Dragon’s Familiar Dance

With the 50th anniversary of the 1962 invasion approaching, history is in danger of repeating itself.

Brahma Chellaney
The writer is professor of strategic studies
at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

India Today, November 7, 2011

From a military invasion and a cartographic aggression, China is
moving to a hydrological aggression and a strategic squeeze of India

As the 50th anniversary of China’s invasion approaches, history is in danger of repeating itself, with Chinese military pressures and aggressive designs against India not only mirroring the pre-1962 war situation but also extending to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the oceans around India. China’s expanding axis of evil with Pakistan, including a new troop presence in PoK, heightens India’s vulnerability in Jammu and Kashmir, even as India has beefed up its defences in Arunachal Pradesh.

By muscling up to India, what is China seeking to achieve? The present situation, ominously, is no different in several key aspects from the one that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 war.

● The aim of “Mao’s India war” in 1962, as Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has called it, was largely political: to cut India to size by demolishing what it represented—a democratic alternative to China’s autocracy. The swiftness and force with which Mao Zedong defeated 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 riles Beijing.

● Just as the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 set the stage for the Chinese military attack, the exiled Tibetan leader today has become a bigger challenge for China than ever. The continuing security clampdown across the Tibetan plateau since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the harsh Chinese crackdown in Tibet during 1959-62.

● The prevailing pattern of cross-frontier incursions and other border incidents is no different than the situation that led up to the 1962 war. Yet, India is repeating the same mistake by playing down the Chinese intrusions. Gratuitously stretching the truth, Indian officials say the incursions are the result of differing perceptions about the line of control. But which side has refused to define the line of control? It speaks for itself that China hasn’t offered this excuse. The fact is that Chinese forces are intruding even into Utttarakhand—the only sector where the line of control has been clarified by an exchange of maps—and into Sikkim, whose 206-km border with Tibet is recognised by Beijing.

● The 1962 war occurred against the backdrop of China instigating and arming insurgents in India’s northeast. Although such Chinese activities ceased after Mao’s death, China has come full circle today, with Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing into guerrilla ranks in northeast India via Burmese front organisations. In fact, Pakistan-based terrorists targeting India also rely on Chinese arms.

● China’s pre-1962 psychological war is returning. In recent years, Beijing has employed its state-run media and nationalistic websites to warn of another armed conflict. It is a throwback to the coarse rhetoric China had used in its build-up to the 1962 war. Its People’s Daily, for example, has warned India to weigh “the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” China merrily builds strategic projects in an internationally disputed area like PoK but responds with crude threats when others explore just for oil in the South China Sea.

● Just as India in the early 1960s retreated to a defensive position in the border negotiations after having undermined its leverage through a formal acceptance of the “Tibet region of China,” the spotlight now is on China’s revived Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal rather than on the core issue, Tibet itself. India, with its focus on process than results, has remained locked in continuous border negotiations with China since 1981—the longest and the most-fruitless process between any two nations post-Second World War. This process has only aided China’s containment-with-engagement strategy.

● In the same way that India under Nehru unwittingly created the context to embolden Beijing to wage aggression, New Delhi is again staring at the consequences of a mismanagement of relations. The more China’s trade surplus with India has swelled—jumping from $2 billion in 2002 to more than $30 billion now—the greater has been its condescension toward India. To make matters worse, the insidious, V.K. Krishna Menon-style shadow has returned to haunt Indian defence management and policy. India has never had more clueless defence and foreign ministers or a weaker Prime Minister with a credibility problem than it does today.

In fact, as it aims to mould a Sino-centric Asia, China is hinting that its real geopolitical contest is more with India than with the distant United States. The countries around India have become battlegrounds for China’s moves to encircle India. From a military invasion in 1962 and a subsequent cartographic aggression, China is moving towards a hydrological aggression and a multipronged strategic squeeze of India. China’s damming of rivers flowing from Tibet to India are highlighting Indian vulnerability on the water front even before India has plugged its disadvantage on the nuclear front by building a credible but minimal deterrent.

Whether Beijing actually sets out to teach India “the final lesson” by launching a 1962-style attack will depend on several factors. They include India’s domestic political situation, its defence preparedness, and the availability for China of a propitious international timing of the type the Cuban missile crisis provided in 1962. If India does not want to be caught napping again, it has to come out of the present political paralysis and inject greater realism into its China policy, which today bears a close resemblance to a studied imitation of an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

(c) India Today, 2011.