Sino-Indian Ties under the Shadow of the 1962 War
November 15, 2012
Last month, India commemorated the 50th anniversary of its 1962 war with China, which shattered the illusions of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and destroyed the confidence of a newly independent India. As in the past, the Indian government was in no mood to mark this inglorious anniversary. It took an unprecedented intervention by the chief of the Indian Army, who had to personally take the matter up with the defence minister, underscoring that sacrifices of the soldiers should not be forgotten. As a result, for the first time the Indian Ministry of Defence marked the anniversary of the war, when the defence minister along with three service chiefs laid a wreath at Delhi’s war memorial. It was the first time that the more than 3,000 soldiers who had died during the 1962 war were officially honored in India.
Successive Indian governments have not displayed the confidence to come to terms with the shocking defeat of 1962, and nothing symbolizes this better than the refusal to make the “Henderson Brooks report” public. Commissioned by General J.N. Chaudhuri, who took over as chief of the Indian Army after the 1962 war, the report was to examine the conduct of military operations during the war. It should have been made public long ago, and Indian military officers should be studying it as an essential text. But that has not happened to date.
As a result, instead of an informed discussion about the causes of the 1962 war and the way it was handled by the Indian political leadership and military, India as a nation has become used to dealing in speculation. In this discussion, the blame is sometimes laid at Nehru’s feet; at times, the Indian military’s leadership is blamed; while the Chinese are deemed the guilty party at other times. The fact remains, however, that like all wars, the 1962 war between China and India had multiple causes, and India will have to examine them dispassionately to learn lessons for the future. Otherwise, it will not be able to transcend its past and prepare adequately for future challenges.
Historians will continue to debate the causes and the conduct of the 1962 war, and as new facts emerge, the debate will shape up accordingly. But there is no reason to make India’s China policy of today a hostage to the 1962 war. The India of 2012 is not the India of 1962. Today, India is more confident in asserting its interests. And with its rising capabilities, India should be better prepared to deal with the consequences of an ascendant China.
But that’s where the real problem lies. In reality, New Delhi even today remains ill-equipped to deal with China. There are multiple levels—diplomatic, economic, cultural—at which China and India are engaging each other. Sino-Indian economic ties are at an all-time high with annual bilateral trade expected to reach around $100 billion over the next three years. Yet despite the pretense of sustained engagement, mutual suspicions also are at an all-time high, with the two states sharing one of the world’s most heavily militarized border areas. Alarmed by China’s reiteration of its claims over the whole of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, India is expanding its military deployments in its northeastern region. With China deploying around 300,000 troops across the Tibetan plateau, India is responding by raising its military deployment in the region from 120,000 to 180,000 troops, along with two Sukhoi 30 fighter squadrons. And the issue is not merely about the border and Tibet anymore. Today, New Delhi and Beijing both view themselves as rising powers; as a consequence, their interests and capabilities are rubbing against each other, not merely in Asia but in other parts of the world as well.
The two states do not fully comprehend the complexities of each other’s domestic politics either. China’s opaque political system fosters a lack of transparency that can be dangerous over the long term. India’s often cacophonous, domestic political system seems perpetually unable to attain a seriousness of purpose vis-à-vis China. As if this were not enough, popular opinion in both countries is rapidly turning against the other. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Chinese respondents viewed India unfavorably. The feeling is mutual with only 23 percent of Indians describing the relationship with China as one of cooperation and only 24 percent viewing China’s growing economy as a good thing. So much for the “trade leads to greater understanding” thesis!
Alarm bells are ringing all around India’s periphery as China’s growing military might is allowing it to dictate the terms of engagement to its neighbors. A comprehensive program of naval development is underway, with some warning of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine taking on a new degree of salience. Last month, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier—the Liaoning—with five more reportedly under development. China is busy developing an extensive near-seas capability, allowing it to pursue its ambitions unhindered even by the world’s reigning heavyweight, the United States.
Yet India has found it difficult to articulate a China policy that can go beyond clichés. It is not about matching China weapon for weapon; rather, it is about managing China’s rise in a manner that does not lead to India giving up its vital interests. There is no likelihood of border settlement anytime soon, but the infrastructure upgrade on the Indian side of the border has only just begun. Despite 15 odd rounds, the border talks between China and India have not led to anything substantive. Rising nationalism and the increasing sway of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in policymaking in China will make it even more difficult for the two sides to reach a diplomatic solution.
As China and India have risen in the global hierarchy, their bilateral relationship has become uneasy as they attempt to come to terms with each other’s rise. The distrust between the two is actually growing at an alarming rate, notwithstanding the rhetoric of official pronouncements. Growing economic cooperation, as well as bilateral political and sociocultural exchanges, has done little to assuage each country’s concerns about the other’s intentions. Indian policy trajectory toward China is evolving as India attempts to pursue a more forceful policy of internal and external balancing in an attempt to protect its core interests. The government is trying to fashion an effective response to the rise of China at a time of great regional and global turbulence. Although it is not entirely clear if there is a larger strategic framework shaping India’s China policy, India’s approach toward China is indeed undergoing a transformation, the full consequences of which will only be visible a few years down the line.
With Sino-Indian tension growing and the potential for conflict remaining high, the challenge to India is formidable. India is increasingly bracketed with China as a rising or emerging power—or even a global superpower—though it has yet to achieve the economic and political profile that China enjoys regionally and globally. India’s main security concern today is not the increasingly decrepit state of Pakistan but rather an ever more assertive China, whose ambitions are likely to reshape the contours of the regional and global balances of power with deleterious consequences for Indian interests.
India’s ties with China are thus gradually becoming competitive, with a sentiment gaining ground among Indian policy elites that China is not sensitive to India’s core security interests and does not acknowledge its status as a global player. As a consequence, India is belatedly gearing up to respond to China’s rise with a mix of internal consolidation and external partnerships. Whether this will be enough to take the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship out of the shadows of the 1962 conflict remains to be seen.
Harsh V. Pant is a nonresident adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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