Sino-Indian border saga

The relationship between two most populous nations in the world, India and China has been shaped by the Sino-India war of 1962. Following is an excellent well researched article written by Melektaus ( a author in a Hidden Harmonies China blog) that covers the subject matter.

There is little doubt that Indian was the aggresive party, miscalculating that China was just too weak to resist Nehru’s “forward” policy.

Revisiting the Sino-Indian War of 1962

As the new year approaches, we should take some time to reflect that 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The war has shaped and will continue to shape the attitudes of people towards each other from two global nuclear (presently or soon to be) superpowers.

The war was not only interesting in itself but interesting in how current powers in the west and India have viewed it since. Tens if not hundreds of millions of Indians today continue to believe that China is blameworthy for it. They imbibe their media’s version of the events and the versions fed to them from their politicians past and present. Since India is an ally of the US, an important strategic partner in “containing” China, criticisms of India’s policies are often muted or events described to give India a favorable light and China is treated with the opposite response.

The results of the war, a devastating defeat for Nehru’s India, is hailed as a national humiliation by many Indians. There are elements within Indian politics, the media and general population that desire revenge for the alleged wrong.

Much of the west no doubt also blames China for the war. It is interesting that that opinion contrasts so sharply with reality. The narrative often portrays China as the aggressor: a nation of communist hegemonists bullying a less powerful country like India. The west’s view of India is often clouded by a (often self-serving) conception that India is a nation with a “peaceful culture.” It is also a “democracy” and as we are all taught to believe, democracies do not wage aggressive wars (e.g. the USA and Israel). Thus the war must be wholly totalitarian China’s fault.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I think the Sino-Indian war of 62 is one of the most glaring, most clear-cut examples of a war waged in the last 50 years that was waged on behalf of territorial aggression and irredentist military doctrines.

I will give a general overview of some of the research I have found on the war from some western scholars and I will end with a criticism of one such scholar (American) I believe to be biased against China in his analysis of the war. This shows that even people I believe to be generally sincere and competent can sometimes be blinded by the propaganda despite their own best (explicit) intentions bracing against such potential biases.

It is often claimed in the general media in both the west and in India that the war of 62 was started after China “invaded” or “attacked” India. There are many examples of this and it is rare to unheard of to see a mass media article about the war or anything in mentioning it in passing that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly imply that the war was China’s fault.

The facts suggest otherwise.

The war was started after India invaded both disputed and then undisputed Chinese territories. The areas that are under dispute are rather large, roughly 47,000 square miles. But because there are little natural resources in these regions and only one region, namely, Aksai Chin, has some limited strategic value for the Chinese, China was willing to negotiate with India a border settlement. China’s relationship with its neighbor was too valuable to let a border issue devolve into acrimonious or worse situations despite the fact that India’s claim on both regions seem to be based wholly on forged British imperialist evidence (maps, etc).

When India was part of the British Empire, Henry McMahon was the lead British-Indian negotiator for the border settlement issue. Realizing that China’s border claim with India rested on solid evidence from historical records and ancient maps, McMahon decided to fabricate “evidence” purporting to show that some regions claimed by the Chinese were Indian. The British clearly had intent to push the border as far north into Chinese territory as possible so as to use Tibet as a “buffer state,” as well as continue to carry out trade practices beneficial to Her Majesty’s empire.

Luckily, the Chinese delegates did not sign any treaties with the British on border issues (though for reasons other than the Chinese catching on to McMahon’s ruse). The British removed McMahon for his “chicanery” (in the words of his British handlers) in the fabricating of the bogus evidence. Corroborating witness written records of other British officials such as those from Charles Bell at the negotiations support the illegality of McMahon’s actions (also see here, Chap. 3, for a collection of citations of legal commentary on its illegality).

However, when India gained independence, it continued to maintain the McMahon claim to a border many miles north of the Chinese claimed border. This is the so called McMahon line. There were other areas to the west where the Indians inherited British claimed borders not recognized by China such as the Johnson line (whereas China claimed a “McCartney-MacDonald line” many miles to the south).

China was willing to negotiate a border settlement with India because it valued the relationship between the two giant developing neighbors and saw a partnership that would lead the developing world against the imperialistic western nations. India’s view at first reciprocated that sentiment. Relations soon turned sour when India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to negotiate with Zhou Enlai and Mao to settle a border that both can live with. India continued to unilaterally claim all of the disputed areas.

There was a brief border clash in 1959 between the two nations but relations stabilized (but still remained in some tension) till 1961 when Nehru implemented his “Forward Policy.” This policy was militaristic, belligerent and wholly illegal under international law.

