Beware: Dragon Trap

Dragon’s war dance

India is in serious danger of sliding into a 1962-type dragon trap. It needs high-quality statecraft to ensure that it does not get caught in China’s elaborate efforts to ratchet up border tensions, says Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, September 11, 2009

The 32-day surprise Chinese invasion in 1962 lasted longer than the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan and claimed the lives of more Indian soldiers than any other aggression faced by India since independence, with the exception of 1971. Yet the myth still being peddled internationally is that 1962 was a brief war. Today, as Chinese cross-frontier incursions grow and border tensions rise, the situation is becoming similar to the one that prevailed in the run-up to 1962. The several parallels raise the spectre of another Chinese attack.

First, like in the pre-1962 period, it has become commonplace internationally to speak of India and China in the same breadth. The aim of “Mao’s India war”, as Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has called it, was large political: To cut India to size by demolishing what it represented — a democratic alternative to the Chinese autocracy. The brute force with which Mao Zedong humiliated India helped discredit the Indian model, boost China’s international image and consolidate Mao’s internal power. The return of the China-India pairing decades later is something Beijing viscerally loathes.

Second, the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 — and the ready sanctuary he got there — paved the way for the Chinese military attack. Today, 50 years after his escape, the exiled Tibetan leader stands as a bigger challenge than ever for China, as underscored by Beijing’s stepped-up vilification campaign against him. With Beijing now treating the Dalai Lama as its Enemy No. 1, India has come under greater Chinese pressure to curb his activities and those of his government-in-exile. The continuing security clampdown in Tibet since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the harsh Chinese crackdown in Tibet during 1959-62.

Three, the present pattern of cross-frontier incursions and other border incidents, as well as new force deployments and mutual recriminations, is redolent of the situation that prevailed before the 1962 war. According to the Indian army chief, “This year, there were 21 incursions in June, 20 in July and 24 in August.” Such is the rising graph of Chinese cross-border forays that such intrusions nearly doubled in two years, from 140 in 2006 to 270 in 2008. Little surprise the defence minister warned as early as April 2008 that there is “no room for complacency” along the Himalayan frontier.

Four, the 1962 invasion occurred against the backdrop of China instigating and arming insurgents in India’s northeast. Although such activities ceased after Mao’s 1976 death, China seems to be coming full circle today, with Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing into guerrilla ranks in northeastern India, including via Burma. India has taken up this matter with Beijing at the foreign minister-level. Indeed, Pakistan-based terrorists targeting India now rely on Chinese arms — from the AK-56 assault rifles to the Type 86 grenades made by China’s state-owned Norinco firm. To add to India’s woes, Beijing has blocked efforts to get the United Nations to designate as a terrorist the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad group chief, Masood Azhar.

Five, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s slogan, “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers), is today matched by the “Chindia” concept, which — disregarding the rivalry and antagonisms — blends the two Asian giants together.

Sixth, just as India had retreated to a defensive position in the border negotiations with Beijing in the early 1960s after having undermined its leverage by accepting the “Tibet region of China” through the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement, New Delhi similarly has been left in the unenviable position today of having to fend off Chinese territorial demands. Whatever leverage India still had on the Tibet issue was surrendered in 2003 when it shifted its position from Tibet being an “autonomous” region within China to it being “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” Little surprise the spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh than on Tibet’s status itself.

That explains why Beijing invested so much political capital over the years in getting India to gradually accept Tibet as part of China. Its success on that score narrows the dispute to what it claims today. The issue in 1962 was Aksai Chin; the issue now is Arunachal, particularly Tawang. But had Beijing really believed Tawang was part of Tibet and hence belonged to China, the Chinese military would have held on to that critical corridor after its capture in 1962, just as it kept the territorial gains of that war in Ladakh.

With India in serious danger of sliding into a 1962-type dragon trap, the country needs high-quality statecraft to handle the present situation and ensure the nation is not again told what Nehru stated the day China attacked — that Beijing returned “evil for good.”

Brahma Chellaney is professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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