There is an angle of the 1962 Sino-Indian that conflict has been insufficiently studied. What were Beijing’s motivations to go to war? Who decided to inflict the worst possible humiliation on India?
Historical sources are still sparse, but going through some available documents, one can get a fairly good idea of the Chinese motivations or more exactly the ‘political’ compulsions which pushed the Great Helmsman into this venture.
Mao Temporarily Leaves the Stage
It is fashionable to speak of crimes against humanity. One of the greatest, known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’, began in China in February 1958 and resulted in the largest man-made starvation period in human history. By initiating his Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s objective was to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years. For the purpose, every Chinese had to start producing steel at home, with a backyard furnace. In agriculture, Mao thought that very large communes would achieve manifold increase in the cereal production, turning China into a heaven of abundance. Introduced and managed with frantic fanaticism, it was not long before the program collapsed.
At the beginning of 1962, as tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realize that China was a starving nation? Very few knew that, by the end of 1961 Mao was practically out of power.
One man tried to raise his voice against the general madness and sycophancy. This was Peng Denhai, the Defence Minister and old companion of Mao during the Long March. Marshal Peng, who was a simple, honest and straightforward soldier, wrote a long personal letter to Mao on what he had seen in the countryside and the misery of the people. Mao immediately ‘purged’ old Peng; the Great Leap Forward however continued till 1961/1962. Today it is estimated that between 40 and 50 million people died of hunger in China during these three years.
At the beginning of 1962, as tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realize that China was a starving nation? Very few knew that, by the end of 1961 Mao was practically out of power.
Dr Zhisui Li, Mao’s personal physician recounts how in 1961 Mao was: “…depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will, Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most of his time in bed.”
At the beginning of the fateful year 1962, Mao’s situation had not improved. Dr Li noted: “1962 was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest.”
During the Conference, known as the 7,000 Cadres’ Conference, Lui Shaoqi declared: “…man-made disasters strike the whole country.” He was targeting Mao. After a month, as the meeting could not conclude, Mao decided that it was enough: he would temporarily ‘retire’.
The conflict with India is closely linked to his comeback.
The Three Reconciliations and One Reduction
In the early 1960’s, Wang Jiaxiang was still one of the senior-most leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Two decades earlier, he had attended Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow, a Soviet institution which trained young revolutionary leaders. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Wang was appointed first as the People’s Republic of China’s Ambassador to Soviet Union, and then returned to Beijing to work in the Foreign Ministry.
Wang’s grand idea was to reconstruct China. For this, it was necessary for the People’s Republic to have a ‘softer’ foreign policy line towards the United States, the Soviet Union, and India. Wang also thought that China should spend less on ‘foreign aid’, at a time China itself was going through such difficult times. Wang believed that peaceful coexistence needed to be stressed.
His theory became known as the ‘Three Reconciliations and the One Reduction’. The three reconciliations were with the US, the Soviet Union and India and the reduction referred to unnecessary foreign expenditures.
The Chairman continued: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and one with America. During none of these, did we fear. And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us…”
Wang Jiaxiang spoke with President Liu Shaoqi who apparently agreed with him. On 27 February 1962, Wang put his thoughts in a letter to Zhou Enlai and other senior leaders. The letter was not sent to Mao who had ‘withdrawn’ after the Seven Thousand Cadres’ Conference.
Wang’s policies however became visible at the World Peace Congress held in Moscow from 9 to 14 July; according to the US scholar MacFarquhar in his Origin of the Cultural Revolution1: “[China and Soviet Union] acted with restraint. Though both sides maintained their positions some agreements were reached.”
Regarding India, the same scholar explained: “Wang Jiaxiang seemed to be seeking at least a partial revival of the ‘Bandung line’ of the mid-1950s, according to which non-communist independent nations of the Third World were regarded as allies in the overarching struggle against imperialism.
…In his argument with Khrushchev, Mao had rejected the possibility of ‘peaceful transition’ from bourgeois regimes like Nehru’s India to proletarian dictatorship and insisted that they would have to be overthrown by revolution.”
On June 3, The People’s Daily published a rather moderate editorial on Sino-Indian relations; it was one more sign of the softer line in Beijing’s foreign policy.
This policy unfortunately did not last long, mainly due to the internal power struggle and the return of the Great Helmsman, as we shall see. However, it seems obvious that the Sino-Indian conflict would have not degenerated the way it did, if Wang Jiaxiang’s policies had been followed.
Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern
The policy of the Chinese government in the initial months of 1962 followed the motto Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern. Practically, it meant that while both Armies were building their positions in the Western and Eastern sectors, the governments of China and India continued to ‘coexist’, exchanging voluminous correspondence, sometimes bitter, sometimes more conciliatory.
This jigsaw policy (opening new posts and offering negotiations) could have continued longer, at least till the winter, but this is without taking into account the ‘return of Mao’.
But Mao had decided to return to the center-stage. The occasion was the Beidaihe Conference2. Mao’s physician remembered: “In the summer of 1962, [Mao] emerged from his retreat. …I knew that his counter offensive was about to begin.” The worsening of the Sino-Indian conflict coincides with Mao’s return to the political stage in China.
Though more and more letters were exchanged between India and China, Nehru probably saw the increasingly frequent missives from Beijing as a bluff; the ‘Chinese won’t attack’ remained the leitmotiv, the ‘jigsaw’ could continue for months, he thought; in three months time, winter would settle over the Roof of the world and nothing serious could then happen.
Delhi nevertheless continued to talk of negotiations. As the Chinese ambassador Pan Zili was leaving his post in India, the Indian Prime Minister invited him for lunch. During the informal talks, Nehru confirmed that India was ready to discuss the border issue without precondition.
Around that time, on the sidelines of the Laos Conference in Geneva, the Indian Defence Minister Krishna Menon met the Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi, and both decided to restart the negotiation process.
Unfortunately during a debate in the Parliament, Nehru had to backtrack on the preconditions; this probably helped Mao to insist that the Indians were unreliable.
Fire will eventually be consumed by fire
In September 1962, at the 10th Plenum of the Party’s 8th Central Committee, Mao regained the destiny of China into his hands; he denounced ‘the members of the bourgeoisie right in the party ranks’. He even attacked his mild Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi. They were accused of trying to rehabilitate the intellectuals and the scientists.
In a Note dated September 13, 1962, Beijing hardened its tone vis-à-vis India. It quoted six recent incidents where India had trespassed into Chinese territory in the Ladakh sector. It cited a speech of Nehru in the Rajya Sabha on August 22 1962: “Prime Minister Nehru stated outright that on the Sino-Indian boundary question the Indian Government is following a ‘dual policy’ and intends to gain from China what it seeks to gain by political pressure, military pressure or other pressures.”
Though both parties continued to speak of negotiations, it was no longer under the same terms.
Around that time, Mao said that the Indians had been pressing the Chinese along the border for three years: “if they try it a fourth year then China will strike back,” he warned.
By early October, Mao was again in total control of events and people in Beijing. He was assisted by his submissive servitor, Zhou Enlai and his new protégé and the heir apparent, Defence Minister Lin Biao. Several other leaders participated in the decision to ‘slap’ India. Some of the decisive meetings were attended not only Liu Shaoqi, still Chairman of the PRC, Deng Xiaoping but perhaps more importantly Marshals Liu Bocheng, He Long, and Xu Xiangqian as well as General Luo Ruiqing, the Army Chief.
Liu Bocheng was the main strategic advisor. Liu was against the idea of simply ‘throwing out’ the Indian troops from NEFA by pushing them back after ‘breaking up their attack, and surrounding them’. He wanted a more decisive victory.
Even as preparations for war were going on in Beijing, the Indian leaders were not too worried. They continued issuing orders to throw the Chinese out of the Indian territory. Unfortunately, the Indian Army was not physically equipped to implement the politicians’ order.
