It’s been 50 years since then, but the scars from that fight remain etched in the Indian political and military psyche.
More on the 1962 war
The Chinese say they were provoked by Nehru. India says it was an unprovoked act of aggression against a peaceful nation. Of course, many in India also blame Nehru, whose political back was broken after the war ended with a unilateral Chinese cease-fire and withdrawal on November 21.
If China’s aim was to teach India a lesson, it had succeeded.
Each year since then, the Indian media wakes up around this time of the year with headlines rhetorically asking whether we had indeed learnt our lesson, alongside columns and quotes by experts who insist that we haven’t. Look at our pathetic infrastructure along the borders with China, they argue. Look at the lack of political and military will and muscle to take on our large neighbor, they cry.
The other question often asked is: can it happen again?
The surly relations between India and China slowly thawed as the Cold War wound to a close, with young Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visiting Beijing in 1988. In 1993, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao signed an agreement which aimed at the Maintenance Of Peace And Tranquility Along The Line Of Actual Control.
More than 2000 years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, famous for his teachings later compiled into a manuscript titled The Art of War, recommended that potential enemies should constantly be kept guessing about your real intentions. His wily Indian version, Chanakya, suggested the same thing in his tome on statecraft, the Arthashastra, written almost 1800 years ago.
Today, China and India are often spoken of in the same breath, as huge emerging economies, and aspiring military superpowers with nuclear weapons.
Today, both nations battle for the same resources worldwide to fuel their economies as well as their military growth.
Today, true to Sun Tzu’s recommendations, China has kept India guessing, while Chanakya has acquired an unsavory reputation among Indian strategists, his teachings all but forgotten.
Hence the Chinese claims to huge swathes of Arunachal. Its intermittent denial of visas to Indian military and other officials and even sportspersons from that state.
Hence the regular reports of Chinese ‘incursions’ into Indian territory, which are later denied by both sides.
Hence the so called ‘string of pearls’ theory, which has China encircling India strategically with its ports in the Maldives; Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh; Myanmar, Sri Lanka and then all the way to Lamu, Kenya, which gives China access to most of East Africa.
Hence its (now discontinued) practice of issuing stapled visas to people from Jammu and Kashmir, thus questioning the troubled Indian state’s status.
Hence Beijing’s overt and covert military relationship with Pakistan, and the induction of the PLA in Gilgit Baltistan in the Northern Areas of Kashmir, which has been ‘leased out’ by Pakistan to China.
Sun Tzu would have been proud.
A few years ago, I met a senior official from a PLA think-tank in New Delhi. In a candid, but strictly “off the record” conversation, he claimed China had serious issues with the way the Dalai Lama was granted asylum by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in March 1959.
The young monk had fled the fierce Chinese crackdown on a Tibetan uprising in Lhasa, and arrived in India after a arduous 15-day trek through the harsh Tibetan mountains with a 20-member entourage. Thousands of other Tibetans were to follow.
Chairman Mao, as well as Premier Chou Enlai saw this as a personal affront, the Chinese scholar said, and when Nehru initiated his ‘forward policy’ of setting up Indian military outposts in border areas claimed by the Chinese, Beijing decided that the Indian Prime Minister needed to be shown his place.
Ruling out the possibility of another war between the two nations, the Chinese scholar said both sides knew that a war would impose prohibitive costs on two growing economies.
However, he went on to say that while a conventional war was unlikely, China had invested huge resources in asymmetrical warfare techniques, which, among other things, involved taking out a enemy nation’s power, financial and communications grids electronically.
(The frequent hacking attempts and attacks on not just Indian but American and Russian communications, defence and banking systems – usually traced back to China - perhaps bear testimony to this).
The professor also noted that while India insisted on describing the 1962 event as a war, the Chinese saw it as nothing more than border skirmish, which followed repeated Indian provocations.
Way back in 2000, a delegation of Indian journalists accompanying President K R Narayanan met scholars from another Chinese think tank. One of them argued that while China was deeply interested in India as a large neighbor, India seemed disinterested about China. He pointed to the fact that while there was only a solitary Indian journalist based out of China at that time, there were more than 30 Chinese journalists spread across India.
“All of them spies, no doubt,” muttered an Indian journalist in Hindi.
“Even if so, it only goes to prove my point,” smiled the Chinese scholar, who was also an expert in Sanskrit, and of course, Hindi.
According to the scholar I met in Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leaked letter to US President Bill Clinton justifying the nuclear tests of May 1998 by pointing to the 1962 war with China was a clear indicator that New Delhi perceived Beijing as a threat.
The rapidly burgeoning Indo-US with the United States, and the constant western refrain that it sees India as a counterweight to China’s rapidly growing economic and military muscle probably adds to Chinese concerns.
So where does one go from here? Will the two warring schoolboys finally bury the hatchet and become friends?
Will they shake hands and speak softly, while perhaps carrying huge sticks in the other hand?
Or will they continue to wrangle and sneer at each other, competing for the same resources and occasionally indulging in one-upmanship, which could eventually lead to another bare-fisted brawl?
More importantly, if push comes to shove, will it be New Delhi that blinks again?
Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst.