INDIA’S CHINA WAR
India’s China War, by Neville Maxwell.(Jonathan Cape.) 475 pages.
William Bundy, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, has made oneof the more perceptive comments on U.S. Vietnam policy. Writing about the “Pentagon Papers” in the French foreign affairs magazine, Preuves, he identifies “a fearful view of China” as the main factor behind themistaken 1964/65 escalation in Vietnam.
And if he had carried his analysis back further, he would almost certainly have identified the Sino-Indian hostilities of 1962 as the major factor behind this mistaken view of China. The border dispute between China and India is surely one of the most important incidents in post-war Asian history, and a study has long been overdue.
Mr. Maxwell’s book is the first detailed account of the events surround-ing the dispute. His thesis-that India, and not China, was largely responsible for the deterioration in Sino-Indian border relations after 1959,and that it was directly responsible for the fighting of October, 1962-is not new. As with Vietnam, other sources have long cast doubts on the official orthodoxy about the dispute. What is new is the detail ofMaxwell’s research and his use of confidential documents he managedto obtain from Indian sources to substantiate details which others haveonly been able to infer. His account of the day-to-day moves by the Indian military leading up to the futile attack on the Chinese in the Dhola Strip area is a classic in historical suspense.
But even without the Indian documents, the facts essential to an accurate understanding of the dispute, in particular Nehru’s order of 12 October to drive the Chinese from the Dhola Strip, have long been available. And as with Vietnam, the real question which needs to be answered is howobvious facts of communist/anti-communist conflicts can be hidden and distorted for so long by the bureaucratic press and academic establishments which postwar Western societies have spawned. Maxwell, who wrote for The Times from New Delhi during the 1962 fighting, was the only correspondent there who refused to accept uncritically the official Indian account of events. This led to his virtual expulsion from the country. My own experience as China desk officer in the Department ofExternal Affairs during 1962 may also be relevant.
At the time it was not difficult to realise that something was very wrong with the Indian statement of their dispute with China. Peking had all but declared openly it would renounce its not inconsiderable claim to the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), by far the largest and most valuable of the territories in dispute. Its claim to the Aksai Chin region inthe west seemed strong, and it was clearly moving towards an AksaiChin/NEFA exchange as a basis for settling the dispute.
Delhi, however, rejected this highly favourable proposal, and demanded a complete Chinese evacuation of the Aksai Chin. To validate its claimto the area its historians produced an obviously false quotation from aBritish proposal to China in 1899. During 1962 India began openly tomove troops into the disputed territory to force the Chinese from posi-tions they already occupied. Chinese protestations that this would inevit-ably lead to serious clashes were ignored. The Chinese argument thatan evacuation of the Aksai Chin should in all fairness be matched by anIndian evacuation of the NEFA was dismissed.
This in itself was remarkable enough, but Nehru then decided to goone step further and drive the Chinese out of territory to which Indiacould not conceivably have any claim. At the western end of theMcMahon Line which separates India and China in the NEFA there isa small wedge of territory known as the Dhola Strip. It was clear fromthe maps available before the fighting, and from the original of the McMahon Line circulated by the Chinese after the fighting began, thatthe area lay to the north of the McMahon Line. Even on the basis of co-ordinates given by the Indians the strip lay in Chinese territory.
I should add that this was not simply my own conclusion; it was confirmed (or at least failed to be denied) by the competent authorities in both London and Washington at the time.
Desk officers are responsible for initiating the processes by whichinformation passes up the bureaucracy to the policy makers. Immediately after the Chinese move to repel the advancing Indians from Dhola Strip,however, Canberra came out with its denunciations of “Chinese aggression” and pledges of unconditional support to India. Nevertheless, the evidence of Indian duplicity was so overwhelming that a paper settingout the background to the dispute and recommending conditions onAustralian aid to India was accepted up to a fairly high level in the Department. It was killed at the next rung on the bureaucratic ladder, however, on the grounds that it was “not in the Australian interest to seeany relaxation of tension between China and India”. The gentleman responsible for this wisdom was subsequently to oversee the first Australian commitment of troops to Vietnam.
The incident was symptomatic of much that was, and possibly still is,unhealthy in Australia’s foreign policy bureaucracy, its realpolitik pretensions in particular. It also provided a classic instance of how hatreds and fears are self-generating in foreign affairs. In effect, once the decision
is made that country A is the enemy, information to the contrary is suppressed by the bureaucracy leaving the politicians and the general public free to wallow in the fantasies of their imagination. The belief that China was responsible for the 1962 fighting led inexorably to Australian readiness to intervene in Vietnam to stop “the downward thrust of China”.
Even sadder in some respects has been the behaviour of Australia’s academic establishment. Despite a professed commitment to Asian studiesand generous government funds for this purpose, no Australian university as far as I am aware has produced any published academic study of theSino-Indian dispute. In seminars, books, papers and symposiums produced by these universities over the past nine years the assumption that China was responsible for the hostilities is reproduced with a blandness and lack of evidence that would embarrass even a communist historian discussing the causes of the Korean War. Symptomatically, Maxwell’s study was financed by British, and not Australian, research funds.
Two small criticisms of Maxwell’s book should be made. He seems to ignore the Indian point about differences in the Chinese 1956 and 1959 maps of the claimed Aksai Chin frontier. True, India at the time didnot make an issue of this; it was claiming the whole Aksai Chin and,just as China did not make an issue of India’s misquotation of the 1899 proposal because it did not want to imply approval of the proposal, Delhimade only brief mention of the map differences. The Chinese denied
there were differences. But one of the more rational explanations-in fact the only rational explanation-I have heard from Indian sources for the Indian case in the dispute hinges on the 1956 map: India’s move to patrol behind the Chinese 1959 line of control in the Aksai Chin was a reactionto an unjustified change in the 1956 claim line. Of course, if India genuinely believed the Chinese to have cheated it should have taken upthe Chinese 1962 offer for negotiations. The adamant Indian refusal ofthese negotiations undercuts Indian protestations of innocence and injury.
The other point is Maxwell’s interpretation of Nehru’s motives. He knows the Indian scene better than I do, but there is much evidence that Nehru up till 1959 genuinely favoured Chou En-lai’s compromise proposal for an Aksai Chin/NEFA exchange and was trying to prepare Indian public opinion. Why else would he have publicly cast doubt on India’sAksai Chin claim, as he did in the Lok Sabha during 1959? Alter theTibetan fighting and subsequent border clashes, however, he seems to havelost control of the situation and allowed himself to be swept along by the intense and irrational nationalistic passions generated throughout the country. Maxwell’s dissection of these passions is the major contribution of his book.