The policy towards China is formulated in the background of the 1962 India-China war

by Bidanda Chengappa

India’s China policy over the past seven decades is largely shaped by its political vision, economy diplomacy and military capability, considering the two neighbours share a disputed border with each other. New Delhi’s political vision and diplomacy towards Beijing are based on its military capability vis-a-vis China. Clearly, Indian national security and foreign policy makers formulate policy towards China in the background of the 1962 India-China war which is synonymous with military defeat and therefore explains why India is fixated with China’s superior strategic stature.

Accordingly, India adopts a defensive military posture towards China and an offensive one towards Pakistan. Prima facie India’s military defeat against China in 1962, may be attributed to inferior military/combat capability, the reality points to poor political vision. For instance, the Indian army’s fighting formation, the famed Fourth Division, which covered itself with glory in the Second World War, was defeated in 1962. The Nehruvian political leadership refused to acknowledge that China posed a military threat and therefore, did not adequately fund the military to fight across the Himalayas.

Nehru failed to read the Chinese political intentions correctly, despite the then army chief’s accurate interpretation of Chinese hostile policy. Moreover, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru perceived the military as an instrument of imperialism which in turn fostered a negative attitude towards the military leadership. As a result, civil-military relations had deteriorated and the army chief General KS Thimmaya attempted to resign due to differences with then defence minister Krishna Menon. The absence of political direction to the Indian military leadership to perceive China as an adversary and accordingly, weak military orientation and deployment against China coupled with low funding led to the military defeat against China.

In the post-1962 conflict phase characterized by the Himalayan humiliation the Indian political and military psyche was so severely scarred that there was no clear thinking about how to deal with China. The military policy based on political direction was not to develop the road infrastructure near the border with China to make it difficult for invading forces to enter Indian territory. Despite raising the Border Roads Organisation, it was not adequately funded to ensure road development for military traffic aimed at quick military mobilization to counter the Chinese threat. Instead, the government created guerrilla forces for a “stay behind role” to attack the Chinese army in the rear, if it once again chose to wage war against India.

This political-military thinking only changed during the late 1980s, especially after the Sumdorung Chu military stand-off with China.

At the same time, Indian military thinking towards China underwent many notable changes in the post-1962 conflict phase, especially the army, with boots on the ground which had to manage the land-based border dispute from time to time. For instance, the army created fighting formations known as ‘mountain divisions’, to cope primarily with the Chinese challenge and secondarily with the Pakistan problem. Also the army emphasized mountain warfare training and commando orientation for infantry units in order to erase the psyche of the Himalayan humiliation.

Otherwise, even after China transitioned from a continental power to a maritime one a decade ago, New Delhi had not posted an air or naval adviser in its diplomatic mission in Beijing. Only an army Colonel rank officer from the infantry, along with a deputy was expected to track developments in Chinese air and naval power. Only in July 2014, New Delhi finally posted an air force and naval officer to its diplomatic mission in Beijing. Considering India had military representation from all three fighting Services in its diplomatic mission in Pakistan—but not China appears absurd. Especially since its official documents clearly state the China poses a strategic threat to India.

India’s relations with Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan are all useful to cope with China as these countries also have adversarial relations with Beijing. These countries are able to provide India with the necessary political and military intelligence about Beijing. Moreover, military exercises with some of these countries also prove useful to balance China.

India has always been reluctant to use the military as an instrument of foreign policy which has become a political tradition, particularly regarding China. Perhaps the political leadership perceives China as a superior military power and therefore its reluctance to use force of arms against it. Indian soldiers who patrol the LAC are instructed not to offend the Chinese soldiers and treat them with kid gloves to respect the various peace and tranquillity agreements signed during the 1990s. Evidently the 1962 military defeat against China has subconsciously imprinted on the Indian political leadership so much that it fears to confront China on its own terms.

Thankfully, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership has marginally altered military policy with an acknowledgement of the surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016 and 2019 on land and air respectively.

The army undertook shallow penetration commando raids across the LoC into Pakistan, even under the Indian National Congress party, but never communicated it to the nation. However, the BJP added an aerial dimension to offensive military capability for the first-time during peace. While China may be no military push over like Pakistan, the political and military leadership needs to deal with the Dragon in a similar manner.

Perhaps the political leadership fears that a military failure against China could prove politically disastrous domestically and therefore prefers peace rather than wage war. Also, the possibility of escalation with power against Chinese troops is a concern. To quote US strategic thinker Bernard Brodie, known as the American Clausewitz: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment was to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other purpose”. Today China realizes that democracies believe such strategic thinking and aims to exploit precisely this through military posturing across its land and maritime borders.