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NATRAJ PUBLISHERS New Delhi • Dehradun

Preface to the 2013 Edition Preface to the Previous Edition

HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION The Limits of Empire (i) The Western Sector (ii) The McMahon Line

ix xvii

01 03 27

Par artt I: Collision Course


(i) The Course is Set (ii) Evasive Action

61 145

Par artt II: The Forward Policy


Par artt III: The View from Beijing


Par artt IV IV:: The Border War


(i) The Ridge and the River (ii) Between Two Passes

Par artt V:


Afterword Notes Bibliography Index

331 410

473 507 511 531 537



t is likely that you will have heard of this book and probable that if so you will expect to find it strongly anti-Indian in tone and content. But all that this account of the origins of the SinoIndian border dispute and its development into war actually does is show that Indian governments, like others, can make grave mistakes; will never admit to those or feel able to correct them; and are always prepared to deceive their people, and indeed themselves. What is aimed at in this Preface is to offer a synopsis as guide to the detailed account that follows. There are in fact two territorial disputes between India and China, now conjoined but separate and distinct from each other geographically, in political origin and in the historical era in which they were created. The first, concerning the north-east and the McMahon Line, was created by the British in the final years of rule in India and thus was congenital to independent India; the second, in the north-west and involving India’s claim to the Aksai Chin area, was of India’s sole making and to a great extent the individual responsibility of Jawaharlal Nehru. The British will have briefed Nehru about the McMahon Line dispute in his apprentice days in power during the short period of Provisional Government that preceded Independence, and one can imagine a ‘first the bad news’ remark heralding the disclosure that,


ollowing the logic of power, empires in their expansive phases push out their frontiers until they meet the resistance of a strong neighbour, or reach a physical barrier which makes a natural point of rest, or until the driving force is exhausted. Thus, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British power in India expanded, filling out its control of the peninsular sub-continent until it reached the great retaining arc of the Himalayas. There it came into contact with another empire, that of China. In the central sector of the frontier zone, where lay petty states and feudatories, there began a contest for dominance over these marcher lands that continues to the present day. In the north-west and the north-east, where no minor, independent polities existed to act as buffers, the British sought secure and settled boundaries with China: these they failed to achieve, and the failure was to lead in the middle of the twentieth century to the border war between India and China.

 As the advancing British frontier approached the great knot of the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram mountains in the north-west, so imperial Russia advanced towards the same point from the other side. The same process made for the advance of both powers, conquest entailing the need for further conquest. The Russians explained the compulsion behind their advance:



. . . Russia had found herself brought into contact with a number of semi-savage tribes, who proved a constant menace to the security and well-being of the empire. Under these circumstances, the only possible means of maintaining order on the Russian frontier was to bring these tribes into subjection; but as soon as this had been accomplished it was found that the new converts to civilisation had in turn become exposed to the attacks of the more distant tribes. And so it became necessary to establish fortified posts among the outlying peoples, and by a display of force to bring them into submission.1 More pithily and less apologetically, an Englishman later described the imperial drive for expansion as ‘the natural impulse of the civilised to overrun the uncivilised on their borders.’2 But although these approaching empires were both in fact subject to the same compulsion to expansion, each concluded that the other was advancing in deliberate menace. The expectation of collision informed frontier policy in both St Petersburg and London. A constant and basic British aim developed: to keep the Russians as far as possible from the plains of India and their politically volatile cities; but the tactics varied in accordance with the attitudes of those setting policy in London and in India, and with the significance these attached to the role of the third factor in all their calculations — China. There were two principal schools of frontier policy: first, the forward school, which wished to see Britain advance to meet the Russian threat directly and as far away from the plains as possible; second, the moderate school, which pointed to the cost and risk of trying to establish boundaries in remote and immensely difficult country, suggested that the limits of British power should be set where they could more easily be supported, and proposed that the aim of keeping Russia back could best be served by interposing a third power between the lion and the bear. There were various possible players for that role: Afghanistan was one; sometimes small states such as Hunza looked likely; but, throughout, it was recognized that China, established in the area a century before British or Russian power reached there, would



