The lasting lesson of 1962

Brahma Chellaney

As the 50th anniversary year of China’s 1962 invasion, 2012 should serve as a time of reflection on what lessons that attack still holds for India.

Given that the Year of the Dragon — a monster that has been universal since before biblical times — begins on January 23, this year holds significance for China’s other neighbors as well. After all, the declared intent of the 1962 war — “to teach a lesson” — was publicly restated in the 1979 Chinese aggression against Vietnam and appeared to guide Beijing’s top-heavy response in the boat incident with Japan in the fall of 2010.

By roaring at its neighbors and picking territorial fights with them, China lived up to the Year of the Tiger that 2010 represented in its astrology. Then in 2011, the Year of the Rabbit, China seemed to emulate that burrowing animal. It blasted more tunnels through mountain ranges in its borderlands. And — as was apparent, for example, from its use of different cards against India, including the stapled-visa issue and cross-frontier incursions — it demanded “carrots” (rabbit’s favorite) to eschew irascible behavior. Will it breathe fire in the Year of the Dragon?

One facet of China’s grand strategy has remained constant over the years. Strategic deception and military surprise are enduring elements in Chinese strategy. The 1962 war was a classic example of the fusion of these two elements.

Integral to deception is taking an opponent by surprise, as emphasized in Sun Tzu’s Art of War some 2,500 years ago. Since the Communists came to power, China has been involved in the largest number of military conflicts in Asia. In all these conflicts, Chinese forces struck with no forewarning.

Indeed, a 2010 Pentagon report points out that China has repeatedly carried out military pre-emption in the name of defense: in 1950 (Tibet invasion, followed immediately by entry into Korean War), 1962, the 1969 border conflict with the Soviet Union, and the 1979 attack on Vietnam. According to the report, “The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies in which China’s leaders have claimed military pre-emption as a strategically defensive act.” China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 was another example of offense as defense.

The 1962 attack — justified as a defensive act by Beijing, which used Nehru’s unguarded remarks (“our instructions are to free our territory”) to brand India the aggressor — stands out for China’s masterly blending of deception and surprise. The invasion, mounted from two separate fronts, caught India off guard. The “stab-in-the-back” was best summed up by Nehru, who told the nation that “a powerful and unscrupulous opponent, not caring for peace or peaceful methods” had returned “evil for good.”

The aggression was cleverly planned and timed. It coincided with the start of the Cuban missile crisis, which put the Soviet Union and the U.S. on the edge of a nuclear Armageddon. And the very day the U.S. quarantine of Cuba was lifted to help end the Cuban missile crisis, China ceased its 32-day aggression against India. The cunning timing — just when global attention was focused on averting a nuclear catastrophe — ensured that India received no outside help.

The deception began much earlier, in keeping with the utility of deception in Chinese strategic culture for both peacetime functions and warfighting applications. One example of peacetime deception was Premier Zhou En-lai’s 1960 New Delhi visit, during which he dangled the carrot of a border settlement without putting his money where his mouth was. Of course, it didn’t take much effort to trick the Indians, who had convinced themselves that by merely signing the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement, they had bought peace with China.

If anything, this agreement — which incorporated five principles of peaceful coexistence — provided a perfect cover for China to launch aggressive plans against India, including its quiet construction of a highway through the Aksai Chin Plateau in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and furtive nibbling at Indian territories across the Himalayas. The period up to 1954 marked Communist China’s annexation and consolidation of rule in Tibet, whereas the post-1954 phase heralded its belligerence toward India, culminating in the surprise invasion. The iniquitous Panchsheel Agreement — under which India, without any quid pro quo, surrendered its extra-territorial rights in Tibet and recognized the “Tibet region of China” — constituted a watershed in opening the path to hostilities.

It took a war humiliation for India to wake up to the reality that a nation can get peace only if it is able to defend peace.

Today, as part of its larger game of deception, China identifies Taiwan as the primary focus of its defense strategy. That is to divert international attention from its single-mindedness on achieving broader military goals. Taiwan serves metaphorically as a red carpet on which to invite all the bulls while Beijing busily seeks to accomplish bigger tasks.

If the countries around India have become battlegrounds for China’s moves to encircle India, it is because Beijing heeds Sun Tzu’s counsel: “Contain an adversary through the leverage of having made its neighbourhood hostile.” According to Sun Tzu’s core guidance, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”

China employs deception to also camouflage its refusal to accept the territorial status quo with several of its neighbours. It is disturbing the status quo even on cross-border river flows. The insistence on changing the status quo, coupled with its strategic opacity and penchant to take an adversary by surprise, only increases the unease in Asia over its rise. Indeed, the more than three-decade-old border talks with India mesh well with China’s use of strategic deception.

As long as the territorial status quo is not accepted, the possibility that the Chinese military will strike again cannot be ruled out. As U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in his prepared testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on January 31, “The Indian Army believes a major Sino-Indian conflict is not imminent but the Indian military is strengthening its forces in preparation to fight a limited conflict along the disputed border, and is working to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s emphatic statement in the Lok Sabha in December 2011 that “China will not attack India” thus seems more than gratuitous. Can anyone turn a blind eye to the Chinese state-run newspaper and military publications launching an anti-India tirade and warning New Delhi of the consequences of a confrontation with China? Some military analysts in China have publicly discussed the merits of a 1962-style short, sharp, decisive border war that helps put India in its place for the next few decades? Disturbingly, the more timorous Singh has been, the more belligerent China has become.

India needs to counter the asymmetrical capabilities China is fashioning to take an adversary by surprise. Its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, for example, are being designed to “shock and awe” in space. China is already waging a quiet cyber-war, as if to underscore its ability to sabotage vital infrastructure in wartime. Moreover, its military is developing a blitzkrieg approach to warfare: a surprise blitz will seek to stun, confound and overwhelm an opponent.

The lasting lesson of 1962 is that India must be ready to repulse any kind of attack, including by undercutting the aggressor where it is the weakest. Otherwise, China’s Achilles’ heel — Tibet — will become a stronger launch-pad for aggressive acts.

A version of this article appeared in The Times of India of January 22, 2012.

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