Saturday, December 05, 2020

Can India Still Avoid Becoming Collateral Damage In US-China Row?

The clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley – that has caused the deaths of Colonel Santosh Babu of the Bihar Regiment and reportedly 19 other Indian Army personnel, and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties – should not surprise us. Given the increasing tension on the Sino-Indian border, it was only a matter of time before the situation exploded as it has now. According to sources, more than twice this number of casualties has occurred on the Chinese side.

Ironically, this violence has taken place during the de-escalation process.

As the Indian Army statement notes, “During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday (Monday, 15 June) night, with casualties on both sides. The loss of life on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”

Indeed, on Saturday, 13 June, Indian Army Chief MM Naravane had himself said that both armies “are disengaging in a phased manner” from the Galwan Valley, and that the military talks between the two sides had been “very fruitful”, and that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control.”

India-China Border Violence: Collapse of Confidence Building Measures Regime

The Ministry of External Affairs has charged that the incident was the outcome of an effort by the Chinese forces to “unilaterally change status quo there.” The Chinese seem to be suggesting that the boot may be on the other foot.

Reports suggest that a quarrel over the Chinese side not removing a tent, which they had previously committed to do so, was the immediate provocation for the scuffle.

The situation got out of hand; people have lost their lives or been injured, and both sides are now trying to contain the problem. It needs to be noted that while iron rods and stones are not guns and knives, they can be equally lethal – and it is a wonder that someone hadn’t got killed until now in the other scuffles that have been happening in recent years.

More than anything else, the event in Galwan Valley marks the breakdown of the 27-year-old Confidence Building Measures (CBM) regime, through which the two sides were trying to work out a mutually acceptable border, even while maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control.

Earlier there had been clashes, such as the ones in Sikkim in 1967 when artillery was used, leading to hundreds of casualties. Then there was the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in Sumdorong Chu Valley and other areas near Tawang in 1987, but this had ended without any physical clashes.

Why We Shouldn’t Underestimate Seriousness Of India-China Border Violence

In a peculiar way, the incident in Galwan on the night of 15 June 2020, can also be seen as a ‘success’ of the CBM regime – that the casualties were the outcome of stone-pelting rather than the substantial weaponry both sides have brought up near the LAC. In some ways, this was a repeat of the violent clashes that occurred in Pangong Tso on 5-6 May, when soldiers on both sides clashed with iron rods and stones, with several being injured on both sides.

Given the massive military deployments along the LAC, we should not underestimate the seriousness of the situation. The reason is that with the CBMs breaking down, there will be little to restrain the two sides in an area where there is no recognised border. 

If both sides begin to press their claims unrestrainedly, or create new claims, we have all the ingredients for a larger conflict. Neither side can afford to have one at this time when they are reeling from an attack by another enemy — the COVID-19 virus.

If Beijing Thinks New Delhi May Throw Its Weight Into US Camp, Then All Bets Are Off

Already, it seems clear that the Chinese want to redraw the LAC in the Galwan sector. There have never been clashes earlier in this area since the end of the 1962 war when Indian posts upriver were wiped out or withdrawn during the conflict. The Chinese motive now seems to be two-fold – one being to threaten the vital Indian road running along the Shyok linking Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie.

They know fully well that this means a major shift in maintaining peace and tranquility on the LAC, and here, their signal seems to be aimed at India’s steady drift into the American camp.

As long as India maintained its strategic autonomy, it could leverage its independence for the guarantee of China’s ‘good behaviour’.

But if Beijing thinks that New Delhi has decided to throw its weight into the American camp, then all bets are off.

Whether India has indeed begun the process of becoming a military partner of the US or not is unclear. The Modi government has taken several steps, including the signing of three of four foundational agreements to cement military-to-military ties, and upgraded the Quad dialogue to the ministerial level.

But the sheer scale of the casualties on the LAC will now drive decision-making in South Block – and that is not a good thing.


Why India Must Remain Cautious – And Not Become ‘Collateral Damage’

In normal times, the situation could have been managed, as, indeed, it was through the Wuhan and Chennai summits. But these are not normal times.

COVID-19 has greatly heightened US-China tensions, and given the rhetoric coming out of Washington, Beijing could be on edge. And what we are witnessing on the India-China border is a manifestation of that. 

