Remembering a War - The 1962 India-China Conflict
The Rediff Special/ Dr Gregory Clark
- Oct 24, 2002
frontier dispute of 1962 was a key part of my education in foreign affairs, even
though I was largely a bystander.
If I relate the details now, 40 years later, that is partly because they remain important
in themselves. But even more importantly, they are also crucial to understanding
the lying and duplicitous nature of Western foreign policies during the Cold War
For much of 1962 I was the official directly in charge of Chinese affairs within
the East Asia division of Australia's former department of external affairs. As a
Chinese language speaker, I had previously been stationed in Hong Kong as second
secretary for two years.
At the time it was obvious that India was pursuing a forward policy in all three
sections of the 'line of control' border with China. Posts and patrols were being
pushed further and further into territory that seemed clearly to lie on the Chinese
side of that border.
Beijing was warning heavily that if the pressure continued, inevitably there would
be conflict. I decided to look much more closely at the claims both sides were making
to disputed territory.
At the time, in any dispute involving China, Canberra's usual assumption was that
Beijing was in the wrong. China had been labelled an aggressor in the 1950-53 Korean
War. Taiwan was still a hot issue at the time, with China once again seen as an aggressor
following the very dangerous 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis involving the offshore islands
of Quemoy and Matsu (the civil war nature of Beijing's dispute with Taiwan had conveniently
1959 saw Beijing's suppression of the Tibetan uprising. By 1962 the Sino-Soviet dispute
was underway, with Beijing firmly seen as seeking to follow a much more anti-Western
and harsher ideological line than Moscow. None of us realised then what I later worked
out to be the key cause of the dispute, namely Khrushchev's withdrawal of the Soviet
nuclear umbrella from China during the Taiwan Straits dispute.
All this combined with events along the Sino-Indian border served to create in the
West the image of an aggressive China already on the move and out of control.
But when I began to look at the details of the Sino-Indian frontier dispute a totally
different picture emerged.
In the NEFA, China seemed tacitly to have accepted the Indian claim and the fact
of Indian occupation, even though this meant the loss of a very large and valuable
territory populated by Mongoloid people and which in the past had clearly belonged
to Tibet. It had come into Indian hands only as a result of British expansionism
during China's period of historical weakness, a fact firmly suggested by the very
name of the frontier Beijing had tacitly accepted as the line of control --- the
In the central sector there seemed to be little to contradict Chinese claims to the
small pockets of territory being contested. In the western Aksai Chin sector the
Chinese claim seemed overwhelming --- the facts that most of the land lay on the
Chinese side of the watershed, that China had built a badly needed road to connect
Tibet with Sinkiang through the barren landscape without New Delhi even realising
it, and that the population even on the Indian (Ladakh) side of the 'line of control'
border was Mongoloid and Tibetan Buddhist.
When thanks to Alastair Lamb's important book, The China-India Border, I discovered
that the Indian claim was based on serious distortions of 19th century British-Chinese
documents, I was amazed by the seeming vehemence of New Delhi's very weak claim to
the territory. (Distribution of Lamb's book was banned in India at the time.)
Even more disturbing was New Delhi's demand that China evacuate the entire territory
before there could be serious border talks.
In short, it was obvious that Beijing was preparing for a very reasonable compromise
settlement to the frontier dispute, namely giving up the NEFA claim in exchange for
India accepting China's Aksai Chin claim.
This would leave India in control of by far the most valuable piece of territory,
namely the NEFA. That India seemed to want to reject this very generous solution
seemed most unreasonable. The Nationalist government in Taiwan was already criticising
Beijing for being willing to abandon historical Chinese territory in the NEFA.
Gradually I began to realise that the entire dispute had to be seen in the context
not of border rights and wrongs, but rather of Nehru's anger over loss of an Indian
presence in Tibet after the establishment of the Communist regime in China and particularly
after 1959. He seemed to believe that somehow the situation could be reversed by
continued pressure on China.
At the time the details of how India had co-operated with the CIA in helping foment
the 1959 Tibetan uprising were not known. But Beijing was already providing good
evidence of Indian involvement. In short, and even without looking at the facts on
the ground, it was very likely that New Delhi, not Beijing, was instigating border
A key piece of evidence showing that Beijing was not trying to be aggressive along
the border was the so-called Tibetan Documents --- material captured from a Chinese
frontier post in mid-1962 and smuggled out to the West via Washington. Careful reading
of the documents made it clear that Beijing was very concerned about Indian policies
over Tibet, and warned Chinese officials constantly about the danger of Indian provocations.
