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Review: China’s India War by Bertil Lintner

Bertil Lintner, author of China’s India War, believes India and China are destined to be rivals because they are simply too different

books Updated: Feb 09, 2018 17:52 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhury
Pramit Pal Chaudhury
Hindustan Times
1962 India China War,Deng Xiaoping,Mao
Indian troops in Ladakh during the war between India and China, 1962-63.(Corbis via Getty Images)

There is a Neville Maxwell school of historiography regarding India’s 1962 war with China. It has reigned in much of the external world and left a footprint even in India. The Maxwell school has a lengthy curricula, but its principal text is that Jawaharlal Nehru’s Forward Policy provoked China into launching a full-scale military offensive. Maxwell believed the likeliest time for Mao Zedong to have made the decision to attack was thus “in mid-October 1962” just after India’s forward movement had led to an outpost being set up in Dhola, in the eastern Himalayas.

Lintner argues that “Chinese preparations for the war obviously began long before October 1962... Even if there already were new roads and military camps in the area, tens of thousands of more PLA troops and tons of supplies, including heavy military equipment, had to be moved over some of the most difficult terrain in the world.”

The evidence that he furnishes for this, however, is circumstantial.

One, Deng Xiaoping had said in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled to India that “When the time comes, we certainly will settle accounts with [the Indians].” Mao also told foreign delegations that he believed India had designs on Tibet.

Two, a known export on Chinese intelligence, Nicholas Eftimiades, has written that Chinese agents began entering what is today Arunachal Pradesh two years before the actual fighting.

Three, Indian POWs, most notably Brigadier John Dalvi, noticed that the Chinese had been building POW camps and truck-bearing roads well before the fighting broke out.

This is a warm but hardly a smoking gun. Fortunately, better evidence has been provided by the Chinese themselves. Research by the Chinese scholar Jianglin Li, in his book When the Iron Bird Flies and on his blogspot site War on Tibet has Mao telling his central committee in 1959, “When the time comes, we will settle accounts with [the Indians].” Chinese General Yin Fatang is cited saying orders to “resolutely fight back” India were given in May 1962.

Bertil Lintner (Per Lindquist)

Lintner is on firmer ground as he describes how India, China and various Himalayan regimes have sparred for influence over the past several decades. Lintner is at his best describing this playing out in the ethnic mosaic of the Northeast and Upper Burma, areas which he knows intimately, but chapters also look at Nepal, Bhutan and, less ably, Kashmir. Post-1962, he argues, China shifted to supporting insurgents like the Nagas and Assamese to trouble India – though even Beijing found the Naxalites too extreme. Parallels are drawn to China’s use of concocted territorial disputes to assert influence elsewhere, whether invading Myanmar in 1968, Vietnam in 1979 and today grabbing most of the South China Sea.

He develops scholar Claude Arpi’s argument that the 1962 war was useful for Mao to restore his authority at home, especially after the disastrous Great Leap Forward. While this sounds nice, it is questionable given at least one Chinese general’s account that Mao was nervous as to whether his army would be able to defeat the Indian military.

A better big picture argument, developed by Allen Whiting’s Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, is that Beijing was becoming increasingly nervous about its deteriorating ties with Moscow, Taiwan’s public threats to launch an attack on its western shore and its continuing difficulties in holding Tibet. The India border dispute was deemed part of a larger global conspiracy – and Nehru the weakest link in the chain. The last word on this will need access to Chinese Politburo archives.

Short work is made of other parts of Maxwell’s thesis. The Chinese, for example, have no historical right to Arunachal Pradesh. Lintner shows the Chinese set up border posts in that area for a brief period in 1911-12 and then, finding it impossible to hold, never returned again. He refutes Maxwell’s claim that the British Raj’s designated Outer Line in the Northeast was treated by London as a de facto border. British authorities specifically defined the Outer Line as a limit of administrative capacity not sovereignty. Maxwell’s claim that the Indian military’s post mortem of 1962, the Henderson Brooks report, blamed the Forward Policy was a simple lie. The report focused almost solely on tactical issues – as became evident when Maxwell posted the report on the internet years later.

Read more: China using Rohingya crisis to influence Myanmar: Japan envoy

Among the interesting insights the book provides is that the Chinese 1962 inroads into Arunachal Pradesh were limited to Arunach Tibetan language areas because they lacked surveillance agents trained in other languages. Lintner has a curious admiration for Krishna Menon and General Brij Mohan Kaul, both universally seen as culpable for India’s military defeat. He rightly reminds Indians of the shameful decision to put Chinese-Indians in a concentration camp in Deoli during the war.

Ultimately, he believes, Asia’s two giants are destined to be rivals because they are simply too different. “It is hard to imagine two cultures that are more different than India and China in terms of history, social structure and political culture” and the relations between them represent a true “clash of civilisations.”

First Published: Feb 09, 2018 17:48 IST