In 1961, the task of implementing Indian claims was taken over by the army as a strategic “foward policy” which by steadily infiltrating and progressively dominating territory claimed by China, would ultimately make it untenable for the Chinese and induce their withdrawal—a hare-brained scheme born of Gandhian “non-violence” mated with amateurish militarism. (Maxwell)

Nehru was likely influenced by the many hawkish members of his government, the Indian media and Indian society at large to “get tough” on China.

The Forward Policy sought to aggressively send troops into disputed territories and occupy them. For the most part before this policy, India and China had maintained actual lines of control some distance away from each other and tacitly agreed to remain as peaceful as possible by ordering border troops to keep some distance from opposing troops when on patrol and to not engage in any hostile provocations. There were some likely accidental incursions into overlapping areas by border troops from both sides but for the most part, serious hostilities were skillfully avoided.

But beginning with the Forward Policy was a blatant attempt at provocation through the increased settlement of military posts in disputed territory. China was alarmed but did not retaliate with military engagement. It did however, eventually manage to establish some military posts of its own in response to the advancing Indian posts. It also issued numerous warnings and demands to India about its encroachment into territories China claimed (Maxwell). Despite some occurrences of brief firefights which quickly subsided without serious injury to either side, neither side initiated all out combat. These incidents occurred without serious injury probably because the Chinese troops often quickly left the scene after being fired on by Indian troops (Garver, Calvin). This was because they were ordered not to fire back and to evade as soon as they were under attack by Mao himself.

The retreating of Chinese soldiers seemed only to encouraged Nehru and his military advisers to further encroach into disputed territories thinking that the Chinese were cowardly or too battle weary (from fighting in the Korean war) to fight. Mao and Zhou thought that a retreat by Chinese troops as soon as they were fired on together with continued exhortation to negotiate would bring Nehru to the negotiating table and show that China was a sincere, peace-loving and willing ally but Nehru took this as a signal to advance further being emboldened rather than pacified (give them an inch they’ll take a mile!). The false confidence that China is not willing to fight back gave Nehru further incentive to push even further beyond what even the British and previous Indian policy claimed to be its territory.

It was only when Indian troops set up numerous military outposts and attacked Chinese troops after knowingly advancing past undisputed territory many miles north of the McMahon line that China finally decided to defend itself through military force (see Maxwell, Garver, Calvin, Whiting, Clark and Abatol).

This part is not even controversial. Even Indian records show that India was well past the McMahon line when China engaged militarily.

Many Indians must have questioned India’s actions…, north of the McMahon line (and Nehru’s orders to push the Chinese back even further); pushing military force past India’s claimed boundary clearly made India the aggressor in this and some subsequent clashes. Much of the more serious fighting…was not in areas which both China and India claimed, but in areas…where China had a legitimate claim or where India had pushed beyond the McMahon line….

There may well have been room for compromise over these issues, but [stubbornness] and India’s aggressive forward policy resulted in armed conflict. (Calvin)

Many Indian military officials at the time voiced explicit reservations about advancing into what they admitted to be Chinese territory. There were some brief skirmishes in the beginning and a couple of large military assaults later on Indian outposts that usually resulted in brutal defeats for the Indian side.

In a couple months, Chinese troops advanced to the Chinese claimed border. It was then that Mao and Zhou declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of PLA troops back behind the McMahon line (in fact, some 20 kilometers behind the line). This was a gesture to Nehru to repose and come to the negotiating table. It was an offering of an olive branch. Nehru’s response was characteristically obstinate and insolent (refusing to negotiate and also still demanding China give up all disputed territory). But the war was at least now over.

India refused to negotiate a settlement for many years after 1962. To this day, the border issue is still left open and no sign that India will sincerely come to the table and seek a reasonable settlement that is bilateral and fair to all sides appears to be forthcoming. India continues to this day claim all disputed territories. Of course, China also claims all territories but it has been willing to settle, for example, it has offered numerous times to let India have all of the eastern sector (which India calls “Aranachal Pradesh,” the British call “North East Frontier Agency” and the Chinese and Tibetans call “South Tibet”) which is far more than half of all disputed territory (Calvin) in return for recognition of Chinese claims on Aksai Chin which China already had de facto control. China has settled all its border disputes today except with India and Bhutan (all through diplomatic negotiations); an astonishing feat considering that China has 14 borders with neighboring countries, more than any country in the world (Maxwell).

Within international law, there are only two recognized legitimate reasons for going to war. One is defending against unjust invasion and attack (the other is humanitarian intervention in response to gross human rights violations such as genocide). India was clearly guilty of unilateral militarily invasion not only in disputed Chinese territory but invading undisputed territory north of the McMahon line in blatant acts of territorial aggression. Wars waged on behalf of territorial expansionism are universally agreed by just-war theorists and legal experts to be 100% immoral and illegal according to international law. That was what happened in 1962.

The tragedy since then is that most Indians then and today as well as people in much of the west see this war as territorial aggression by China. This is largely due to effective propaganda work. The US, many European countries and the USSR were quick to blame China at the start of the conflict though the USSR suddenly had an volte-face on the issue and fully gave support to China’s side (Garver).

The narrative that China invaded India is pervasive not only among the general public but some of those in academia seem to have drank the cool-aid of China-as-aggressor theory. Even when reliable facts are generally presented by some western academics, subtle biases are sometimes sneaked in in the form of non sequiturs, fallacies, misleading or emotional wording, etc. Now most experts who have written on the topic from the west that I have read seem fair or mostly fair and provide ample historical evidence such as Neville Maxwell, Allen Whiting, Gregory Clark, Alastair Lamb and James Calvin. These scholars put the overall blame squarely on India as I believe the evidence clearly indicates it should.

I will take issue however with a scholar I believe who does not give a fair treatment of the war. John W. Garver is a China expert and a political scientist. He has written extensively on the Sino-Indian border issue and I will critique one long paper he has written on the subject now.

Garver explicitly puts the blame in this paper on both China and India for the war (see p. 2). However, his conclusion (after some confusing, irrelevant discussions employing psychobabble) that China deserves half the blame does not follow from the very evidence he presents. In fact, his evidence seems to corroborate the Maxwell-Whiting-Clark thesis that the war was wholly India’s fault. One wonders if Garver is simply paying lip-service to“fairness” in putting the blame on both sides. In other words, perhaps he has sold-out genuine fairness to purchase a mere semblance of being fair.

Garver’s thesis is that China deserves half blame (moral “onus”) for the war because its political leaders at the time was inaccurate in one among two beliefs. The first belief is that India had intentions to turn Tibet into its own “protectorate” or “colony” or turn the Sino-Tibet relationship to a “pre-1949 status-quo ante.” This is the belief Garver then argues is false. The second belief is that India is engaging in territorially aggressive military behavior. This belief was ‘substantially’ accurate according to Garver and thus China is partially justified in going to war with India based on the later belief. But because the first belief was inaccurate and that was one of the motivations of going to war with India (if not the primary motive he argues) China also deserves blame for the war.

This line of reasoning is wholly fallacious. The fact (if it is even a fact) that China was wrong about India’s intentions towards Tibet is irrelevant to assign blame for the war. Basic principles of just-war theory bears this out.

First, though, as a side note, Garver focuses on accuracy of beliefs but that is odd as responsibility for war is not usually determined by an analysis of accuracy of belief but justification of belief. Just-war theorists often make analogies between individual self-defense and just war because such reasoning forms the philosophical foundations for just war principles. It is not accuracy that is the issue but whether beliefs are justified. The question ought to be Was China’s belief that India had intentions toward Tibet justified at the time? Not whether they are, post facto, accurate. Hindsight is 20/20 but the fog of war tends to blind.

Take as an example: A police officer comes on a violent crime scene and is made aware that the Suspect is armed and dangerous. He sees a man fitting the description and orders him to halt. The Suspect reaches for what appears to be a gun and aims at the officer. The officer is clearly justified in shooting the Suspect in self-defense. Even if the Suspect turns out not to have a gun but a toy, say, it is justifiable self-defense to shoot. Just-war principles are no different. Was China justified in believing India had intentions on Tibet? I think you can certainly make a good case of it. Moreover, Garver’s own evidence seem to suggest it.

India was at the time knowingly allowing the CIA to fly Khampa rebels to fight the PLA in parts of Sichuan province from Indian military bases. Garver cites several top CIA sources confirming that India not only knew but supported these actions. Moreover, China quickly learned of India’s complicity through well-conducted intelligence gathering (Garver and Calvin). Furthermore, India had several years prior irked China by hosting the Dalai Lama’s “government in exile” and had at one point, even supplied arms to the Tibetan government in 1949 and 1950 (Garver). Garver admits that India had felt Tibet to be “essential for mastery over South Asia” (quoted in Abatol). These and many other provocations using Tibet as a point-of-contention gave the Chinese ample evidence that India did have intentions towards control of Tibet much as their immediate predecessors the imperialist British.

Garver dismisses such evidence suggesting India’s possible Tibet intentions by telling us that India could not have had them for India was the first country to recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and repeatedly defended those claims publicly and at the UN.

The “official position,” not withstanding, governments often say one thing and do another with secret, ulterior motives. There may be good reasons for this. The US is a great example. The US immediately recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet as well soon after India but clearly, their action belied their words as the CIA waged a secret war attempting to destabilized Chinese control of Tibetan parts of Sichuan.

