About the Book
This is one of those rare books that puts an entirely new light on a chapter of history, I and it must be read by anyone concerned with international affairs. Although cool and scholarly it unrolls like a fascinating thriller. It is an important work of revisionist history and a gruesome study of the way in which wars start, superbly documented (largely from official Indian sources but also from secret Indian papers) and beautifully sustained. By showing how India led the world up the garden path it demolishes and throws to the wind a pillar of the ‘contain China’ doctrine-the belief that in 1962 India was the victim of unprovoked Chinese aggression. Maxwell’s book is magnificent on every count, an historical achievement of the first rank.
About the Author
Neville Maxwell was in 1959 posted by The Times from the Washington bureau, where he had been for three years, to New Delhi as South Asia Correspondent. The Sino-Indian border dispute became a staple of his reporting from the first days of his appointment and, as with other Western correspondents, his approach was at first marked by a strong pro-Indian, anti-China bias. Belatedly becoming aware of that distortion he spent two years as a Senior Fellow at London University re-studying the whole issue (1967-9), and this revisionist account and analysis, India’s China War, first published in 1970 and now revised for this edition, was the result.
He did not return to daily journalism but continued his research and teaching of international affairs and Chinese policies as a Senior Research Officer at Oxford University. Now retired and living in Australia, he continues to write on international affairs and a selection of his works, China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, is due to be published.
Maxwell, an Australian, was born in London in 1926, served in the AIF at the end of WWII and was educated at McGill and Cambridge Universities.
Preface to the 2013 Edition
It 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 Sino-Indian 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, consequent on British actions over the previous decade to “rectify” the north-east border and give it strategic strength, a serious and fraught territorial dispute with China had been created. (“The Tibetans are complaining too but we needn’t bother about that.”) Then the “good news”: the historical record had been fabricated to indicate that the recently established north-eastern border was fully legitimate, as if it had been agreed to by China at the 1914 Simla Conference. Therefore independent India would be able to assert full rights of possession to the swathe of annexed territory and, refuting the complaints from China, could refuse to re-open the issue to diplomatic reconsideration.
Nehru might well have felt a flash of anger at what he was hearing, in effect a confession to the charges of ruthless expansionism and deceit that he had been hurling at the British Raj throughout his long years as its dedicated opponent. But now he was becoming what they were ceasing to be, custodian of India’s strategic interests, and as such he must have felt he could only welcome the strengthening of the frontier in the north-east they had brought about, and go along with the falsification of the historical record that would provide diplomatic cover if China persisted in its demand for restitution. Would China so persist? Certainly the Guomintang (Nationalist) party had proclaimed its determination to take back all the territory taken from China during its century of prostration, and the government under its control repeatedly warned both Britain and the incoming Indian authority that nothing emanating from the Simla Conference had legal validity.
But the whole issue of borders, their nature and role, had by this mid-20th century reached a point of fundamental change. Empires at their prime could define their own limits, imposing them on weaker neighbours and the limits of empire tended to be indeterminate, sovereignty fading away over distance rather than ending at fixed points. Frontiers were zonal rather than linear. So as the countries of Asia began emerging from Western dominance, the new-born Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chief among them, they faced a common task: completion of the conversion of their frontiers into boundaries.
That was indeed among the first formal expressions of their identity as modern states as they moved to emulate and catch up with the states of Europe which in the preceding three centuries, in step with the emergence of nationalism and the rise of the nation state, had pioneered the introduction of a new political institution, the boundary: a line agreed in diplomatic negotiation (delimitation), jointly marked out on the ground (demarcation), accurately represented cartographically and described verbally in a treaty between two states which thus recognised the precise limits of their own and their neighbour’s territory. Pre-modern states could exist within frontiers; modern states must have boundaries.
So far as independent India was concerned the border problem was spatially-limited because its land mass is peninsular. Extensive stretches of its land borders had already been transformed into boundaries by the departing imperial power. Where Pakistan had been cut out from India international boundaries had been laid along what were internal administrative divisions and the same applied to Burma. After wars and vexed negotiations the British had achieved a boundary with Nepal and demarcated it, and largely achieved as much with Sikkim and Bhutan. But the attempts of the British governments in London and New Delhi to create agreed borders between India and China had failed. In the western sector of the divided (two-sector) frontier with China there was no mutually agreed border at all; and as we have just seen, in the eastern sector imperial force and guile had created only a contested de facto border-line with a spurious claim to legality.
So far as the PRC was concerned, when it was established in 1949 the problem of the Sino- Indian frontier represented an important but small element of an immense task: negotiating or renegotiating to achieve agreed and accurately defined limits to sovereignty with about ten states (in time to grow to a dozen) contiguous with China over thousands of miles, often in almost inaccessible terrain. To add to the political problems, many sectors of that vast periphery represented the high-tide marks of foreign encroachments into the Chinese Empire, and the ousted but still vital Guomintang government had bequeathed vociferous and invidious commitments to the recovery of such “lost lands”.