…the Chinese forces strictly followed the principle of not firing first, the situation in both sectors was fast deteriorating: the Indian Army had begun to concentrate troops and deploy artillery in both sectors…
Prime Minister Nehru had just left for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London, while Defence Minister Krishna Menon went to perorate at the UN in New York. By the beginning of October the Indian Army Chief was nervous; he began to insist on getting orders in writing from his political boss who lived in another world. No problem, said the Defence Minister, he would cable them from New York.
October 6: China Decides to go to War
According to the Chinese historians who wrote the history of the 1962 conflict, a first key meeting was held in early October, perhaps on October 6 in the morning.
Defence Minister and Deputy CMC chairman, Lin Biao reported about the situation in the Tibet and the Xinjiang Military Districts. Lin said that the Indians continued to advance and often opened fire on Chinese outposts; ten Chinese personnel had been killed or wounded during the last few days.
Though the Chinese forces strictly followed the principle of not firing first, the situation in both sectors was fast deteriorating: the Indian Army had begun to concentrate troops and deploy artillery in both sectors, said the Defence Minister.
Even more serious, the Chinese military intelligence had gathered that Indian forces were planning an attack on Thagla Ridge on 10 October. This information was absolutely correct, the Corps IV Commander, Lt Gen BM Kaul had planned to attack in Dhola post area on that day.
Mao then addressed his colleagues: “It seems like armed coexistence won’t work. It’s just as we expected. Nehru really wants to use force. This isn’t strange. He has always wanted to seize Aksai Chin and Thagla Ridge. He thinks he can get everything he desires.”
It is clear that from the start Mao did not believe that ‘coexistence’ could work. The Chairman continued: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and one with America. During none of these, did we fear. And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. [But] we cannot lose ground; once we lose ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province. …Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be proper. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity.”
As he has always done in his career, Zhou Enlai agreed with his mentor: “We don’t want a war with India. We have always strove in the direction [of avoiding war]. We wanted India to be like Nepal, Burma or Mongolia, i.e. solve border problems with them in a friendly fashion. But Nehru has closed all roads. This leaves us only with war. As I see it, to fight a bit would have advantages. It would cause some people to understand things more clearly.”
“China needn’t fear isolation, as long as the frontline troops fight well, we will be in an advantageous position…Its better to die standing, than to die kneeling. If China fought successfully, in an awe-inspiring way, this will guarantee at least thirty years of peace”.- Mao
Mao acquiesced: “Right! If someone does not attack me, I won’t attack him. If someone attacks me, I will certainly attack him”.
As often in China, after a few leaders agreed on the direction to take, a larger meeting was called to validate the decision and work out the details.
The meeting was held on the outskirts of Beijing3 on October 6.
Mao chaired the meeting and informed the PLA top brass that it has already been decided to go to war with India: “The purpose of bringing all of you together today is to convene a military [tactical] meeting,” he said.
The Chairman elaborated: “Our border conflict with India has gone on for many years. We did not want war and originally we sought to solve [the issue] through peaceful negotiations. But Nehru is unwilling to talk and has deployed considerable forces, insistently demanding a fight with us. Now, it seems that to refuse a fight is impossible. If we fight, what should be our method? What should this war look-like? Please everyone contribute your thoughts on these policy issues.”
Then Foreign Minister Chen Yi spoke of the diplomatic aspect of the conflict with India. According to Chen, the problem started in 1954 when India published an official map showing the McMahon line as a definitive national boundary4. Chen stated “At present, India occupies or claims 1,250,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory5. Forty-seven Chinese personnel had been killed or wounded in attacks by Indian forces on the border. China had devoted considerable diplomatic effort to achieve a negotiated settlement, but Nehru is unwilling to sit down and talk; moreover he has adopted a provocative forward policy. …It seems we can only meet him [Nehru] on the battlefield.”