The US’s hidden motivations was opposite to their official position for good reason. Governments, especially militarily aggressive ones, often benefit from waging (or aiding and abetting in India’s case) furtive military operations opposed to their official policies for they can then cast doubt or shrug-off responsibility for them in the eyes of the international community by hiding behind an “official stance.” One can also find many contemporary examples such as the US’s official position on the Israel-Palestine issue. “On paper” the US is pro Two-State-Solution and supports the right of Palestinians to self-determination in accord with international law and world opinion but in practice the US behaves like Israel’s cheerleader.

Most damaging and relevant against Garver’s thesis, the issue of accuracy or even justification regarding India’s alleged intentions towards Tibet are wholly irrelevant to assigning blame for the war. Even if China was inaccurate (and unjustified) in its belief that India had intentions on Tibet, the Chinese were still justified in fighting the war because the second belief attributed to them by Garver, namely, that India was behaving aggressively towards its territory provides wholly sufficient grounds for justifying the Chinese actions, morally and legally. China’s justified belief in that claim is wholly sufficient for their defensive war against Indian aggression.

Again, another example will bring this point into focus. Imagine that Canada invades, occupies and attacks American soldiers stationed in North Dakota. Canada explicitly makes claims on N. Dakota as its own in unilateral declarations. Now the US government is privy to some evidence which it believes shows that the reason the Canadians have invaded and occupied N. Dakota is because it has intentions on the whole of the US Midwest and that it wants to use N. Dakota as a launching off point for that larger annexation. Imagine further that, as it turns out, this belief is false. Canada only wanted to annex N. Dakota. The US then attack the Canadian invaders and drive them back behind the US-Canada border.

It would be fatuous or confused to say that the US deserves half of the blame for this war because their belief that Canada had intentions on all of the Midwest was wrong. That belief is simply irrelevant. What justifies the war for the US side was Canada’s actions in invading and occupying US territory in gross violation of international law, the right to territorial integrity enjoyed by every modern country, and the rights of US citizens under attack and occupation. The US is 100% just in defending itself and Canada is 100% wrong for invading in this hypothetical analogy. The US’s false beliefs about Canada’s intentions on the Midwest simply drops out of the moral and legal equation. It is a red-herring which has no bearing on responsibility. One wonders why Garver even brought it up as a question of responsibility. It seems that it would have been far more relevant in assessing responsibility, say, to critically evaluate India’s belief that the disputed territories were theirs. Such a belief was what initiated the unilateral move to invade first disputed territory then undisputed Chinese territories. Garver elides on this evaluation in his paper.


I have argued that the war between India and China in 1962 was wholly due to India’s aggressive military posturing and illegal invasion of disputed and undisputed Chinese territories. That much is well supported by the facts. I have also argued that John W. Garver’s thesis that China deserves half the blame is based on fallacious rationalizations. China’s false (if it is even false) belief about India’s intentions on Tibet are totally irrelevant for assessing blame for the war. What is relevant is India’s actions which Garver agrees with previously mentioned scholars suggests that India’s military aggression was the casus belli.

Finally, why should we look back at this war? What has it to do with the modern world? It would be nice if we could bury this tragic debacle in history’s dustbin, put on historical blinders and chant “Chini-Hindi-Bhai-Bhai,” but its legacy has continually affected the present Sino-Indian relationship and gives pause for deep concern. The reason is that both India and the west has continually blamed China and because that propaganda has inculcated millions of Indians into thinking they were the wronged party, that India was humiliated and its national pride trampled by an aggressive Chinese state.

Moreover, the war is used as evidence for a China-threat theory which portrays China as desiring the destruction of India and is bent on world domination. This China-threat theory seriously harms relations and endangers security in not only Asia but the whole world. Two large nuclear powers are still in a state of stalemate over their border with one side perpetually obstinate in coming to a reasonable compromise. India’s claims to that disputed territory still rests wholly on “concocted” British evidence (Maxwell). Flareups of bellicose rhetoric from India’s politicians and media are now common and increasing in frequency. The west fans those flames (as well as India’s spoiled, bastard stepchild the TGIE) and encourages India every time there is rhetorical saber-rattling between the countries. Resentment, hostility, distrust is created this way and can easily spiral out of control.

This may induce the population to put pressure on Indian politicians to “get tough” on China much as public pressure did so 50 years ago and the effects may be similar or even far worse. It was that pressure that brought India to play reckless and arrogant games of brinkmanship resulting in a costly war. Though much of the Indian population today are unaware or unconcerned about the details, we see the same vicious cycle begin to increase in intensity in recent years. A demand for a “repayment” in blood has surprising currency among militant Hindu nationalists who tend to number in the many millions.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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