Our endeavour should be to stay out of any Big Power conflict in which we could be collateral damage. But the number of dead may force India’s hand in taking an action that generates its own dynamic.

Quint June 17, 2020

China & Post-COVID World: Worries Facing Xi Jinping as He Turns 67

Last year, China President Xi Jinping got surprise gifts on his birthday. Russia President Vladimir Putin presented him a cake, a box full of ice cream and a vase, at the hotel they were staying in at Dushanbe, for a summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). This was clearly a return gesture as Putin revealed that he had spent his 61st birthday in 2013 drinking vodka shots and eating sandwiches with Xi.

It is unlikely that on Monday, 15 June, when Xi celebrates his 67th, his friend Putin will be around. These are hard times for all, and friendship is a scarce commodity

Xi has just about managed to turn the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is still caught in the vortex of the consequences of shutting down the Chinese economy, albeit for a while. As for Putin, COVID-19 rages in Russia and having taken a heavy toll, it may only now be on a downward course.

‘COVID-19 One of the Biggest Tests in Xi’s 8 Years of Governance’

A year ago, China amended its Constitution to remove term limits on its Presidency. But Xi is not just the President of the People’s Republic of China, he is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, as well as the supreme commander of the People’s Liberation Army, offices that have not had any term limits anyway.

Not for nothing is he called “the Chairman of everything.” In fact, another amendment to the Constitution has added “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” into its preamble.

In the nascent stages of COVID-19, in January 2020, the political situation in China was not the greatest, but it was not too bad, despite the ongoing strife in Hong Kong. Japan had come around, Xi was planning a visit, his first, to his neighbour, marking a possible entente. He had managed to strike a Phase I trade deal with the United States, which would not have ended the confrontation, but certainly moderated it. As for India, the Chennai summit of 2019 had confirmed the détente struck at Wuhan the year before.

Within the country, the modernisation of the military was continuing apace and the government was moving, although slowly, to reform its economic structure. Hong Kong was the one visible mess and the Party had finally decided to act on it. But this has not been known till recently.

Suddenly, COVID-19 hit, and for a while, the Chinese ship began to list. As a Xinhua commentary acknowledged on the day Xi visited Wuhan for the first time after the pandemic on 10 March, this was “one of the biggest tests in his eight years of governance.”

The visit marked the turning point of the COVID-19 crisis for China, a period that led to shuttered businesses and factories and even the postponement of the National People’s Congress. After initial mis-steps, Xi gambled by taking unprecedented measures that curbed the virus’ spread in China, though it continued to ravage Europe and the US, and has yet to stop its deadly course around the world.

Changing Global Equations Amid the Pandemic

Today, the whole world has changed. In China COVID-19 brought huge job losses in its wake. Besides the formal unemployment of largely urban workers, migrants who are registered as living in rural areas lost their jobs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, as many as 80 million people were out of work during the lockdown, this is more than the 26 million stated in government figures. Recovery has begun, but the path to the future is uncertain, especially because of the breakdown with the US.

As COVID-19 hit, Xi worked the phones with world leaders, first the Americans, Russians and the British, mainly to gather support. He also spoke to others such as Moon Jae-in, King Salman, and leaders of various other countries, but there was no conversation with Shinzo Abe or Narendra Modi. There were clearly faultlines that became more visible in the succeeding months.

With the US, relations were on the verge of beginning to mend following the Phase 1 trade deal in January, but the pandemic has taken them several notches lower. The two countries are now on the verge of a New Cold War, with Washington stepping up restrictions against Chinese companies and talking of a larger process of decoupling.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, relations with Japan were doing well. Xi had been scheduled to make his first visit to the country as the leader of China in April. But the pandemic led to its postponement and now it is not clear whether it will take place this year. The issue is no longer about timing, but a deterioration of the relationship, triggered by the Chinese decision to pass a new security law in Hong Kong. But it has definitely been affected by the tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Tensions with India are so far manifested by the give-and-take along the Line of Actual Control. In that sense they do not bring Xi directly into the equation. Ties with India are, no doubt, a function of its relationship with the US.

With the torrent of bad news, Xi has also had to confront the damage to his cherished Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Across the developing world, China is facing calls for forgiveness of some, and possibly even all, loans they have given. Having somewhat recklessly loaned money on a scheme that had the imprimatur of the President himself, the Chinese banks are now in trouble.