best be fitted for the part — if the Chinese were capable of it, and if they could be persuaded to play. But there, the British were to discover, was the rub. Perhaps it was because experience with Russia had taught China that in the hands of her imperial neighbours boundary treaties were blades with which Chinese territory could be pared away; but in any event, the Chinese shied away from most British attempts to settle common boundaries with them. The history of British boundary policy in the north-west is an alternation of the forward and moderate schools in influence in London and India. These shared, however, a common purpose, the creation of a linear boundary. This was something required by modern states, but unfamiliar and even alien to their predecessors; to those, a sovereignty that shaded off into no-man’s-land, giving a frontier of separation rather than contact, was both more familiar and more natural. ‘The idea of a demarcated frontier is itself an essentially modern conception, and finds little or no place in the ancient world’, Lord Curzon observed at the beginning of this century, pointing out that, until then ‘it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place in Asiatic countries except under European pressure and by the intervention of European agents.’3 But a distrustful China was, for the most part, able to resist or evade British pressure, and so, at both ends of the Himalayas, noman’s-lands still separated China and India when these became independent in the mid-twentieth century. In the nineteenth century the border with China in the northwest did not much concern the British. Their attention was focused on the border with Afghanistan, and on the Russian threat that was believed to lie beyond it, and the pendulum of official favour swung between forward and moderate policy in that regard for decades. To the moderates, ‘the natural and impregnable boundary of our Empire’ was the Indus River.4 But with the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 the British, inheriting the domains of the conquered Sikh kingdom, advanced their power to the mouth of the Khyber pass, where they felt imperial logic beckoning them on to Kabul, and from there, perhaps, to Herat. The strategic



argument of the forward school could hardly be better put than it was by Lord Curzon: India is like a fortress, with the vast moat of the sea on two of her faces and with mountains for her walls on the remainder; but beyond these walls, which are sometimes of by no means insuperable height and admit of being easily penetrated, extends a glacis of varying breadth and dimension. We do not want to occupy it, but we also cannot afford to see it occupied by our foes. We are quite content to let it remain in the hands of our allies and friends, but if rivals creep up to it and lodge themselves right under our walls we are compelled to intervene because a danger would thereby grow up which might one day menace our security… He would be a short-sighted commander who merely manned his ramparts in India and did not look beyond.5

By 1880, however, the attempt to occupy the Afghan glacis of empire had led, as London complained, to two wars, ‘the employment of an enormous force and the expenditure of large sums of money [while] all that has yet been accomplished has been the disintegration of the state which it was desired to see strong, friendly and independent.”6 The forward school suffered eclipse, the moderates, with their prescription that Afghanistan should be a buffer state, held sway in Whitehall; and the British, relinquishing Kandahar, withdrew again behind their mountain ramparts. The problem became one of stabilizing Afghanistan, settling boundaries for it with Russia and Persia,* and then of agreeing with the Afghans on a boundary between themselves and the British; and that was not so easy. * Afghanistan had good reason to be pleased with the boundaries which the British and Russians gave her—for their own purposes, of course. The British helped the Afghans keep the Persians back from Herat; agreement between London and St Petersburg gave the Afghans a northern boundary along the Oxus, over territories which, had it not been for the desire shared between Russia and Britain to preserve Afghanistan as a buffer, would almost certainly have gravitated towards the Russian sphere. Only the Durand Line left the Afghans dissatisfied. For a discussion of Afghanistan’s boundaries see Lamb, Asian Frontiers (Pall Mall Press, London, 1968), pp. 86 ff.