Mao then explained why China needed to go to war with India: “A war between China and India is truly a most unfortunate event. [I] have recently been reading books on Indian history and was struck by the friendly, beneficial interactions between China and India in the 7th – 9th centuries6.” Mao recounted the circumstances of the ‘one and a half’ Sino-India wars: “The first war had been in 648 A.D. when a Tang dynasty emperor had dispatched troops to assist the legal claimant to a throne to a subcontinental kingdom — after the other claimant had killed 30 members of a Tang diplomatic mission. A Tang-strengthened force defeated the usurper, who was captured and sent to the Tang capital Changan [Xian], where he lived the rest of his life.”7
Then Mao spoke of the ‘half war’ in 1398 “when Timurlane captured Delhi. This was a great victory, but was followed by the slaughter of over 100,000 prisoners and looting of all precious metals and gems across the land. This was a ‘half war’ because Timur and his army were Mongols from both Inner and Outer Mongolia. Mongolia was then part of China, making this attack ‘half’ Chinese.”
For the Chairman, the morale to be learnt from history: “First, the PLA had to secure a victory and knock Nehru to the negotiating table and second, Chinese forces had to be restrained and principled.”
Marshal Ye Jianying told his colleagues that on his 1957 visit to India, he had met Lt Gen BM Kaul.8 Ye informed Mao that though Kaul had served in Burma during World War II, Kaul had no actual combat experience. Ye said that Kaul seemed “to be a very rigid, [even] if an impressive looking soldier. Still, he was one of India’s most outstanding commanders”.
Mao cut him to say: “Fine, he’ll have another opportunity to shine.”
It was not to be the case.
The Chairman then spoke of the possible isolation of China on the world stage. He did not consider this to be a ‘decisive factor’: “China needn’t fear isolation, as long as the frontline troops fight well, we will be in an advantageous position. …It’s better to die standing, than to die kneeling. If China fought successfully, in an awe-inspiring way, this will guarantee at least thirty years of peace”. In some ways, it was true!
Delhi did not agree to the ‘unconditional ‘negotiations, the ‘occupied’ Indian territory had to be vacated first. Regarding the 20 km withdrawal, it was in India’s disfavor due to the mountainous terrain on India’s side and the flat Tibetan plateau on China’s.
Historian Xu Yan affirmed that the rejection of China’s ‘final’ offer to negotiate, as well as Nehru’s continuation of his Forward Policy, forced Mao and the Central Military Commission to consider ‘a large scale counter-attack’ against India.
On October 3, Beijing had written to Delhi: “The Chinese Government regrets that the Indian Government has once again refused its proposal for speedily and unconditionally holding discussions on the Sino-Indian boundary question. …The Indian Government has also refused the Chinese Government’s reiterated proposal that the armed forces of each side withdraw 20 kilometres along the entire border.”
Delhi did not agree to the ‘unconditional’ negotiations, the ‘occupied’ Indian territory had to be vacated first. Regarding the 20km withdrawal, it was in India’s disfavor due to the mountainous terrain on India’s side and the flat Tibetan plateau on China’s.
When Mao decided to punish India, had the Communist leadership received the Indian answer to the above communication from Beijing?
It is likely that the Communist regime had got Delhi’s answer a few hours earlier. India asked China to vacate the occupied part of the Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area as a precondition. With each side accusing the other of intransigence, a conflict could hardly been avoided.
At the October 6 meeting, Lou Ruiqing, the Chinese Chief of General Staff was authorized by Mao to start ‘a fierce and painful attack on Indian forces. If Indian forces attack us, you should hit back fiercely. …[you should] not only repel them, but hit them fiercely and make them hurt”
The Central Military Commission decided that the main attack would be launched in the eastern sector (NEFA), but Chinese forces in the western sector would ‘coordinate’ their actions with the eastern sector.
It was logical from a military point of view, but also ‘ideologically’ coherent; it was the route that the Dalai Lama had used three years earlier to take refuge in India; it was the best way to show the connection between the two events. Though this is not mention by the Chinese (or Indian) sources, it is clearly an important factor.
When Chinese Generals started to work on the details of the military operations, they soon realized that the campaign could not be sustained for a long time. It was therefore decided to terminate the war “with a unilateral Chinese halt, ceasefire, and withdrawal”.
