A new champion has entered the lists in one of the major interpretative arguments of the mid-20th century, the placing of blame for the brief, savage 1962 Sino-Indian border war. India, its army quickly crushed by a wholly unexpected (if long threatened) offensive of the People’s Liberation Army, its reputation as a great non-aligned pacific international influence effaced by Nehru’s frantic pleas for a American military alliance, raised the self-exculpatory plea that it had been the victim of an “unprovoked aggression”. The international community gladly swallowed that as a placebo: the PRC being then outlawed from the UN by American veto. Beijing’s explanation, that it had struck back only as a last resort, and preemptively, against a protracted Indian campaign of petty territorial seizures, culminating in an effective declaration of war, held no water.
For years, that “aggressor” charge hung around Beijing’s neck, but publication of a book, India’s China War, in 1970 occasioned an international rethink, with the verdict turning squarely in China’s favour. That is the dispute into which the Swedish writer Bertil Lintner, an experienced Asia specialist, has waded, and the polemical title of his powerful new book, China’s India War, proclaims which side he takes.
Linter is an indefatigable researcher, eager to follow every avenue promising enlightenment, so that if a reservation is to be expressed it would be that his readers are sometimes taken up to dead-ends that while themselves are rewarding or beguiling, are distractions from his main theme. And for Lintner as a researcher his medium is not libraries, but his boots and the walker’s staff. His writings indicate that he has physically visited the countries, even specific localities he writes about. But for this reviewer (the author of India’s China War, the book whose argument Lintner seeks to refute, and who consequently becomes the target of sneers and jeers which sully Lintner’s text), the task is to seek and understand the misreading or incomprehensions which have led him to take up the invidious cause of re-establishing public belief in a falsehood.
Since a robust anti-Communism and fixed animus towards China and its leaders, past and present, pervades Lintner’s book, one may first cite, in a corrective effort, the PRC’s record in border settlement. Beijing’s policy was set by the Communist Party’s Central Committee in the first months after ‘liberation’ in 1949, and proclaimed by Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference in 1955. China had many stretches of unsettled frontiers, he said, but the PRC would never use that uncertainty for expansion, but would rigorously observe the status quo until diplomatic negotiation could peacefully create new, agreed boundary alignments. Beijing’s record in persuance of that declaration is good. It has a dozen sovereign neighbours and has had disputes, territorial and sometimes belligerent, with several of them but now enjoys settled boundaries with each bar India (Bhutan excluded; it is India’s satellite).
And international boundaries can be created only through a process called delimitation, diplomatic give-and-take, followed by demarcation, the joint marking of the agreed line on the ground. Which takes us back to India, because the fundamental factor in the Sino-Indian conflict is that it is the consequence of Nehru’s absolute, adamant refusal to negotiate, which has been sustained by all his successors. India’s policy on its China borders was first set and declared in 1954 in a memorandum from Nehru. There would be no negotiations, he decreed; the border alignments shown in a new set of maps just issued must be considered “firm and definite” and would not be “open to discussion with anybody”. Furthermore, a system of checkposts must be set up along the entire frontier, “especially in disputed areas”. Thus was inaugurated an Indian “forward policy”, and so was planted the slow-gestating seed of border war.
India’s new maps, on which Nehru’s policy was based, were wildly different from anything previously conceived. First, they falsely indicated that the external borders were agreed with the neighbours concerned; second, they depicted a settled NE boundary on what was known as the McMahon alignment, which was no more than a British imperial claim; and thirdly they depicted Indian ownership of Aksai Chin, a broad tract of desolate territory in the NW, long held by China and of the highest strategic importance to Beijing.
At first the normal administrative agencies for implementation of the aggressive policy were not available to Nehru. The MEA was averse to making the PRC an opponent, and the army, then generalled by soldiers who recognised the dangers of provoking war with an immensely stronger military power, refused to involve troops. But Nehru had a fall-back in his director of intelligence, N.B. Mullik, who commanded in effect a private army of armed police. Nehru instructed Mullik that China was, along with Pakistan, a state enemy, ordered him to “help in every way possible” Tibetans hostile to Beijing, giving him free rein in establishing the “system of checkposts” along the borders in the new maps. So, through the late ’50s, Mullik executed Nehru’s covert policy.
Mullik is one of Lintner’s sources, but Lintner turns a blind eye to his role as a determined agent provocateur. In 1959, Mullik’s secret offensive began to yield results in armed clashes, with Indian casualties—those enraged the Indian public and aroused a war-fever. Nehru’s assurances of the army’s overwhelming tactical advantages (opposite of truth) lulled any apprehension and aroused an eager expectation of imminent Indian victory.
By the early 1960s, the penny had dropped in Beijing. The border clashes were recognised as expressive of a belligerent intention. Mao took personal control and ordered that Indian advances must be blocked, but that the PLA must not allow itself to be provoked: not a shot was to be fired without his specific permission. This was a time of great stress for the PRC, with mounting pressure from the Guomintang and the Americans, and war with India could only be a dire diversion and danger. But in October 1962 Nehru removed all doubt about his intentions. Until then, the Indian army (now under generals promoted by Nehru’s favour) had been attempting to evict the Chinese from Indian-claimed territory by blockade and harrassment. Nehru ordered the army to use all available force in a frontal assault to drive the Chinese out of tactically impregnable positions they occupied north (that is, on the Chinese side) of the Indian ‘McMahon’ claim line in the north-east! And he publicly proclaimed it! The news of that statement “hit me like a bludgeon”, said an Indian general at the front. “Since Nehru had declared his intention to attack, the Chinese were not going to wait to be attacked”. Nor did they.
The steadily growing Indian threat, the emerging perception in Beijing that Nehru intended war, had since 1960 led to the PLA taking energetic precautionary measures. Troop concentrations, improvement of communications, establishment of intelligence networks on the Indian side of the line of actual control, so that by October 10, 1962 the unfortunate Indian troops, under-armed, under-clothed, on starvation rations, faced at close quarters a crouching tiger which they were ordered to subdue. An Indian-provoked skirmish on that day, with heavy Chinese casualties, broke the pre-war lull; ten days later the PLA launched an overwhelming general offensive, under which Indian troops could only fight and die or surrender. Victorious but controlled, Beijing a few days later reiterated its long-standing offer: mutual cessation of hostilities, return to previous positions, immediate border negotiations. Nehru, now relishing his Churchillian moment, did not wait even to receive the text before refusing. So the Chinese completed their operation with a further grand assault which, by November 20, left no organised Indian force on the battle-fields.
To label that provoked, measured and controlled counter-attack “an invasion”, as does Lintner, is absurd. As The Times was quick to recognise, it was a classic “punitive expedition”. The Chinese aim was to chasten a neighbour whose provocations had become dangerous and intolerable. By November 20, that objective had been achieved. No organised Indian military force remained in the disputed areas, either east or west. Accordingly, the Chinese declared their pre-planned unilateral ceasefire with near-immediate withdrawal from all occupied areas, return of all POWs and materiel, and again Zhou Enlai (now with scepticism and angry contempt) urged Nehru to negotiate a border settlement.
How Lintner was brought to take up the project of gainsaying all of the above and re-establishing the despairing Indian bleat of “unprovoked aggression” is a mystery. He adduced no new evidence, merely paraded again all New Delhi’s specious and often casuistical arguments.