Following the G20, China agreed to freeze all debt repayments for the poorest countries till the end of 2020. But it has said nothing about forgiveness. You can’t blame them, considering the total amount is to the tune of $0.6 trillion. But since it is Xi’s signature initiative, we are likely to see a retrenchment of the plan, rather than its collapse. As for now, China has kept the BRI active as the “Health Silk Road,” which is seeking to provide medical supplies to the COVID-19-hit countries.

Time to Reflect on His Signature Policies?

The COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown and the freeze of normal governance activity and travel may have given Xi some time to reflect on his own signature policies, whether they are the China Dream of strong military power, economic reform in China, or of the BRI.

Xi must be wondering whether it was a good idea to, at least theoretically, be able to extend his tenure as President indefinitely. Any way you look at it, China now faces a sea of troubles and uncertainty for the rest of his second term till 2023. He can be pardoned for wondering if it may not be a bad idea to join his predecessors in working on gardening and grandchildren thereafter.

Speaking of birthdays, Xi’s American bete noire Donald Trump continues to haunt him, having celebrated his the day before, on Sunday, 14 June.

Quint June 15, 2020

India-China Tensions: Betting on a Quick Return to Status Quo Ante Would Be Hazardous

There should be no surprise at the insipid Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on the India-China border issue. It tells us what we already know 1) a meeting was held between the Corps Commanders of India and China on June 6 and 2) the two sides were maintaining their military and diplomatic engagement to peacefully resolve the situation.

There is no word on whether there has been any kind of disengagement, or even a commitment towards one in all, or any one of the problem areas—Galwan, Gogra or Pangong Tso. We may, in the coming months, be able to persuade the Chinese to thin their deployments near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but betting on a quick return to the status quo ante would be hazardous.

A new and nervous era

A lot of the commentary we have seen on the Sino-Indian contretemps on the LAC has been about history, geopolitics and cartography. It could actually be the harbinger of a new and nervous era, a geopolitical side-effect of the terrible COVID-19 pandemic which is racking the world.

Instead of following the rational path of uniting to fight a common public health calamity, as we have done in the case of polio, HIV, small pox and so on, this time, geopolitical nerve points are being deliberately inflamed.

The US seems to be moving from trade war to decoupling and has successfully persuaded its old allies, Australia and the UK, to once again march to its drumbeat. Japan, which was on the verge of an entente with China earlier this year, seems to have drawn back. And China which is never too comfortable with disorderly things, is like a blindfolded person, hitting out in all directions with the belief it is protecting itself.

And then there is India. As usual, after the “masterstroke” that was the lockdown, the Narendra Modi government is trying to cope with its consequences. And as it appears unable to do so, it a) throws the issue back to the states, after having ridden roughshod over them in the first place and b) simply declares victory, even as people are starting to die across the country in ever larger numbers from a pandemic multiplied by the original “masterstroke” without any supporting plan to exploit its advantages.

So what has happened on the border? First and foremost, the LAC is something of a ghost line. It’s not delimited on any map, leave alone marked on the ground by a fence or boundary pillars. Whether this side of a nullah or a ridge is Chinese territory, or that, is a matter of perception and, when push comes to shove, physical possession.

So, whether it is in Galwan or in the Pangong Tso Finger 4-Finger 8 area, the system worked when both sides observed the rules of the game, worked out laboriously through a regime of Confidence Building Measures – the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement, the 1996 Military CBM agreement, the 2005 Protocol on CBM implementation along the LAC, and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013.

Now, one of the parties seems to be suggesting that new rules be worked out. It is true that China has, for the past decade, trying to get India to freeze its border infrastructure construction. It is also true that India has, instead rightly accelerated the process since it was badly placed in terms of infrastructure along the LAC, as compared to the Chinese. Because of this, curiously, it maintained a stronger forward presence along the LAC than the Chinese did. And some of this is clearly making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) nervous. Whether it was the COVID-19 outbreak, or something else, it has decided to act nowA warning from 2017

But we should have heeded the warning from 2017 that was contained in an article in the South China Morning Post in the wake of the Doklam crisis, written by Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, a familiar figure in the Chinese information war circuit and an honorary fellow in the PLA Academy of Military Sciences. According to Zhou, India would be the net loser of the crisis because “the disputed border was not on China’s strategic radar” till the Doklam standoff. The PLA had since reconsidered its assessment of the strategic importance of the Sino-Indian border and would begin to upgrade its military capabilities there. And that is what has happened.

