Lt Gen SK Sinha (Retd)
Mar 13, 2012
India and China are the two most populous countries with the two most ancient civilisations of the world. They share a common border in the Himalayas. For centuries there had been close interaction between them in educational and religious fields. All those thousands of years India and China never clashed, until 1962. On the 50th anniversary of that border war, it is necessary to recall the past and assess the present.
India became Independent in 1947 and soon thereafter Chinese communists emerged victorious after a long-drawn civil war. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, got carried away by the long history of conflict-free cordial relations between the two countries. Sardar Patel saw the threat posed by China’s occupation of Tibet and he wrote a letter to Nehru in 1950, a couple of weeks before he passed away, warning him and advising suitable measures. Nehru ignored his warning. Gen. K.M. Cariappa, the then Army Chief, raised this issue with Nehru but was told not to worry about defence of the North and concentrate on Pakistan. Nehru went out of his way to befriend China. India withdrew all military and consular presence from Tibet, including its personnel manning post and telegraph there. India was one of the first countries to recognise the new regime in China. India even declined the offer of a permanent seat in the Security Council replacing Nationalist China, saying that it should rightfully go to China.
But India, lulled by the euphoria of the “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” slogan, was rudely woken by Chinese perfidy when China surreptitiously occupied 3,500 sq km of Indian territory in Aksai Chin. We bungled in dealing with China and this resulted in the debacle of 1962. We then set about improving our military strength. In 1965, we foiled the grandiose dream of Ayub Khan, of his tanks rolling down the plains of Panipat to Delhi, and remained undeterred by the ultimatum issued by China in that war.
Unlike her father, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi handled national security adroitly. In 1967, when China started unprovoked heavy shelling in Sikkim, India retaliated with counter-bombardment and got the better of China in the artillery duel. In 1971, India used geography and diplomacy to its advantage, preventing China from rescuing Pakistan. In 1975, Delhi acted swiftly and merged Sikkim, ignoring protests by China.
In 1979, China was taught a lesson by Vietnam. Deng Xiaoping, leader of the Communist Party of China, realised the need to develop economic and military power and for this China had to be at peace with its neighbours and the rest of the world. He introduced market economy in a socialist polity while we in India nursed a socialist economy in a democratic polity. Two decades after China, India also liberalised its economy and started emerging as one of the leading economies of the world. But China is far ahead of us in economic and military power.
While developing its economic and military power, China adopted an affable stance, lulling us into complacency. It opened Nathu La for trade and recognised Sikkim as part of India, which it had not done for over two decades.
Border dialogue started but settlement was avoided. It assured that populated areas would not be disturbed while delineating the border. It remained neutral during the Kargil War, to the great disappointment of its close ally. While sending out such friendly signals, China continued to build its military strength in Tibet. This process had started in 1975, with the construction of the Gormo Lhasa oil pipeline and railway link. Strategic road and rail communication, several airfields, missile bases and logistic dumps were developed. China now maintains 24 divisions for operations in Tibet. It is trying to encircle India with the “string of pearls” strategy. Ports are being developed at Cocos Island (Burma), Hambantola (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Pakistan). The grand design is to make the Indian Ocean a Chinese lake.
Having achieved considerable economic and military superiority over India since 2007 China has turned aggressive. It stridently claims Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory and protests against the Indian Prime Minister and defence minister visiting Arunachal Pradesh. Stapled visas are now being issued to officials from Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. And, in December 2011, it declined to discuss its border with Kashmir because it is disputed territory requiring Pakistan’s participation.
We have belatedly woken up. We have reached out to Afghanistan in the west and to Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam in the east. We are developing strategic consensus with the US, Australia and Japan. And we are now speeding up acquisition of medium guns. As many as 122 fighter jets, an aircraft carrier and submarines are being acquired. Roads and airfields are being improved. We also plan to raise a corps and four divisions for the mountains, but only two divisions have been raised so far.
We do not need to enter into an arms race with China like the Soviets did with the US during the Cold War. We must build sufficient strength to deter Chinese military adventurism. In the present global world, the possibility of a nuclear or long-drawn conventional war is remote. Mountains provide an inbuilt advantage to the defender. The attacker requires much greater capabilities to overcome well-prepared defensive positions on the mountains than on the plains. Even while on the defensive, we must have the capability to hit back.
During the late Sixties China was actively supporting insurgency in Nagaland and Manipur. With Paresh Barua, the Assamese insurgent commander, now operating from China, the latter may intensify low-intensity conflict in the Northeast. Should that happen we must not only contain it but also pay back China in its own coin. There are more Tibetans in adjoining provinces than in Tibet.
It will be disastrous for us to be pusillanimous and act like a soft state while dealing with an aggressive China. We must deal with our adversary from a position of strength, not weakness.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir