The Chinese Ultimatum
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Issue Book Excerpt: China\'s Shadow Over Sikkim | Date : 30 Nov , 2021

The Chinese occupation of Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, posed a new threat to India. The Himalayas were no longer impregnable, and one could easily foresee the future aggressive designs of China by the rapidity with which the construction of air bases, and roads, and the setting up of new garrisons all over the Tibetan plateau were being implemented.

Pakistan had already thrown in its lot with the USA and had accepted very large military aid on the explicit understanding that it would be utilized in resisting Communism. In fact it had begged for the arms aid on the plea that it was “very gravely apprehensive of Communist domination, infiltration and aggression,” and, given the assistance, it would “have no difficulty in cooperating with the USA in helping keep the world safe from Communist aggression.”1 It had also joined SEATO and CENTO, which had been formed to contain the spread of Communism and had allowed America to build missile and naval bases under their cover. So pronounced were Pakistan’s anti-Communist leanings that it had come to be described as a “dependable bulwark against Communism,” and “a very fine loyal anti Communist ally.”2

This military alliance against Communist countries had certainly irked Russia as well as China, and as soon as Communist forces occupied Tibet, Pakistan was quick to realise its consequences. The Chinese dragon frightened President Ayub Khan so much that he was almost certain that its aggression beyond the Himalayas could be prevented only if India and Pakistan faced it together. On April 24, 1959, he made an appeal that India and Pakistan should join hands to defend the subcontinent in case of an external aggression.3 Six months later, this proposal for joint defence was further elaborated by Ayub Khan by explaining that Chinese occupation of Tibet, and Russian influence in Afghanistan would make the area “militarily vulnerable” from both flanks and that “a major invasion” could take place in about five years. “The situation demands,” he reiterated, “that both countries must take note of the facts.”4

China was not happy at these overtures for joint defence. It worked out a strategy for disrupting this alliance and isolating the military potentials of India and Pakistan so as to protect itself from a possible threat from that region. The Chinese Ambassador in Delhi, therefore, approached the Indian Foreign Secretary on May 16, 1959, with a dramatic appeal which implied a suggestion that, like China, whose main struggle was directed against the United States, India should muster all its might against Pakistan and solve its boundary dispute with China. “The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the East,” he said, “the US imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Philippines which are all directed against China. China will not be so foolish as to antagonize the United States in the East and again to antagonize India in the West. We cannot have two centres of attention, nor can we take friend for foe… It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting point of our two sides.”5 India did not respond to this proposal for alliance.

Having failed in this plan, China began to cultivate Pakistan’s friendship step by step. Its stand on the Kashmir issue took a dramatic turn. China had so far given the impression that it had accepted India’s basic position on Kashmir, and that the dispute, which was entirely between India and Pakistan, should be settled by them peacefully. At a Press Conference held at Calcutta on December 9, 1956, Chou En-lai had declared that the Kashmir question was “an outstanding issue between India and Pakistan.”6 It was reiterated by him at another Press Conference held in Karachi on December 24, 1956, where he had expressed the hope that “Pakistan and India will settle the question directly between them.” Again, the joint statement issued by Premier Chou En-lai and the Prime Minister of Poland in Peking on April 11, 1957, stated that the Kashmir question “should be settled by the countries concerned through peaceful negotiations and should not be allowed to be made use of external forces to create new tension.”7

To the great surprise of India, a communiqué issued by China announced on May 3, 1962, that it had entered into an agreement with Pakistan “to locate and align their common borders.”8 It implied the division of Jammu and Kashmir along the ceasefire line and the demarcation in that portion of the State which was under Pakistan’s occupation. India reminded China of its previous assurances and protested that Pakistan had no locus standi to enter into any negotiations or conclude any agreement regarding that sector. The Chinese Government, however, in reply, gave the assurance that the Agreement was only provisional and would be reopened after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. It also claimed that the Agreement was solely to ensure tranquility on the border and had been signed by Pakistan because the defence of that area was under the actual control of Pakistan.

These assertions were also gradually belied. A joint China-Pakistan boundary Commission was appointed in 1964 in order to demarcate the boundary. On March 7, 1965, a joint communique was issued by the two Governments announcing that the boundary demarcation had been completed and a formal protocol would shortly be signed by the Foreign Ministers of China and Pakistan. India made yet another protest, but the Chinese Government brushed it aside by declaring that it would pay no more attention to the subject. The protocol was finally signed on March 26, 1965. In this Agreement, China dictated her own terms and Pakistan willingly accepted them. In the bargain, Pakistan had to surrender to China about 2,050 square miles of territory, but that, in any case, did not belong to her. In return Pakistan gained legalisation of the fruits of aggression. The Agreement suited both.

Pakistan was no longer worried about the Chinese threat, which only a few months ago Ayub Khan had thought to be formidable. “As a student of war and strategy,” he had warned India, “I can see quite clearly the inexorable push of the North to the direction of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.”9 That possibility of “common danger” was now ridiculed by Pakistan, and President Ayub Khan did not hesitate to reverse his thesis by declaring before the Pakistan National Assembly that “China has no designs on the Indo-Gangetic Plains.”10 During the Chinese aggression of India in October, 1962, though Pakistan refrained from opening a second front for India, presumably under strong pressure from America and Great Britain, it was unequivocal in supporting China. Pakistani leaders and the Press vehemently criticized India as the aggressor and tried to play down the Chinese offensive as “a mock fight” and a “minor border trouble.” Bhutto went to the extent of declaring that China was “a great friend” with whom Pakistan had “unconditional friendship which will not be bartered or bargained for anything.”11 This support was later acknowledged by Marshal Chen Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, who told Pakistan Pressmen at Peking on March 7, 1965, that China could not forget the support it had received from Pakistan during the Sino-Indian dispute and added, “rest assured, we would not disappoint you.”

The understanding between China and Pakistan became more and more sinister during the next two years. The alliance was purely opportunistic. There was little in common between them to justify their ganging up against India. In a significant statement made on July 17, 1963, Bhutto, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, said in the Pakistan National Assembly: “Attack from India on Pakistan today is no longer confined to the security and territorial integrity of Pakistan. An attack by India on Pakistan involves the territorial integrity and security of the largest State in Asia… the national interest of another State itself is involved in an attack on Pakistan.”12 This was, virtually, confirmed by China. During his visit to Pakistan in December, 1963, Nan Han Chen, Chairman of the China Council for International Trade, stated that “if ever there was a war between India and Pakistan, China will surely support Pakistan and not India.” Again, during their visit to Pakistan in February 1964, Premier Chou En-lai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi assured Pakistan of “continuous development of friendly relations and talked of a common fighting task,”13 which faced both countries. The next year, when Ayub Khan visited Peking in March 1965, he was again reassured by President Liu Shao-Chi that China’s friendship with Pakistan was a long term policy and not a matter of expediency.

When Pakistan attacked India on September 1, 1965, Marshal Chen Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, immediately rushed to Karachi and after conferring with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, declared at a Press Conference on September 4, 1965, that China condemned the national oppression of Kashmiri people by India and fully supported the “just struggle” of the Kashmiri people in demanding self determination and trying to “resist India’s tyrannical rule.” The very next day, the Chinese Government issued an official statement accusing India of enlarging the “local conflict” into a “general conflict” between the two countries. This, it alleged was a crude violation of all international principles and “an act of naked aggression,” which constituted “a grave threat to peace in that part of Asia.” The statement reiterated that the United Nations was biased against Pakistan and blamed US imperialists and modern revisionists for helping the Indian Government to bully its neighbours. The Chinese statement also incited the Kashmiri people “to rise up in resistance against brutal national oppression by India” and suggested to Pakistan to counter-attack in self defence.

The Chinese Government linked in the same statement its own grievances against India as if they formed a part of the same issue. The statement complained that the Indian ruling circles, (whom it called chauvinists, expansionists and the greatest hypocrites in contemporary international life), were making intrusions and provocations along the Indo-Chinese border as well, and were “still entrenched on the Chinese territory on the China-Sikkim border.” It added that since India had not paid heed to its earlier warnings, China was now going to “strengthen its defences and heighten its alertness along the border.” The Statement declared in no uncertain terms that “India’s aggression against one of its neighbours (i.e. Pakistan) concerned all of its neighbours, and warned the Government of India that a chain of consequences would follow due to the “criminal and extended-aggression by the Government of India.”14

The next three days saw the most bitter fighting between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bhutto realized the gravity, of the situation. It was clear to him that Sikkim was the most vital and vulnerable· area. The corridor between Sikkim and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was the only land link which connected Assam and other states in the north-east with the rest of India and even a temporary and limited occupation of that region by China would fulfill Pakistan’s tactical objectives. In a Top Secret memo to President Ayub Khan, he suggested that their strategy “would need to be closely coordinated with Chinese action, both in NEFA and possibly in the region of Nepal and Sikkim. It would be necessary… to provide link up with our forces in that sector…! envisage a lighting thrust across the narrow strip of Indian territory that separates East Pakistan from Nepal… It would solve the problem of Sikkim and Tibet and for us a stranglehold over Assam, whose disposition we could then determine.”15

Pakistan apparently contacted the Chinese Government with such a suggestion. Thus, on September 8, 1965 China hurriedly handed over yet another protest note to the Indian Embassy in Peking. In this note, the Chinese repeated their old charge that Indians had illegally built aggressive military structures “beyond or on point of China-Sikkim boundary,” and added some incidents of alleged border intrusions by the Indian troops in the Ladakh Sector during August, 1965, and still older allegations concerning the Sikkim-Tibet border sector. The note said that the Indian troops had crossed the Sikkim-China boundary on four successive occasions for “unbridled harassment activities” and declared that these provocations could not be regarded as “isolated cases… and accidental occurrences, at a time when the Indian Government was… unleashing and expanding its armed aggression against Pakistan.”16 It served one more solemn warning that India would be responsible for all the consequences arising there from.

Only two weeks prior to this, on August 27, 1965, the Chinese Government had lodged a protest with India on the same subject, and the allegations had been replied to by the Indian Government on September 2, 1965. India explained to China once again that its troops had neither crossed the Sikkim Tibet boundary nor built any structures across the Sikkim-Tibet border. It even offered that “since the Chinese Government had been making their allegations and demands over and over again, the Government of India was willing to allow an independent and neutral observer to go to the border in this sector in order to see for himself the actual state of affairs.”17

The Indian offer did not suit China. China had rushed its protest notes not because it was trying to seek redressal of any grievances, real or imaginary but because it was trying to help Pakistan by tying down Indian troops in the northern sector and preventing the reinforcements from going against Pakistan. It had also hoped that its support would deter President Ayub Khan from turning to the United States for help. But, this too failed and on September 13, 1965, the Pakistan Ambassador in. Washington requested the United States for an early action to bring about a cease-fire. On September 15, President Ayub Khan appealed to President Johnson for intervention by pleading that “the United States had a role to play… and that they ought to play it more positively.” He added, “the US has enormous amount of influence in India and in Pakistan also… and the US should have come out more openly and taken a direct hand in the matter.

For China nothing could be more disquieting, nothing more disappointing. It hurriedly collected some previous unproven border incidents, pinned them together and served a three day ultimatum on India. This ultimatum was contained in the note given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peking to the Embassy of India in China on September 16, 1965. It made the following allegations and demands:–

    • “Since September 1962—not to mention earlier times—Indian troops have crossed the China-Sikkim boundary, which was delimited long ago, and have built a large number of military works for aggression either on the Chinese side of the China-Sikkim boundary or on the boundary itself. There are now fifty-six such military works, large and small, which they have built in the past few years all over the important passes along the China-Sikkim boundary, thus wantonly encroaching upon China’s territory and violating her sovereignty… Far from stopping its acts of aggression, the Indian Government has intensified them by ordering its troops to intrude into Chinese territory for reconnaissance and provocations.”
    • “The Indian Government (should) dismantle all its military works for aggression on the Chinese side of the China-Sikkim boundary or on the boundary itself within three days of the delivery of the present note and immediately stop all its intrusions along the Sino-Indian boundary and the China-Sikkim boundary.”
    • “The Indian Government must also hand back the four Chinese border inhabitants who have been kidnapped and eight hundred sheep and fifty nine yaks that have been seized by the Indian troops on the China-Sikkim border… It should also pledge to refrain from any more harassing raids across the boundary.”18

The so-called military structures were the same about which China had already protested in 1963, and India had investigated the issue and explained the position. It was this demand which seized Chinese attention at the time of the Indo-Pak war in 1965 and India was asked to comply with it by threat of violence. Only four days earlier India had even offered that an independent and neutral observer might visit the Sikkim-Tibet border for an impartial on the spot study.

The cases of four border inhabitants and sheep and yaks were still more trivial. After the expiration of the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and China on June 6, 1962, the entire Indo-Tibet border was sealed for trade and all kinds of trans-border traffic. However, on August 4, 1963, two Tibetans had entered Sikkim via Bamcho La (North Sikkim) with about 800 sheep. These Tibetans, who had crossed the international border illegally, and were grazing in Sikkimese pastures in an unauthorised manner, were apprehended on the charge of violating the local laws. They were subsequently convicted and sentenced to undergo imprisonment.

China had already protested about the above incident and accused Indian soldiers of having crossed the Sino-Sikkim boundary at Tagi La (Bamcho La) and forcibly kidnapping these two Tibetans shepherds and their more than 800 sheep from Chiehma pastures.19 The Indian Government had explained the above facts to the Chinese Government, and also assured them that they had been arrested and convicted for a specific offence and would be allowed to return to Tibet after they had served their sentences. However, when these Tibetans were contacted on the expiry of their sentences, they refused to go back to Tibet and requested that they should be allowed to remain in India along with so many other Tibetans who had come to seek asylum in India. Their request was accepted on humanitarian grounds and they were permitted to settle in India. The issue was closed.

The other two persons claimed by China were two Tibetan women of Khamba Dzong County. These two women had escaped from their homes and had entered Sikkim via Kongra La (North Sikkim) on May 29, 1965. These women had come upto the border on the pretext of collecting dye stuff used by the Tibetans for dyeing their woolen clothes and had crossed over Sikkim seizing a suitable opportunity. While surrendering to the Indian authorities, they fervently pleaded for grant of refuge in Sikkim and declared that they had to run away “because of the intolerable economic conditions prevailing in Tibet, and of the repressive measures adopted by the Chinese against the Tibetan people.”20 They too were granted asylum.

The demand for the return of 59 yaks was also an old one. China had complained on January 3, 1965 that “on November 27, 1964, a group of Indian troops had crossed Latuo La (about 16 Kilometres southeast of Choting Gompa of Khamba County) on the China-Sikkim boundary, intruded into Chinese territory for reconnaissance and harassment and seized 59 yaks which belonged to Chinese herdsmen. The Government of India had already refuted the allegation and the matter had ended there.

The allegations had already been answered by India in the past. When the pettiness of starting a war over some sheep and yaks and the so called military structures on or across the boundary, which did not exist at all, was highlighted, it irked the Chinese further. They retorted: “The issue between China and India is absolutely not limited to a matter of some sheep and yaks… No. All Indian intrusions, harassments and armed provocations against China are major questions involving China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and these accounts will have to be settled.”21

This created a stir in the official circles of the Government of India. It was feared that the Chinese were going to open a second front in order to assist Pakistan. India was hardly in a position to take on both, Pakistan and China at the same time. A more conciliatory attitude towards China seemed imperative. Only two years previously, India had flatly refused all suggestions for a joint investigation. A week before, it had agreed only to allow an independent and neutral observer to visit the area. Events had now taken a different turn. Options seemed very limited. China’s original demand for joint investigation was now agreed to, in the hope that it would avert the Chinese threat. India also declared that “if any structures were found on the Tibetan side of the border there can be no objection to their being demolished.”22 As regards the Tibetan graziers who had been convicted on the charge of violating the international border, China was assured that they were now free to go back to Tibet. Preparations began to contact them and to send them back.

The Chinese ultimatum had intentionally been timed so as to prolong the war which the rest of the world wanted to end. In its resolution of September 4, 1965, the UN Security Council had already called upon the Governments of India and Pakistan “to take forthwith all steps for an immediate cease-fire” and “to respect the cease-fire line and have all armed personnel of each party withdrawn to its own side of the line.” The resolution of September 6, 1965 had specified further that both the Governments should “promptly withdraw all armed personnel back to the positions held by them before August 5, 1965.” The Council had also sent the Secretary General to visit India and Pakistan, and “to exert every possible effort” to implement its resolutions of September 4 and 6, 1965. U. Thant had already visited Rawalpindi on September 9 and 10, and Delhi on September 11 and 12 and had held a series of talks with President Ayub Khan and the Prime Minister of India. The Security Council was to meet on September 17, 1965 to study the report of the Secretary General. This was the time to boost up the morale of Pakistan by demonstrating that China was still supreme on the Himalayan border. China waited anxiously, but the outcome of the Security Council’s deliberations did not seem to come before the expiry of its time limit given to India. Ayub’s response also seemed to be uncertain. China was now in a fix. It had no alternative but to extend the ultimatum.

The Government of China, therefore, rushed another note on September 19, 1965, declaring its willingness “to put off the time limit set in its note of September 16 to before midnight of September 22.” In this note India’s offer to demolish such structures which were found on the Tibetan side of the border, after joint investigations, was quoted as India’s confession that there were military works on and across the boundary line. The demand that the Indian Government should “dismantle these military works for aggression”… and “must hand back the four Chinese border inhabitants who have been kidnapped and the eight hundred sheep and fifty nine yaks that have been seized by Indian troops in the China-Sikkim border” was reiterated. “There is now no longer any need for investigation,” the note rudely declared. It went on to say, “The Indian Government’s expansionism has linked China with all the other neighbouring countries which India had been bullying. The Chinese Government gives all out support to the people of Kashmir in their struggle for the right of national self-determination… and to Pakistan in her just struggle against Indian aggression.” Kashmir was suddenly raised to the status of a sovereign nation and its people were supported in their struggle for “national self-determination.”23

Even before the expiry of the period of ultimatum, the Chinese forces moved up closer to the Indian border and started violent and provocative activities. On September 19, about 50 armed Chinese soldiers intruded into Tsaskur lake area of South Ladakh and opened fire at a small police party which was doing routine patrolling in the area well within Indian territory. The intruding Chinese troops ransacked the Indian civil checkpost at Tsaskur and abducted three Indian policemen who were later killed by them.24 The same day, they intruded upto a depth of two miles inside Indian territory, West of even the “line of actual control” in the area between Daulat Beg Oldi and Murgo. They also moved closer to the Indian posts at Hot Spring and Demchok (both in Ladakh) and “assumed a threatening posture at the Indian civilian posts.”25 Activities were also revived in the UP-Tibet border sector which had been comparatively quiet till then. On September 19, 1965, a party of 16 Chinese soldiers appeared in the Barahoti area on the Indian side of the International boundary,26 and after two days, on September 21, 1965, sixty. Chinese soldiers intruded into Indian territory through the Lipu Lekh Pass.27

Pressure was also maintained on the Sikkim-Tibet border sector. On September 20, 1965, the Chinese troops moved forward in strength over the Dongchui La pass, opened fire, and forced one of the Indian observation posts to withdraw from there. The next day they fired across Nathu La towards the Indian positions and forced the Indian post to withdraw about three hundred yards to the rear. It was discovered later that the Chinese troops who had advanced further were entrenched not only in the area from where the Indian post had withdrawn but also further inside Sikkimese territory.

The Security Council had by now passed resolutions demanding the Government of India and Pakistan to cease-fire from 7 A.M. GMT (1230 Indian Standard Time) on September 22, 1965 and to withdraw all armed personnel back to the positions held by them before August 5, 1965. The cease-fire proposal was accepted by both India and Pakistan, leaving China in a serious dilemma. China had hoped to prolong the conflict. It hurriedly announced: “India has withdrawn the intruding Indian troops within the specified time limit set by the Chinese Government and demolished some of her aggressive works.”28

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The bullying tone, however, continued. “The Indian Government must not think that the whole matter would end with the evacuation of the Indian troops from the Chinese side of the Sino-Sikkim border,” the Peking Radio broadcast said simultaneously on September 23. It added, “The matter is far from being closed. You are yet to return Chinese border inhabitants abducted and the cattle seized… This is a question still to be settled.” The same theme was repeated by Chen Yi in his interview given to the Chinese and foreign correspondents on September 29, 1965. He claimed that the Government of India, realizing the mistake it had made in intruding into the Chinese territory across the Sikkim-Tibet border, had withdrawn its troops and military structures within the time limit of the ultimatum, and announced that if India had failed to do so, the Chinese Government would have been entitled to act in self-defence to drive out the intruders and destroy the aggressive military works. In fact, there were no structures to be destroyed. There were no Indian troops to be withdrawn. As the Indian reply pointed out, “both, the construction and demolition of military structures by Indian troops, was a Chinese myth, a myth which exploded in the face of its own authors.”29

Notes and References

  1. Dawn, Karachi, July 18, 1957. Statement made by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in Los Angeles on July 16, 1957.
  2. Quoted by Sharma, B.L., The Pakistan-China Axis, (Bombay, 1968), p. 84.
  3. Pakistan Times, Lahore, April 25, 1959.
  4. Pakistan Times, Lahore, October 24, 1959.
  5. “Notes, Memoranda and Letters etc.,” 1954-1959.
  6. White Paper No. VI, p. 100.
  7. Ibid, p. 104.
  8. Ibid, p. 96.
  9. “Foreign Affairs Quarterly,” June, 1960.
  10. Dawn, Karachi, November 22, 1962.
  11. Dawn, Karachi, November 27, 1962.
  12. Dawn, Karachi, July 20, 1963.
  13. Dawn, Karachi, February 25, 1964.
  14. White Paper No. XII, pp. 134-135.
  15. Quoted by Wolpert, Stanley, Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan, His Life and Times, p. 93.
  16. White Paper No. XII pp. 128-129
  17. Ibid, pp. 40-41.
  18. White Paper No. XII, pp. 43-44.
  19. White Paper No. X, pp. 32-33.
  20. White Paper No. XII, pp. 25-26.
  21. Ibid, pp. 128-129.
  22. Ibid, pp. 44-45.
  23. Ibid, pp. 46-47.
  24. Ibid, pp. 55-56.
  25. Ibid, pp. 53-54.
  26. Ibid, p. 54.
  27. Ibid, p. 55.
  28. Ibid, pp. 56-58.
  29. Ibid, pp. 62-65
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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GS Bajpai

is a Distinguished Civil Servant.

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