The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party recognised that to take up that bequest would be to provoke intractable quarrels, probably conflicts, with most of China’s neighbours, especially and most dangerously with their friend the Soviet Union, inheritor of the vast Far-Eastern tracts of Chinese imperial territory annexed by the Tsars. Accordingly they decided that the new China would settle its boundaries on the alignments upon which history had left them. It took more than half a century, but by the end of the first decade of the 21st century China had amicably negotiated boundary agreements with ten of its twelve national neighbours. The exceptions were India and Bhutan.
Thus the problem of the McMahon Line had potentially been resolved before it became an issue between independent India and the PRC: China would legitimise it when the opportunity came in the routine border negotiation it expected to enter with India, as with all its neighbours; and meanwhile did not object as India hurried to extend the British beginning and make the McMahon Line the de facto border.
Tragically but inexcusably, Nehru misread and mis-applied that tacit acquiescence, deducing from it that China would, in effect, allow India unilaterally to define and impose Sino-Indian border alignments of its own choosing. In 1954 he ordered the production of new maps marking the whole northern border as a full international boundary, on an advanced alignment which showed Aksai Chin as Indian territory. Tightening the lock on his own approach and that of his successors, he ruled that “this frontier should be regarded as a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody” and ordering that as far and as soon as possible it be made good on the ground, “especially in such places” as might be claimed by China. With that instruction he lit the fuse that led to the explosion of border war.
Indian policy thereafter became based on the implicit assumption that because the new maps showed Aksai Chin as part of India the area for that reason had become part of India, with China having nothing legitimate to say about the matter. Furthermore, should it transpire that the Chinese already occupied the area and asserted the right to stay there, they would be committing aggression. It was as if there was no such thing as “disputed” territory: if India claimed it, it was Indian.
The Chinese leadership was slow to appreciate the obduracy of the Indian approach, and when Chou En-lai came to New Delhi in April 1960 he offered magnanimous terms for territorial distribution (“You keep what you hold, you take too anything that is in dispute and occupied by neither, and we keep what we hold”), and expected to be able to reassure his hosts that negotiation in the spirit of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation” would speedily resolve their differences. But he met an iron wall of refusal to .negotiate, an implacable insistence that China must withdraw from all territory claimed by India - why? An American scholar who spent years interviewing those who were Nehru’s closest advisers advanced this answer: “The Indians perceived in the Chinese wish to negotiate an attempt to denigrate the historical authenticity of the Indian nation. A true nation would not, in the Indian view, be asked to negotiate its historically evolved borders. That request or demand could come only from a neighbour who (like the former British rulers) regarded the Indian nation as an artificial creation”
That explanation seems bizarre but there is evidence to support it in a book by an Indian official closely involved in the dispute. He argued that a boundary comes into existence through natural human interaction, a “process of historic consolidation”; and that it needs for validation recognition by only one of the two states involved. That process of “historic delimitation”, he argues, obviates the need for delimitation by diplomatic process: all that is required is “public announcement” of the chosen alignment by the validating government.’ That is nonsensical, of course, an elaborated exposition of the claimed Indian right unilaterally to define and fix its and therefore China’s boundaries. The legal position is clear, and wholly contrary: “An international boundary cannot be fixed solely by the administrative act of one of the adjoining States. At least two parties must be involved and their joint efforts are necessary in order to effectuate an acceptable division between their territories .... [Absent such process; the international boundary remains undefined.
The Nehru government’s unyielding refusal to negotiate, coupled with its insistence on the right to send its forces to take control of the territory it claimed in the “forward policy” made armed conflict with China inevitable. Two factors controlled the timing of the war: first, the resistance of the Indian military high command to the government’s orders to launch a war that could end only in defeat; second, the patience of the Chinese government in the face of sustained Indian provocation. The establishment of courtier generals in Army HQ in 1961 removed the first impediment to enactment of Nehru’s folly and the patience of the Chinese leadership ran out in October 1962.
The strength of the armed force China could concentrate to meet the challenge being vastly greater than anything India could muster, defeat was ineluctable: what made it immediate and disgraceful was the corruption of the Indian army command structure brought about by years of political favouritism exercised by Nehru and other politicians. The army’s Operational Review of the debacle, the Henderson Brooks Report, makes this plain, and confirms what is clear enough from the diplomatic exchanges: that the accusation of a surprise attack by China in “unprovoked aggression” is false and baseless. India was explicitly and repeatedly, over more than a year, forewarned that China must one day retaliate in force. That may be why to this day Indian governments have still preserved its secrecy.
