance from his American counterpart that the US had no intention of supporting any Taiwanese offensive against China by taking advantage of Sino-Indian tensions. In his memoirs, Wang claims that this assurance played an important part in enabling the decision to attack India later in the year.

Similarly, fears that the Soviet Union would play a negative role on the Sino-India dispute were laid to rest as Moscow sought to obtain Chinese support in the looming Cuban missile crisis, which would burst into the open around the same time as the India-China war. This also distracted the major powers from taking full cognisance of what was happening on a remote border somewhere in Asia.

Just as the Chinese military offensive came as a rude surprise, so did the subsequent Chinese decision to withdraw from the territories it occupied as a result of the 1962 operations with some exceptions particularly in the Western sector. The Indian leadership fully believed that the withdrawal was probably due to approaching winter and extended supply lines and that a renewed offensive was likely during the summer the following year. This explains the sense of panic that prevailed in those days evident in Jawaharlal Nehru’s desperate letter to US President John F Kennedy, which surfaced recently. Chinese archives, however, suggest that it was always Mao’s plan that Chinese forces should withdraw after delivering a knockout blow on the Indians. The objective was not territorial. It was to forestall any threat to Chinese consolidation in Tibet, while bringing a chastened India to the negotiating table to acquiesce in a Chinese package proposal for settling the border. Neither objective was achieved in any real sense.

In 1980, the two countries resumed a bilateral dialogue on the border after a gap of two decades. In the initial phase the Chinese terms for settlement were the same as in 1960, ie that China would retain Aksai Chin in the West but would generally settle along the alignment corresponding to the McMahon Line, though it would never accept the legitimacy of that line. In his interview to the editor of Vikrant in 1982, Deng Xiaoping explicitly put forward the “package proposal” as the basis for a border settlement, arguing that in keeping the area currently in its occupation in the east, India was getting a very good deal. After all, he suggested, Nehru himself had described Aksai Chin as a desert where “not a blade of grass grows”.

The second part of this article will appear on 14 April in Business Standard.

About the author

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and of RIS (Research and Information System) as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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