Till Doklam, China had a relaxed posture, keeping just five PLA brigades in Tibet with a capacity to reinforce them to 30 divisions. Its Air Force lacked adequate bases, and even where the PLAF operated, the bases lacked bomb-proof shelters for parking combat aircraft. But things have changed in the last three years. The PLA is being equipped with newer weapons and more cantonments have come up to house them permanently. And so have bomb-proof facilities for fighters, at least in the main base at Lhasa’s Gonggar airfield.

All this has, of course, been happening in recent years, but now we are seeing a new nervous tic that COVID-19 may have given to the global body politic. It could be signalling hard times ahead.

The Wire  June 12, 2020

The race for Covid-19 vaccine

EVEN as the US is tightening the screws on China on account of 5G technology, another, perhaps more consequential, front may be opening up in its new Cold War with China. According to a report, Beijing may deploy a coronavirus vaccine as early as September, even if the clinical trials are not finished. This is being justified as an effort to protect ‘at risk’ groups like medical personnel, but it is also about who comes first in the race for an effective vaccine.

While a ‘gold standard’ vaccine will take time, the contest is as much about prestige as about saving millions of lives and earning billions of dollars.

This contest is as much about prestige, as about saving millions of lives and earning billions of dollars. For China, it is also about redemption, given its inexplicable delay in informing the world about the outbreak.

We can only hope that following the unseemly conduct of countries in restricting the export of medicines and medical equipment at the outbreak of Covid-19, we will not see ‘vaccine nationalism’ when their efforts bear fruit.

The Chinese see themselves against a US effort triggered by President Trump’s call, in mid-May, for developing a vaccine at ‘warp speed’. To meet the target of a vaccine by October — in part motivated by the US elections in November — the US’s Biomedical Advanced Research & Development Authority (BARDA) said they would provide $1.2 billion support to Oxford University-AstraZeneca to deliver 300 doses of their potential vaccine by the end of September.

As of now, there are 224 candidate vaccines in development globally, according to the data collected by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). While North America has the largest number of projects — 49 per cent — China is the furthest along the track with five vaccines in phase II human trials, more than any other country.

Of the 10 vaccines that are at the stage of human trials, six are Chinese, and it is the only country with a vaccine which has advanced to phase II. This is the Can Sino Biologics-Beijing Institute of Biotechnology product using the ‘non-replicating viral vector’ design, similar to the Oxford University one, and whose phase I trial was reported on May 22 by Lancet.

Other leading candidates are being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech of Germany, Moderna and Inovio of the US, and a clutch of Chinese institutions like Sinovac Biotech, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Shenzhen Geno-Immune Medical Institute. Most of them are completing their phase I trial.

Both the US and Chinese militaries are active in the vaccine development front. The Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, which is working with Can Sino, is part of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, whose star is a top virologist, Major General Chen Wei. In the US, the Army Medical Research Institute and the Walter Reed Institute of Research are also working to develop a vaccine.

The effort is seeing innovative approaches and new kinds of partnerships to ensure that, when certified, the vaccine will be available at the fastest speed and most widely distributed. Besides AstraZeneca, BARDA has also agreed to give $483 million to Moderna and $500 million to Johnson & Johnson for their efforts. But, BARDA’s 300 million doses are obviously aimed to cover all US citizens. The real battle is to ensure that it reaches the globe’s billions.

For this reason, Oxford University has a prior agreement with AstraZeneca to distribute the potential vaccine at no profit for the duration of the epidemic. Another British effort through the Imperial College’s laboratory would bypass the drug industry entirely. According to the New York Times, the vaccine, using specifically engineered genetic material—RNA—is cheaper and easier to make than Moderna’s, which uses a similar technique, and so would be ideal for global use.

A major player in these efforts is CEPI, launched in Norway in 2017 to finance new vaccines. It has among its sponsors, the Norwegian and Indian governments, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. CEPI has provided initial support and funding to Curevac, Inovio, Moderna, Novavax, University of Queensland, University of Hong Kong and Oxford University and a consortium led by Institut Pasteur and Clover Biopharmaceuticals.

AstraZeneca has arrived at a $750 million agreement with CEPI and GAVI to provide 300 million doses of their vaccine for the poorer countries by the end of the year. A major share of this effort will be achieved through the partnership with the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker based in Pune, to make a billion doses of their vaccine eventually.

