Scorched by the dragon

Hindustan Times, December 13, 2012

Brahma Chellaney

The recent October 20–December 1 fiftieth anniversary of China’s invasion of India attracted a lot of Indian discussion, yet the debate shied away from drawing the broader, long-term lessons. The lessons are also relevant for China’s other neighbours because 1962 helped uncover the key elements of Beijing’s war-fighting doctrine — a doctrine it brought into play in 1969 (provoking border clashes with Soviet forces), 1974 (occupying the Paracel Islands), 1979 (invading Vietnam), 1988 (seizing Johnson Reef), and 1995 (grabbing Mischief Reef). In each of those aggressions, the major 1962 elements were replicated.

As a 2010 Pentagon report citing 1962 put it, “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.” In fact, a 2010 essay in the influential Qiu Shi Journal — the ideological and theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee — underscored the centrality of “offense as defence” in Chinese policy by declaring that, “Throughout the history of new China, peace in China has never been gained by giving in, only through war. Safeguarding national interests is never achieved by mere negotiations, but by war.”

Unlike India — which still naïvely believes that it gained independence through non-violence, not because a world-war-debilitated Britain could no longer hold on to its colonies — “new China” was born in blood after a long civil war. And it was built on blood, with Mao Zedong and fellow revolutionaries ever ready to employ force internally and externally.

No sooner had the new China been established than it swiftly doubled its territorial size by forcibly absorbing Xinjiang and Tibet. Domestically, countless millions perished in witch-hunts, fratricidal killings and human-made disasters. In fact, Mao attacked India after his “Great Leap Forward” created the worst famine in recorded world history, with the resulting damage to his credibility, according to Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert his leadership through a war.

Yet, like a rape victim being scolded for inviting the attack, India was repeatedly rapped during the anniversary debate for having brought on the Chinese aggression through “provocative” gestures and moves. When the Chinese military marched hundreds of miles south and occupied Tibet, resulting in a major Han military presence along the Himalayas for the first time in history and setting the stage for China’s furtive encroachments on Indian territory, this supposedly did not constitute sufficient grounds for India to try to guard its undefended Himalayan borders. So when India belatedly deployed some units of its then scrappy army, the action became, in Beijing’s words, a “forward policy” — a term lapped up by biddable analysts and still being bandied about.

India does not commemorate war anniversaries the way the U.S. does — with an annual ceremony honouring its fallen heroes. For example, at the exact time the Japanese began bombing Pearl Harbour 71 years earlier, commemorations were held last weekend at Pearl Harbour and memorials elsewhere, drawing thousands of Americans. India, in fact, has not built a single special memorial to honour those who were martyred in 1962 or any of the other wars it has fought. China, by contrast, has a 1962 war memorial in Tibet and its Beijing military museum exhibits depict India as the “aggressor.”

In this light, the fiftieth anniversary of what American scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has dubbed “Mao’s India War” ought to have served as a time for Indian reflection on its larger and enduring lessons. Instead, it regrettably became an occasion for some commentators to recycle myths about 1962, including that it was a “brief war.”

Actually, this was one of the longest and bloodiest of all wars India has faced since 1947. The length of a war, however, is usually irrelevant to its outcome: Israel fundamentally changed the land and water map of its region in a six-day war in 1967, while India carved out Bangladesh in a 13-day war in 1971.

The 1962 war lasted 42 days, longer than the 1965 war (38 days). Even after China unilaterally declared a ceasefire on November 21, 1962, its troops kept firing on the outgunned and outnumbered Indian troops in the east. The war really ended on December 1 when China, while holding on to its territorial gains on the Aksai Chin plateau, began withdrawing its forces from the east, simply because it did not have the logistics capability to maintain forces across the McMahon Line once snow cut off mountain passes.

The war — which ranks as the world’s highest-altitude full-blown war in post-World War II history — left 3,270 Indian troops dead, compared with over 1,100 military men killed in the 1947-48 war; 3,264 in 1965; 3,843 in 1971; 1,157 in Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka; and 522 in Kargil. Yet a couple of analysts at a Mumbai seminar last week had the temerity to call 1962 a “skirmish.”

By baring key elements of Beijing’s strategic doctrine, 1962 indeed holds lasting lessons for India and other countries locked in territorial disputes with China. Here are just some of the 1962 principles China replicated in its subsequent aggressions:

  • take the adversary by surprise to maximize political and psychological shock.
  • strike only when the international and regional timing is opportune.
  • hit as fast and as hard as possible by unleashing “human wave” assaults.
  • be willing to take military gambles.
  • mask offense as defence.
  • wage war with the political objective to “teach a lesson” — an aim publicly acknowledged in the 1962 and 1979 invasions.

New China hews to ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice: “All warfare is based on deception … Attack where the enemy is unprepared; sally out when it does not expect you. These are the strategist’s keys to victory.”

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

(c) Hindustan Times, 2012.