MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 13 OCTOBER, 2018
Will India and China Fight a War Again?
Another October 20 is at hand. It’s the day on which the 1962 Sino-Indian border war began. Most Indians still rightly see the 1962 border war between Indian and China, a relatively small military defeat but a major national panic, as a cathartic event and one that is never forgotten. While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it is in 1967 when Indian and Chinese troops last clashed with each other at Nathula that now defines it. Since then not a shot has been fired across the border by either side.
On September 11 that year jostling over the laying a barbed wire fence by Indian troops to demarcate the border at Nathula escalated when the PLA suddenly opened a withering machine gun fire killing many officers and jawans of 18 Rajput and 70 Field Company. The Indian Army retaliated with a blistering artillery fire that obliterated PLA positions. On October 1, 1967 this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the PLA and similarly not found wanting. The lesson had been driven home and the ceasefire that followed still holds.
The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the Peoples Liberation Army stand eye-ball to eye-ball, but the atmosphere now is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.
In 1971 as Pakistani armies in the east as well as the west were crumbling, Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State met China’s ambassador at the UN, Huang Hua at a CIA safe house in Manhattan. William Burr, a Senior Analyst at the National Security Archives, quoting from the declassified transcripts of the secret talks in his just-published book wrote : Kissinger told Hua “The President wants you to know that it's, of course, up to the People's Republic to decide its own course of action in this situation, but if the People's Republic were to consider the situation in the Indian sub-continent a threat to its security, and it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others (Soviet Union) to interfere with the People's Republic”. The Chinese declined the invitation.
After the incidents at Depsang and Dokolam we come to the question that bother many Indians. Will China provoke a conflict with India or even vice versa? I don’t think so. Both countries are now well settled on the Lines of Actual Control (LAC). In Ladakh, China is pretty much on what it desired pre-1962, which is along the old McCartney-MacDonald Line Line. In 1942, spooked by reports of Russian presence in Xinjiang. British India hastily abandoned it in favor of the Johnson Line, which encompassed all o the Aksai Chin. In the eastern sector, India pretty much holds on to the alignment along the McMahon Line.
Thrice in the past the Chinese offered to settle this vexatious issue on this as is where is basis, but India baulked because the compulsions of its domestic politics did not allow it, as they still do. In his last conversation on this with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Chairman Deng suggested freezing it as it is and leaving it to history to resolve. Good and sagacious advice
In the mid 1980’s when the two leaders met, China and India’s GDP’s were about the same. Since then China’s GDP has grown to become more than three times as big as India’s. Its rapid economic ascent has now more or less conferred on it the role of the world’s other superpower. China today is also a technology powerhouse and has built a modern military industrial complex, far bigger and superior to India’s. India’s ascent is a more recent story and there are still some decades to go before it can aspire to be once again on par with China
In the recent years China has built as many as eighteen forward airbases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan that put most northern and eastern Indian cities, industrial centers and military targets within striking range of its new generation fighter-bombers like the JF10 and JF17. By contrast most Chinese cities and industrial centers are deep within and not easily reached by Indian aircraft, though the new batch of upgraded SU30 MKI fighters fitted with the long range supersonic Brahmos missiles will put several major Chinese centers within reach. Its somewhat ironical that Tibet that India had seen as a buffer against China or Russia, has become a buffer for China.
Yet China has built a huge military infrastructure and of a kind that would be quite redundant against threat the freedom loving Tibetans may pose to its control over their motherland. This is the kind of power you need to assert your will over a neighboring country. India has taken note of this, and has sought to suitably counter it with a build up of its own. But build ups also lead to more build-ups and put you on an ascending spiral of mistrust.
But of one thing we can be sure. If there is a conflict again, it will not be the limited war of the kind seen in 1962. The early use of airpower is implicit. China had threatened it in 1967 when it got bloodied at Nathu La. Both countries now maintain large and powerful air forces. There is also every possibility that the conflict could extend into the Indian Ocean region soon after, where India has a strategic advantage.
Conflicts are generally the result of a serious military asymmetry or by misjudging intentions or by local conflicts spiraling out of control or when domestic failures require a diversion of attention or when domestic dynamics make rational discourse impossible. In 1962 we saw the last two at play. After the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward and after over 30 million died of starvation between 1959 and 1962, Chairman Mao desperately needed a diversion to assert his control of the CPC and the PLA. His challenger, the popular Marshal Peng Dehuai was still in Beijing despite being purged by Mao. Many speculate that anticipating a putsch against him by the reformers opposed to the personality cult, Mao busied up the PLA in a low cost high return limited war.
On the Indian side the unthinking escalation of attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru by the Opposition, and from within the Congress party, forced the government to adopt a strident note and embark of the ill-fated Forward Policy. This was despite written advice by its Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daulat Singh, that a policy without the military means to support it would have grave consequences.
The serious asymmetry of 1962 does not occur now. India’s arms build up make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean. Both countries have sufficient arsenals of nuclear weapons and standoff weapons to deter each other. But above all, both countries have evolved into stable political systems, far less naïve and inclined to be far more cautious in their dealings with each other.
This leaves a local conflict rapidly spiraling out of control, or another Gavrilo Princip incident where a single shot at the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, plunged the western world into WW1, highly improbable. After 51 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being at the same contested space at the same time, the armies have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behavior and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics. Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace and tranquility of the frontier.
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