Former President of China, Mao Zedong (L) and the present President of China, Xi Jinping

China emerged as India’s primary military threat after 1962. Beijing’s border belligerence in 2020 has ensured it is once again the case

by Sandeep Unnithan

On October 20, 1962, the opening shots of the Indo-China border war were fired. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) launched attacks on Indian positions near the Namka Chu river in the North Eastern Frontier Agency region (NEFA, in present day Arunachal Pradesh). The same day, in the western theatre nearly a thousand kilometres away, the PLA overran Indian positions in the Chip Chap valley, the Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake. A week later, the PLA had reached the foothills of the Himalayas in the NEFA region and were in sight of the Brahmaputra River valley.

The Chinese attack was carefully timed to coincide with a major Cold War standoff between the US and Soviet Union—the Cuban Missile crisis, which erupted on October 22 with a US naval blockade of the island. The timing ensured that a pro-Indian US President John F Kennedy would not be able to devote mind space to a border war in India.

The 1962 war proved false a series of myths that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had cultivated since 1948, the most famous being the Panchsheel—the five principles of mutual co-existence captured by the slogan ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (the Indians and Chinese are brothers)’. His decision to deploy what was then a poorly-led, -trained and -equipped army to implement a disastrous ‘Forward Policy’ in late 1961, ended in catastrophe. It was a misreading of relative strengths—the battle-hardened PLA had just nine years earlier fought US-led forces to a standstill on the Korean peninsula. But most importantly, India’s Prime Minister grossly misread Chairman Mao Zedong, a guerrilla leader who had spent a lifetime in war.

Snows of the Himalaya Mountain, an account of the 1962 war from the Chinese perspective written by two PLA veterans, released in 1991 (and banned thereafter) provides a rare account of Mao’s thinking. China had to “secure victory” and “knock Nehru to the negotiation table” the Chairman said. Authorising a counterattack against India in early October, Mao predicted, “If China fights successfully and in an awe-inspiring way, this will guarantee at least thirty years of peace with India.” The initial shock of the Chinese assault triggered panic in New Delhi. A cable sent from Prime Minister Nehru to President Kennedy in November requested ‘Twelve squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’ (over 200 jets) and ‘two squadrons of B-47 bombers’ (around 36 planes) and air defence radars manned by US personnel.

The astute strategic thinker K Subrahmanyam noted the underlying thinking behind this: ‘At the highest level, Jawaharlal Nehru chose to appeal to the US President for aerial support without first ordering the Indian Air Force into battle’, he wrote in the Centenary History of the Indian National Congress, published in 1990. (Subrahmanyam, an IAS officer, was deputy secretary in the defence ministry during the 1962 war.)

The US aircraft did not come through. The cable disappeared from Indian records, with copies now existing only in US records. What India did immediately after the 1962 War was to make China, not Pakistan, the primary military threat. The government embarked on expanding the Indian military, with defence expenditure rising from 1.5 per cent to 2.31 per cent of the budget. The government had planned to double the size of the army and air force—with 825,000 men and 45 fighter squadrons—and equip the navy with submarines and missile boats. More importantly, New Delhi took advantage of Sino-Soviet hostility to build close ties with the former Soviet Union, a move that culminated in the Indo-Soviet Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1971.

China’s nuclear weapons test in 1964 had also triggered off existential fears in New Delhi and provided reasons for India to follow suit. This existential threat was well summed up in a 1968 note by P.N. Haskar, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s principal advisor, in which he wrote of building a ‘stand-off nuclear capability’ against China with nuclear weapons capable of striking at Chinese population centres and industrial areas and ‘nuclear powered submarines carrying nuclear missiles’.

The results of India’s military modernisation were evident less than a decade later. India had fought Pakistan to a standstill in the 1965 war; six years later, it won a decisive victory during the 1971 war, bifurcating East Pakistan to create an independent Bangladesh. However, from 1971 to the early 2000s at least, the Indian establishment remained pre-occupied by Pakistan, eventually the lesser of the two security threats. There were reasons for doing so—like Pakistan’s stoking of terrorism in Kashmir and Punjab all through the 1980s and 1990s and its acquisition of nuclear weapons and forcible attempt to alter the LoC in Kargil in 1999. In comparison, the LAC with China was peaceful, with issues being tackled through dialogue since the mid-1980s.

New Delhi reawakened to the Chinese threat only in the early 2000s, when the PLA began constructing bridges roads and airfields on the Tibetan plateau. This push south culminated in the PLA’s decision in May 2020 to swiftly and inexplicably move two divisions across Ladakh to backstop a series of shallow incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The 1962 war was preceded by a several months of acrimony. The 2020 border belligerence did not see any such slippery slope.

Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, has ruled his country with an iron fist since taking over in 2013. He has however enjoyed cordial relations with Prime Minister Modi. The duo have held two informal summits, the first in Wuhan in 2018 and the second in Mahabalipuram in 2019, where both agreed to put aside their differences on the border and move other aspects of the international relationship forward. It is entirely possible that Prime Minister Modi took his counterpart at face value. (On this note, Xi Jinping is the first military leader since Mao to be photographed in military fatigues.)

The PLA’s border deployment last year led to the June 15 clashes in Galwan where 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed. It was the first significant loss of life on the border since the 1967 clashes at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim. While the reasons for China’s aggression in 1962 are well known, the casus belli for its May 2020 mobilisation remains a mystery. (Top Indian planners however say the moves could not have taken place without Xi’s explicit sanction.)

Speaking at the India Today conclave on October 8, K Subrahmanyam’s son, India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar, expressed puzzlement. “I have still not heard a credible explanation as to why they chose to bring that size of force to that sector of our border,” he said. India has had to deploy over 50,000 additional troops to face off against the Chinese all along the 3,448-km long frontier. Fifteen years ago, Eastern Ladakh was patrolled by a brigade of around 3,000 soldiers. This year, the army has deployed the equivalent of two infantry divisions—around 24,000 soldiers—backed by artillery and tanks to guard eastern Ladakh.

Self-propelled howitzers acquired for deployment in the deserts facing Pakistan are now being modified for use across the mountains. Literally every piece of military hardware from helicopters to battle tanks are being acquired with a renewed focus on deployments and operations at super-high altitude areas. India is now also actively engaging with the US, Japan and Australia—like-minded democracies—in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The bigger change has been the realisation in New Delhi that China, not Pakistan, is the primary military threat. This will guide New Delhi’s thinking and planning for the next decade or so. Like Mao in 1962, this is something Xi Jinping has to take credit for.