All governments since Nehru’s have also still maintained his refusal to negotiate, under the casuistic and specious distinction Nehru drew in 1960 to smoke-screen a change of tack: what he called the difference, “the world of difference”, between negotiating and “talking” While he would never negotiate over India’s border claims, he proclaimed, he would always be ready to “talk” about them. And every government in New Delhi has sat smugly impaled on that distinction, endlessly “talking” to China at various levels, never reconsidering the refusal to negotiate, that js to compromise on Nehru’s absurdly irredentist claim to Aksai Chin.
So the detailed account given in what follows must be uncomfortable reading for any Indian, but it should be encouraging, not depressing because it points a way ahead. Nehru’s folly did great injury to India (and to China and the international community) - but it can still be undone.’ The Soviet Union made the same mistakes in its initial policy over its borders with the PRC, refusing to negotiate its claims and trying to impose them by force, with the same result: armed conflict and defeat, followed by years of hostile confrontation. But then Mikhail Gorbachev, in an act of great statesmanship, reversed Moscow’s policy and took up the open Chinese invitation to negotiate. It took years but in 2005 in Vladivostok a Sino-Russian border treaty at last resolved centuries of territorial disputation and conflict.
The settlement of the Sino-Indian border could be comparatively straight-forward if only an Indian government would follow Gorbachev’s example and, taking up China’s ever-open invitation, begin negotiations. That it do so should be the urgent demand of the Indian political public.
Preface to the Previous Edition
The Sino-Indian boundary dispute was one of the most dramatic passages of international relations in the mid-twentieth century. It saw the world’s two most populous states, Asia’s great new republics, which had seemed to be set on a path of amicable co-operation in spite of their opposed political characters, fall out over tracts of desolate, difficult and useless territory, and ultimately fight a short, fierce border war. It sharply reduced the role and status of India in world affairs. Friendship with China had been the keystone of the foreign policy Jawaharlal Nehru had set for India: non-alignment, the refusal of India to throw in her lot with either of the blocks, Communist and anti-Communist, into which the world seemed then so neatly divided; self-reliance in defence, independence in foreign policy; concentration upon economic development, at the risk of allowing the armed forces to run down-of these depended upon friendship with China, and a peaceful northern border. Hostility with China, a live border in the north demanding huge defence outlays-these would bring down the whole arch of Nehru’s policies. With them would go Nehru’s political dominance in India and his international standing as a statesman.
The dispute and the border war which was its climax confirmed the general view of China as a bellicose, chauvinist and expansionist power. When, at the end of the decade, the Sino-Soviet boundary dispute became acute and those giants began to move towards war, recollection of China’s quarrel with India predisposed world opinion to accept the Russian version of the new dispute, and even encouraged the thought that China might now be getting what she deserved for her general intransigence over border questions. Of all recent quarrels between nations, none has been so fully documented as that between China and India: both sides explained their positions at great length and repeatedly, to each other and for anyone else who would listen. And yet the facts beneath the dispute seemed so obscure-and so few were ready to enquire into them objectively-that no recent international incident has been so widely and grossly misunderstood as this.
My interest in the subject began with my arrival in New Delhi to take up the assignment there as correspondent of The Times at the end of August 1959, when I immediately became engaged as a reporter in the events which this book recounts. The Longju incident, the first armed clash on the Sino-Indian border, had occurred a few days before I arrived; and for the next three years, until after the climax of the border war, India’s dispute with China, with all its ramifications, was a staple of my work.
I first came to rewrite the story of the Sino- Indian dispute as a section of a book I had planned on India in the 1960s, hinging on the death of Nehru in 1964. Initially I saw this as a matter of recasting and elaborating the tens of thousands of words I had written on the dispute as it developed, in my dispatches; but as I read again through the evidence in the diplomatic argument between the two Governments, set out in the long series of Indian White Papers, I realized that something much more full, fundamental and searching was required. This book is the product of my subsequent reappraisal. Its basic inspiration remains, however, my personal knowledge of the dispute as it was handled and felt in New Delhi. Personalities, in action and interaction, attitudes, even moods, played an important part in the dispute, and in the related political developments in India-and it is here, perhaps, that the journalist who watched the events has an advantage over the scholar coming later to the trail, when the evidence lies on paper only, and the smiles and frowns, the tones of injury or pride, the unregistered asides, have been forgotten.
Until I left India in mid-1967, I pursued my re-inquiry in long and repeated interviews with the politicians and officials who had been responsible for India’s handling of the dispute, and with the soldiers who had tried to give military expression to their Government’s policy. When I came as a senior fellow to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to complete this study and write the book, I tried first to put the subject into historical context: to see it not only as the collision of the two greatest Asian powers of the mid-twentieth century, but also as the continuation of one hundred and fifty years of political, military and diplomatic manoeuvring across and around the Himalayas. During the 1960s historians and other scholars had done much to elucidate the history of the Himalayan zone and of the borders that lie within it, and I have drawn on their work for the first section of the book. This traces the history of the disputed boundaries, and is essential, I think, for the understanding of what follows.