Vaccines against viruses are notoriously difficult to develop. There is none, despite huge expenditure and effort, against HIV as yet. They can take a great deal of time, but the coronavirus pandemic is pushing its own envelope. A ‘gold standard’ vaccine—giving protection of six months, at least 50 per cent effective and able to prevent the transmission of the virus—will take time. The early vaccines may provide limited protection for frontline workers and medical personnel.

Technology has always been a major element in global power equations. Some of it has been good, and some bad. In some cases like nuclear power, it has both facets. But now, for the first time, we may be seeing biotechnology emerge as a factor as well.

Tribune JUne 9, 2020

Friday, December 04, 2020

Indo-China Row Signals Breakdown of Confidence-Building Measures

The statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on the India-China Army Commanders meeting that took place on Saturday, 6 June, was anodyne. Expecting anything more at this stage would be premature.

The operative line of the statement is that “the two sides will continue the military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the situation and to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

Having heard each other out – at the Chusul-Moldo point on the Line of Control, near Pangong Tso Lake – in two sessions totalling six hours, India’s 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and the South Xinjiang Military District Commander Maj Gen Liu Lin wanted their respective headquarters in New Delhi and Beijing to weigh in on the issue, before making any commitments to each other, let alone revealing the outcome to the media.

On Friday, there had been a video conference between the Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Navin Srivastava and the Director-General in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Wu Jianghao, to discuss bilateral relations, including the Ladakh issue.

Note a key point here. Unlike India, where the MEA and the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval are responsible for the border policy, in China, the PLA is a power unto itself and it may or may not consult, or even inform the MOFA of issues.

The two meetings on Friday and Saturday suggest that getting the Chinese to back off from the positions they have taken in the Galwan Valley, Gogra/Hot Springs and Pangong Tso could take time.

Given the systematic manner in which the PLA has acted, it would suggest that the process would not be easy, since the action itself is not the reflex of some local commander, but something carefully thought through with a particular end in view.

The problem, however, is to determine just what that end could be, taking into account the possibility that China is working to obtain more than one goal.

What the events of the past month and more are signalling is a breakdown of the long and laboriously-constructed Confidence Building Measures (CBM) regime, that had been established to maintain peace along the LAC.

If Beijing is not willing to move back from the positions it has seized in this period, the past CBMs stand nullified and we could see a tit-for-tat process of both sides occupying suitable positions on the LAC.

This would be dangerously escalatory. And the Chinese should be forewarned that with the improvements in the infrastructure on the Indian side and our denser deployments along the LAC,  they could find the going tougher than they may have anticipated

Confidence Building Measures

The first CBMs arose from the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA). This gave rise to the very notion of a “Line of Actual Control (LAC)” marking their border on the Himalayas. Since there were varying perceptions regarding where the LAC lay, they committed themselves to jointly checking and fixing the parts of the line where they had “different views as to its alignment”.

Associated with this was the notion that the two sides would progressively reduce their military deployments along the LAC to a “minimum level”, based on the principle of “mutual and equal security”. This far-reaching agreement was aimed at not only calming the LAC, but building a peaceful trajectory to Sino-Indian relations.

The follow-on second CBM was the 1996 agreement on “Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”, spelt out some measures to clarify the LAC and to work out limits of their respective militaries and various armaments such as tanks, infantry combat vehicles, howitzers, SAMs and SSMs on the LAC. Combat aircraft and helicopters were barred from flying within 10 km of the LACA decade later came the third big military CBM, which was the 2005 “Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”, which was essentially built on the 1996 agreement.

The agreement spelt out the standard operating procedures on what would happen when patrols met each other on the territory that both countries claimed. They would display a first banner emblazoned, “This is Indian/Chinese territory”. They would then flash the second banner, on which would be written, “Turn around and go back to your side”. Instances when these banners had to be shown were later termed “face-offs”.

Since 2008, alarmed at the Indian actions in strengthening their border defences, China began proposing that the two sides sign a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). Beijing somewhat ingenuously wanted India to freeze border construction, arguing that it was not necessary in the light of the other CBMs. But India demurred.

In January 2012, the two sides signed a fourth CBM on the establishment of a working mechanism for consultation and coordination on India-China border affairs. This was seen as a move to replace the old joint working group process that linked the two foreign ministries. But this was not enough to prevent the Depsang face-off in March 2013.