…Mao had still some doubt. Politically he could not afford to have a semi-victory, a total triumph was necessary to assert his newly recovered position at the head of the Communist State.
Historian Shi Bo9 believes that in view of “practical difficulties associated with China’s domestic situation”, the PLA troops “would quickly disengage and end the fighting as quickly as possible” after achieving their military objectives.
‘China’s domestic situation’ is obviously referring to the power struggle within the Party and the return of Mao to the center stage.
This was wise from the Chinese point of view; further in India, the trauma associated with the conflict would remain for decades.
Mao acknowledged that a war with India presented several dangers:
- Nehru enjoyed great international status;
- India was a leader of the non-aligned movement;
- India enjoyed great international prestige as an advocate of non-violence;
- Both the United States and the Soviet Union were courting India;
- India saw itself as the leader of the ‘third force’ in the world.
However according to the PLA’s calculations, China was militarily far superior to India (Indian forces were not prepared and their strength was 1/6th of the Chinese troops).
Beijing anticipated some negative reactions from Washington and the Western world in general (and perhaps even from Moscow), but the long-terms benefits of a severe, but limited blow, would compensate and ultimately bring peace for several years between the neighbours.
The Final decision
Apparently Mao had still some doubt. Politically he could not afford to have a semi-victory, a total triumph was necessary to assert his newly recovered position at the head of the Communist State. His ideological high stand on the agriculture policy had to be backed by a resounding victory against the ‘arrogant’ Prime Minister of India and the insult inflicted by the Dalai Lama when he took refuge in India three years earlier. The affront had to be avenged.
- Till the last minute, Mao had some hesitations:
- Should China permit Indian forces to advance a bit further into Chinese territory under the Forward Policy to show the world that China acted in self defense?
- What should be the main objective of the attack against India?
- Should the attack focus on the Aksai Chin in the West, the main bone of contention between India and China?
- From a military point of view, an attack in NEFA had better chance to succeed as larger formations could concentrate in the area which was more accessible with easier lines of communication and supplies.
- To prove Nehru’s stubborn and hegemonic attitude, NEFA was ideal as Nehru would then be compelled to agree the McMahon Line was not an ‘established fact’, but a disputed border and only negotiations could achieve a lasting peace and the settlement of the border issue.
- Further winter was approaching fast, should the operations be postponed for a few months (July-September was the best period for military operations)? The Tibet Military district had warned that the snow in winter could trigger ‘great difficulties’ in moving supplies and reinforcements across the high passes.
- The Army intelligence informed the leadership that presently [in October 1962] the military balance tilted heavily in China’s favor. It might not be the case in a few months time.
Considering all these points on October 17, the Central Military Commission met and issued the formal order to ‘exterminate the ‘Indian aggressor forces’. It was termed a ‘self defensive counter-attack war’.
What followed on October 20 on the slopes of Thagla ridge is history.
- Roderick MacFarquhar, The origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume III (New York, the Columbia University Press, 1997). Chapters 12 and 13, (Mao changes the Signals and War in the Himalayas, Crisis in the Caribbean) are particularly enlightening.
- The Beidaihe Conference ended on August 26 after 3 weeks of intense ‘ideological’ debate, marked by the unexpected come back of Mao. The first consequence was the ‘leftisation’ of the foreign policy.
- To this new meeting held at Xishan (Western Hills).
- Chen Yi’s assertions are contrary to the facts. At the time of signing the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, Zhou Enlai declared “all matters ripe for settlement have been discussed.”
- In NEFA, China still claims Arunachal as its own territory (the so-called Southern Tibet).
- Mao refers probably to the Chinese pilgrims such as Faxian (395–414) or Xuanzang (629–644) who visited India.
- This is of course the Chinese version of the event.
- Lt Gen BM Kaul was appointed Corps IV Commander a few days earlier.
- Shi Bo, editor, Zhong yin da zhan jishi (Record of events in the big China-India war) Beijinjg: Da di chubanshe, 1993.