non-negotiable’. Since Indian will not compromise on its territorial claims it cannot negotiate. It remained adamant even when China was prepared to yield to almost all of India’s demands, as when Chou came to New Delhi in 1960; and now that Beijing has itself become more rigorous in its declared approach, so the prospect of a Sino-Indian boundary settlement has receded. After Nehru’s death in 1964 successor governments moved steadily to restore normal diplomatic relations with Beijing, but in the critical matter of the border dispute there has been no change: the policy remains impaled on Nehru’s mantra, “India’s borders are non-negotiable”. Another Nehruist formula has also been extended. Under pressure to explain his agreement to meet Zhou Enlai after months of refusal, Nehru had declared that while he would not negotiate with the Chinese, he would always agree to talk to them. He explained: “There is a world of difference between negotiations and talks, a world of difference…. Talking must be encouraged whenever possible”. So for decades India and China have been “talking” about their border dispute – and have moved no nearer settlement because of that “world of difference”. Talks can continue indefinitely, or at least until Beijing loses patience: negotiation can begin only if India decides that, after all, its border claims are “negotiable”. In 1987 a kind of after-birth of the Indian forward policy brought the eastern border sector back to the point of war. Indian forces there were suddenly and massively increased on the initiative of an Army Chief eager for conflict, and several local advances were made across the McMahon alignment in deliberate provocation. Chinese forces mustered in preparation for another round, but in the event cooler heads in New Delhi prevailed and the confrontation abated into protracted hostile stalemate. In 1993 an Indian prime minister, Narasimha Rao, seeking to reduce the intolerable military burden left from the 1987 concentrations, dared to diverge from the Nehruist orthodoxy. Carefully lulling opposition parties into acceptance, he negotiated with Beijing a Treaty to preserve “peace and tranquility” along the borders through agreement on a broadly defined “line of actual



control” for mutual observance. Thus India took the first step toward settlement. But Rao soon lost office, no LAC was agreed, all that was accomplished was establishment of hot-line contact between the opposing military forces, and the agreement to reduce the opposing force levels to the practical minimum – an agreement which India recently announced the intention to break. Beijing’s approach to the problem of the Indian border is also essentially unchanged: that it can be resolved when, but only when, the two parties enter into diplomatic negotiations in a spirit of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”. But in detail it has hardened in the decades since Zhou En-lai first advanced it. Then his assurance to Nehru that China would accept the McMahon alignment was unqualified, and the settlement Beijng reached with Burma both demonstrated and confirmed the integrity of that commitment. In the 1980s, however, a change began to transpire. Speaking to an Indian delegation in 1981 Deng Xiaoping reminded them that China had “never asked for the return of all the territory illegally incorporated into India by the old colonialists” – a comment that perhaps should have raised the question, “What about territory illegally incorporated into India after independence, for example Tawang?” And a few years later it emerged that Beijing was not prepared to acquiesce in the Indian annexation of Tawang, but would expect its retrocession as part of a general border settlement. History gives substance to that position: while the McMahon map alignment put Tawang inside India, the British not only stopped their advance well short of that monastic centre, they offered to leave it in Tibetan possession permanently. China’s emphasis on Tawang sits within its assertion that the whole area south of the McMahon Line down to what was the “traditional and customary border” until the British unilaterally changed it in the mid-1930s, since 1987 named and constituted as the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is legally Chinese territory. That is a reiteration of the original and unchanging Chinese position: that China’s historic frontiers can be converted into legal international boundaries only through the normal process of diplomatic negotiation, and no change unilaterally brought about



by a neighbour’s forceful action will ever be recognized, unless as part of an agreement reached in negotiation. So the question, “Who is to blame for the Sino-Indian border dispute?” can squarely be answered: “India”. India created the dispute, made its resolution by diplomacy impossible, attempted to impose a settlement by force, and met defeat. It is India’s obdurate refusal to follow the example of all China’s other neighbours and open negotiations that makes settlement unattainable still. And it is India’s failure to implement and observe all the provisions of the 1993 “peace and tranquility” treaty which has ensured that the border areas remain zones of friction, rife with the possibility of renewed conflict. There seems no realistic possibility of a future Indian government coming to accept that the intractability of the border dispute is factitious and India’s fault and responsibility, and taking up Beijing’s open invitation to enter negotiations. The Indian political class’s deluded sense of injury and resentment against China seems too widely and deeply engrained to allow any democratically responsive administration to undertake such a profound reversal of policy, much less support it through the difficult negotiations that would probably be needed now to achieve a settlement. So the expectation must be that the present wary stalemate along the Sino-Indian borders, veering occasionally, as now, towards tension and armed confrontation, will persist indefinitely – unless perhaps it is broken by the deliberate policy of a reckless government in New Delhi.

India China War  
India China War