Following the event, the fifth agreement, BDCA was finally signed on 13 October 2013. Significantly, while all the other CBMs and MoUs were signed by civilian officials, the signatories of the BDCA were India’s Defence Secretary and Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA.

It was evident then, and it should be now, that the PLA plays an autonomous role in shaping Chinese foreign policies.

This agreement reiterated the previous agreements and enhanced the interactions of the military operations departments and the defence ministries. The two countries agreed that even while observing the provisions of the past agreements, they would not tail the patrols of the other side in areas where there was no common understanding of the LAC.

Subsequently, the PLA wanted to discuss a sixth pact which would be a code of conduct on the border areas. In his visit to China in 2015, Prime Minister Modi strenuously advocated that the two sides must take measures to resolve their border issues, and if not, return to the 1993 process of clarifying the LAC. The Chinese side-stepped the issue saying that the process of clarifying the LAC had “encountered difficulties.”

Difficult Times?

The process of clarification was agreed to through the 1993 and 1996 agreements. The two sides exchanged maps revealing their perceptions of where the LAC lay. Then, in 2000, they exchanged maps of the western sector.

But, according to Indian officials, so varied was the perception of the LAC here, that the Chinese side called off the process. The Chinese side clearly sees an advantage in an unsettled LAC, and after the BDCA failed to resolve all the issues, they began suggesting that the outstanding problems could be incorporated in a CoC that the two sides would adhere to.

All these agreements understood that there were differing perceptions of the LAC. To paraphrase the witty general: The Chinese have a version of the LAC, and the Indians have their own; and then you have the Chinese understanding of where the Indians place the LAC and an Indian view of the Chinese perception of their LAC.

But these differing perceptions were limited to 14-18 points along the LAC and both sides patrolled to where they saw their LAC. The CBMs were aimed at reducing – if not eliminating – tensions arising from this. But now, the Chinese seem to be suggesting that those agreements are no longer valid – they will not let the Indians do what they have been doing all this while. If this is indeed so, we are in for difficult times.

Quint JUne 7, 2020

Why Only Blame Nehru For India’s Defeat in 1962 War With China?

Some time in late 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru summoned Indian Army Chief, General KC Cariappa, and asked him whether India could intervene and block a Chinese takeover of Tibet.

The chief’s forthright answer was ‘no’ — given India’s commitments in the west (re: Pakistan) and the disorganised state of the Indian armed forces. He could, at best, spare one battalion (about 900 men) and that too, for deployment at Yadong or Gyantse, across Nathu La, near Sikkim. Subsequently, Nehru sought and got Cariappa’s advice put down on paper in writing.

In 1962, Nothing Could Have Prepared Us for Communist Party of China’s Ruthlessness

To many today, Nehru’s record is marred by the military defeat that India suffered at the hands of China in 1962. Even though many key papers and documents remain classified, Nehru’s China policy is seen as a monumental failure. To an extent, this view is magnified by people whose goal is more ambitious — dismantle the entire legacy of Nehru — his role in fighting for freedom, giving shape to the new republic, building the ‘temples of modern India’ — science and technology institutes, steel and power plants, dams — and giving the country a modern outlook, one that rejects obscurantism and communalism.

As Ranjit Kalha noted in his monumental India-China Boundary Issues, the military option in Tibet was extremely hazardous and could not have been accomplished without British or American help. Both were ‘strongly disinclined’ to assist and, in fact, discouraged India from exercising that option. Neither India nor UK, or any member of the Permanent Five in the UN, acted on Tibet’s request to take up the issue in the UN.

Once the PLA had occupied Tibet, it was a foregone consequence that there would be friction on the border given China’s built-in irredentism.

Given the lie of the land and the lack of capacity on the Indian side, we would be on the receiving end. Nothing could have prepared us for the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the psychotic ruthlessness of its leader Mao Zedong.

1962 Indo-China War: Very Little That India Could Have Done Differently

Nehru’s handling of China was torn between his idealistic vision of a resurgent Asia in which India and China would be friends, and the practical consequences of a major power establishing its authority in the northern borders of India. But once the military option was ruled out, he had few other choices. He sought to promote the notion of an autonomous Tibet, but the Chinese outflanked him by their 17 Point Agreement of May 1951 under which the Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, accepted the sovereignty of China.