In other words, China was clearly on the defensive. But none of the people around
me at the time seemed very interested in this kind of reliable inside evidence of
Chinese thinking. They had already decided that Beijing was aggressive, and that
When serious fighting broke out on October 20 as Chinese troops moved south across
the Thag La Ridge area following Nehru's October 12 order to have Indian troops occupy
the Dho La Strip territory, I made it my job immediately to check where the disputed
Dho La Strip territory was actually located. Extremely detailed and seemingly objective
material coming out of Beijing, including copies of the original McMahon Line agreement,
complete with maps, seemed to confirm that both the Dho La Strip and the Thag La
Ridge were indeed north of where the McMahon Line was supposed to be. In which case,
India was clearly the aggressor.
I sent cables to our offices in London and Washington with instructions to find out
whether British and US intelligence confirmed my conclusions about the location of
the strip and Indian activities there. A day or two later, probably around October
24, very guarded replies came back from relevant officials saying in effect that
my conclusions were not inaccurate.
What to do? Already London, Washington, and Canberra were coming out with strident
condemnations of Chinese aggression against peaceful India. Many were already saying
how this was the first stage in a Chinese thrust through to the Bay of Bengal. Canberra
had even announced that it would supply weapons to help peace-loving India resist
the Chinese aggressors.
I decided to send up a submission to my superiors saying that Indian claims of unprovoked
aggression from China were not quite as strong as most believed, and that Canberra's
rushed offer to supply weapons should at least be conditional on a New Delhi promise
to negotiate the frontier in a more serious manner.
My two immediate superiors accepted the submission, despite their normally rather
hawkish views. But it came to a dead stop in the hands of the then division head,
David Anderson, later to be Australia's ambassador to Saigon.
In the margin he had scrawled: "I fail to see that it is not in the Australian
interest to see the Chinese and the Indians at each other's throats."
For me, this was the ultimate example of the ugly Cold War realpolitik that was to
lead eventually to the mess that Anderson was to confront later in Vietnam. From
then on there was little more I could do, other than contemplate cynically Canberra's
puzzlement when the Chinese 'aggressors' failed to press on to the Bay of Bengal
and in fact returned to precisely where they had started, without even trying to
seize some of the NEFA.
Later, I resigned from external affairs in 1965 and became involved in the anti-Vietnam
War protest movement. At the time the myth of an 'expansionist' China, with heavy
emphasis on the 1962 Sino-Indian dispute, was being used constantly to justify Western,
including Australian, intervention in Indochina. The only answer, it seemed, was
for me to try to write a detailed book on China, pointing out the not unreasonable
nature of Beijing's foreign policies.
A key element in rebutting the 'China as Asian aggressor' image would be a chapter
giving full details of everything I knew about the 1962 Sino-Indian dispute. Other
chapters would discuss the Sino-Soviet dispute (where I had already worked out the
Taiwan connection), the civil war nature of the Taiwan dispute, and Tibet's role
in the Sino-Indian dispute plus the fact that Tibet has always been seen as Chinese
During a 1963-5 Moscow posting I had got to know India's top China expert, also posted
there at the time, and he had confirmed my feeling that Tibet was indeed the key
to Nehru's aggressive frontier policies.
The book, In Fear of China, finally appeared in 1968. I had assumed naively
that the detailed research I had done with so much effort on the Sino-Indian dispute
would be widely read and would awaken world opinion to the facts.
But publication had not been easy. At the time I was supposed to be studying the
Japanese economy full-time at the Australian National University. I had reluctantly
been given a mere six months to go off and write the book. The ANU Press, which earlier
had promised to publish the book, rejected it on the advice of the then heavily pro-government
foreign policy International Relations Department (it was also heavily infiltrated
by intelligence people determined to keep dangerous anti-government policy academics
like myself at bay).
Melbourne University Press also withdrew a promise to publish (its head was later
shown also to be closely involved with Australia's intelligence establishment).
Eventually I found a commercial Australian publisher --- the Lansdowne Press. But
its weak overseas connections meant the book, and the all-important Sino-Indian chapter,
could easily be ignored by the then ultra-hawkish US and UK foreign policy establishments.
The China Quarterly, then the main journal on Chinese affairs and at the time
edited by later UK governor in Hong Kong David Wilson, and which earlier had published
much supporting the Indian case over the border dispute, managed dismissively to
review my book in a single paragraph.
It was not until publication of Neville Maxwell's very important book, India's
China War, in 1972 that the facts could no longer be ignored. But by that time
it was too late. As Henry Kissinger is reported to have said at the time, if he had
known the facts of the dispute earlier, his image of Beijing as inherently aggressive
would have weakened, together with his support for US intervention in Indochina.
Former US secretary for defence Robert McNamara has also confirmed that the Washington
view of China as aggressive was the key factor behind that intervention, with its
three million deaths in Vietnam plus another million or so deaths elsewhere in Indochina.
And to think that it all began at that remote Dho La Strip, and that the inability
of people like myself to get the facts out was at least partly responsible for the