The scheme of the book is roughly chronological, but there are frequent overlaps in the different sections. An incident touched upon in one may be fully developed in another; or an event told from one point of view in one section may in the next be retold from the opposite side. The section ‘The View from Beijing’ is an attempt to see the dispute through Chinese eyes, and touches again on many of the developments described in the two previous sections. This attempt was required, I believe, because the whole dispute has so consistently been seen from the Indian point of view: and, as one Englishman observed of another early in the century, ‘it is no doubt difficult to convince anyone from India that there is a Chinese point of view which deserves consideration’
Wherever possible, I have given references for statements or quotations, but it will be seen that the density of such notes falls off sharply in the sections dealing with the border war and its preliminaries. In those (and at some other points in the book) I have drawn on material from unpublished files and reports of the Government of India and the Indian Army: I was given access to these by officials and officers who believed that it was time a full account was put together, and who lusted me to write it fairly. I cannot, of course, name them, nor cite the documents or files from which I have drawn the material; I can only thank them, and hope they will not be disappointed.
D.R. Mankekar, in his research for a history of the post-independence Indian Army, was similarly given access to unpublished files, and I am grateful to him for allowing me to quote from his original transcription of a crucial memorandum.
I have tried to understand what motivated both parties in the dispute-and believe I have succeeded to the extent, at least, that it can be seen that sometimes misunderstanding of the other’s position played its part in accentuating the differences between New Delhi and Beijing, intention has been only to narrate and clarify a historical incident I believe has been widely misunderstood, and which I myself misunderstood while it was happening. I have not meant to indict either side and indeed believe it can be seen that both often acted from motives of injured rectitude-which of course served only to sharpen the conflict.
One unavoidable imbalance in the book derives from the fact that my access to information has been immensely freer on one side of the dispute than on the other. India must be one of the most open societies in the world so far as its political processes are concerned, and in my research for this book I have greatly benefited from that virtue. But in this instance the Indian Government, in the short run at least, has perhaps suffered by its openness. A close scrutiny of the relationship between public words and private- indeed secret-attitudes rarely puts any government in anything but an invidious light; and Nehru, whose on-the-record utterances were so prolific, must be particularly vulnerable to the count of inconsistency, and transparent in his deliberate ambiguities. In contrast, no government is more secretive as to its inner processes than that of the People’s Republic of China, and in tracing Chinese policy formulation, I have had nothing to go on beyond what is on the public record. That is unusually full, but of course it must wholly omit the evidence of hesitation, inconsistency and division- and even dissimulation-which sometimes emerges from the record of the inner deliberations of the Indian Government and military. China’s policy therefore probably looks far more monolithic, perhaps even more pragmatic, than it would if one had in Beijing the sort of access I have had to Indian records. Perhaps future students of these events will be able to repair this imbalance, and, with fuller documentation at their disposal, will reveal inadequacies in the narrative and errors in interpretation.
I owe the opportunity to devote nearly two years to writing this book to the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University, and especially to its director, Professor C.H. Philips, whose interest, encouragement and advice were invaluable to me.
Among others whom I especially thank are: Ronald Segal, who has encouraged and counselled me in many matters concerning this book; Dr S. Gopal, whose encouragement to write the book has never been weakened by his certainty that he will totally disagree with it; Professor Michael Brecher, for a rigorous reading of the manuscript; Professor Alastair Lamb, who also helpfully read the MS and let me cite an unpublished paper of his on Aksai Chin; and Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, who from his own immediate knowledge of these events pointed out some errors of detail and emphasis. Miss Dorothy Woodman allowed me to draw on some new material in her Himalayan Frontiers; Kuldip Nayar gave me an advance reading of his book, Between the Lines; Professor Robert Huttenback read and commented upon my historical introduction; David Wilson, editor of China Quarterly, and Richard Harris, Far East specialist of The Times, read and commented upon my section on the Chinese view of the dispute; John Addis permitted me to quote from his unpublished Harvard paper on the Sino-Indian dispute. The maps are by D.R. Baker. Graham C. Greene’s interest in my writing, long sustained, has been a steady prop. Dr A.P. Rubin helpfully read my final draft. I am grateful to all these.
Responsibility for errors or misjudgements remains, of course, my own.
Preface to the 2013 Edition
Preface to the Previous Edition
The Limits of Empire
(i) The Western Sector
(ii) The McMahon Line
Part I: Collision Course
(i) The Course is Set
(ii) Evasive Action
Part II: The Forward Policy
Part III: The View from Beijing
Part IV: The Border War
(i) The Ridge and the River
(ii) Between Two Passes
Part V: Ceasefire
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