In retrospect, there is actually little that could have been done differently except that India could have parlayed its recognition of the new People’s Republic of China and the surrender of Indian privileges in Tibet, for Beijing’s recognition of the boundary.

As for the boundary itself, Nehru was clearly outplayed by Zhou Enlai. He strung the Indians along for nearly a decade and only told us in 1959 that in their view, that there was no agreed Sino-Indian border.

Yet, there was also a realistic side to Nehru which quickly acted to consolidate Indian influence across the Himalaya. First, he helped in overthrowing the rule of the Ranas and re-establishing the authority of the Nepali monarchy. The Indo-Nepal Agreement of July 1950 remains a monument to that effort, and successive Nepali leaders have spoken of abrogating it, but have not had the courage to do so

What Nehru Did to Secure Border

India signed defence agreements with Bhutan in August 1949, Sikkim in December 1950. In 1951, Bob Kathing and the Assam Rifles took charge of Tawang, and the long process of consolidating Indian administrative authority, in what was then known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), begun. As Bérénice Guyot-Réchard has shown, this was a huge task given the backwardness of the region.

Nehru took two other steps to secure the border. First, he authorised the Intelligence Bureau to gather intelligence on the China border, and second, he established a committee headed by Lt Gen Himmatsinhji to recommend ways and means to consolidate Indian authority along the entire Sino-Indian border.

Just how staggering the task was is evident from the fact that despite huge effort and expenditure, India even now, 70 years later, does not have a comfortable network of roads across the Himalayas.

Roads remain narrow, are often washed away, and in many parts require tunnelling. Other areas await railway lines that have been planned, but are yet to come up. In the Nehru era, the country could, at best, scratch the surface of the problem, considering it also had to address huge challenges of national consolidation and development as well.

Indian Defeat of 1962 Was As Much In the Mind as Reality

Perhaps the biggest mistake the country made was not to update its assessment of the Chinese in Tibet. In 1950 they clearly did not pose a military threat to India. But by 1960 they did. Yet in this decade, India reduced its military by half and constrained its defence expenditure. It only woke up in 1959 when Zhou Enlai told Nehru that the entire Sino-Indian boundary was yet to be delimited.

A major reason for this was where Nehru’s first ministry had been peopled by the likes of Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad. Sardar Patel’s passing in December 1950 made Nehru a larger-than-life figure in the government.

Sadly, at two ends of his term as prime minister, he also came under the influence of two men who played a questionable role when it comes to China — Sardar KM Panikkar who was ambassador to China in the 1950-52 period, and VK Krishna Menon who was Minister of Defence from 1957-1962.

Where Panikkar’s advice critically muddled India’s response to China on the border issue, Menon’s flawed handling of the Army in the run up to the war undermined India’s defence posture.

Of course, in all this, we should not forget that the Army itself was a divided house, and neither should our view of the war be shaped by its performance in the Eastern sector alone. In Ladakh, despite overwhelming odds, it stood up and fought well. The Indian defeat of 1962, was as much in the mind as reality. But often that is what defeat is all about

Challenges Nehru Faced Back Then – And Why We Shouldn’t Judge Him So Harshly

It is easy today – when Indian capacities have increased manifold and we are even a nuclear weapons state – to criticise Nehru’s policies. Certainly he made many mistakes, but as it is famously said – hindsight is 20/20. But what he did must be seen in perspective. First, of the challenges he confronted as the prime minister of an entirely new entity called the Republic of India, whose key provinces had been torn apart in a traumatic division.

There were parts of the country, especially in relation to the border with Tibet, where the administrative writ of the country did not even run. 

Second, independence came to India after 150 years of colonial rule that had impoverished the people and kept them in illiteracy and backwardness. Nehru was but one man, a giant among us, no doubt, but still one who was dependent on his colleagues, bureaucrats, institutions like the IB and the Army and so on. Each of them, too, played their own role in the tragedy that India’s China policy led to in October-November 1962.

In assessing the Nehru era, Srinath Raghavan has said that Nehru well understood the “nature and the limits of power,” and that “moral and political legitimacy was as important as economic and military resources.” This is a lesson that the Chinese have probably learnt in relation to India since 1962. Their recourse to military force has left a deep trauma on the country. It has propelled India’s effort to accumulate ‘hard power’ and, as decades have unfolded, it is evident that that power remains focused on China.

Quint May 27, 2020