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How Aggressive is China?

India’s China War

by Neville Maxwell
Pantheon, 475 pp., $10.00

Peking’s “expansionism” has been the major justification for the United States’s containment policy. The sudden Chinese attack on Indian border forces in October, 1962, was denounced by India as unprovoked aggression, and it still contributes to the American image of a China that is, as Mr. Nixon sees it, “expansionist.” Now this pillar of the containment doctrine is carefully examined by Neville Maxwell, who breaks it up and throws it to the winds. His book is an object lesson in international astigmatism, primarily that of the Indians, but also ours. His story tells us something about the Chinese style in boundary disputes, if not in foreign relations generally, and raises questions to ponder as we look at the Sino-American future and the question of Taiwan in particular.

Neville Maxwell is a forty-five-year-old Australian educated at McGill and at Cambridge, who spent three years in the Washington bureau of the London Times, and then in 1959 went to New Delhi as the Times‘s South Asia correspondent. There he reported on the Sino-Indian border dispute as well as on the last years of the Nehru government. After eight years in and around India, he went to London to research this book at the School of Oriental and African Studies. As he says, no recent international quarrel has been “so fully documented and…so widely and totally misunderstood.” He follows in the footsteps of Alastair Lamb* and other British researchers, and his full, meticulous documentation is informed not only by his own experience on the scene but also by confidential sources from the Indian side.

Even without Maxwell’s having any inside view from Peking, the Chinese performance in this dispute as shown in the Indian record begins quite early to shine forth as both rational and reasonable, while the Indian performance grows steadily more unreasonable and irrational. The tone is illustrated by Nehru’s oft-repeated statements that (1) in the cause of peace he would talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time, and (2) over India’s sacred boundaries he would absolutely never negotiate. Nehru’s distinction between “talks” and “negotiations” enabled him to appeal to the world while avoiding any settlement with China.

The Sino-Indian boundary offered a fine opportunity for statesmanship, involving far less flammable issues than the Taiwan question does today. For more than two thousand years the Chinese and Indian peoples had developed their great civilizations on either side of the Himalayan massif with an absolute minimum of contacts. But the Chinese and Indian republics, when they got rid of their imperial rulers, immediately claimed the imperial boundaries that their late rulers had built up.

Thus the Chinese Republic after 1911, having ended the Manchu dynasty, at once laid claim to all territories the Manchus had conquered, including Outer Mongolia and Tibet. Chiang Kai-shek has always had the same idea, but the Chinese were not strong enough to make good these claims in Tibet until 1950 and they are still frustrated over Outer Mongolia by the Russian support of its independence. But British India had never succeeded in making Tibet a protectorate, acknowledged by the outer world as a sovereign state, and when the People’s Republic began calling it “the Tibet region of China” there was no basis in international law for objecting to it.

The boundary disputes arose at the eastern and western ends of the frontier. At the eastern end, the McMahon Line, later so famous, was really never anything but a line drawn by Captain Henry McMahon in 1914 to which no Chinese government had ever agreed. It followed the crest of the ridge of mountains on the edge of the Tibetan plateau some 140 miles north of the plains of Assam. In the decade before their departure, the British revived it as a claim line and moved posts into the disputed area south of the McMahon Line. India inherited this occupied territory.

Meanwhile the western end of the Sino-Indian boundary remained even more uncertain, both undefined and undelimited. Various British proconsuls had suggested three different alignments for which there were eleven different variations in the record. Following a directive of Nehru in 1954, India claimed the most extreme of these British proposals of earlier days, which would reach beyond the Karakoram to the K’un Lun range and would include the Aksai Chin or “desert of white stone” within India, although no Indian patrol had ever gone that far north. Then India found that in 1956-57 the Chinese had built a 750-mile motor road from Yarkand across Aksai Chin to Gartok, connecting Tibet to Sinkiang. Tibetan and Central Asian traders had long used this route, and it was the only feasible one for motor contact. No Indian people or government representatives were anywhere in the region, and India made a formal claim to it only in 1958.

With all these respective claims still unresolved but in the background, the early 1950s saw a Chinese-Indian love affair based on the theme of “Hindee Chinee bhai-bhai” (India-China brotherhood) and on the famous five principles of peaceful coexistence. Nehru was being a world statesman on the basis of nonalignment, and India was felt to be competing with Communist China to lead the development of Asia. Neither country’s welfare or progress was dependent on their mutual boundary line in the godforsaken wastes of the high Himalaya and K’un Lun ranges. A more thoroughly unimportant issue can hardly be imagined, except that it became a focus of patriotic concern to Nehru and then to all India. Once the issue was raised, the essential strategic point was that, owing to the more gradual slope on the north, China had motor roads up to its claim lines while India, approaching the Himalayan escarpment from the south, had no motorized access to its claim lines.

By 1958,” as Maxwell puts it, “the two no-man’s-lands which the imperial era had left at opposite ends of the Sino-Indian frontier had thus been occupied, each side pre-empting the area which was important to it on strategic and practical considerations.” The Chinese took the position that both boundaries were in dispute, had never been delimited, and therefore should be negotiated. As a general proposal China would accept the hitherto unacceptable McMahon Line because the Indians had now moved up to it, and China would ask India to accept the Chinese possession of Aksai Chin in the same spirit. This remained the Chinese position throughout the controversy. There was little nonsense about the sacred soil of the mother-land—after all, no Chinese had ever lived in the Assam Himalayas or on the Karakoram range, there were no great strategic problems, and the main issue should be mutual expediency.

On the Indian side, however, it was not so simple. The Chinese take-over of Tibet and the suppression of Tibetan rebels, the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959 to political asylum in India, and then the charges of Chinese genocide in Tibet, all heated up the New Delhi atmosphere. To Chou En-lai’s proposal to negotiate, Nehru replied that India’s boundaries were already clear and established and could never be negotiated. Chou En-lai had suggested that pending a negotiated delimitation the status quo should be accepted in both disputed areas, but Nehru with semantic slipperiness agreed to the “status quo” in the sense that China should return to her position before she had built the Aksai Chin road and withdraw from all territory claimed by India. Thus Nehru’s “status quo” meant really “status quo ante.”

Nehru was of course up against the Opposition in New Delhi, and its increasing jingoism led him into a rhetorical escalation. Soon he was saying that the Indian claim lines found in the half-forgotten and uneffectuated nineteenth-century proposals of British proconsuls had “always been the historic frontiers” of India, and were “not open to discussion with anybody.” China was really asking for the Himalayas, which were “the crown of India,” part of her “culture, blood and veins.” China was acting with “the pride and arrogance of might…just to show us our place…so that we may not get uppish.” China was trying to bully India. To negotiate with China would be backing down.

Pretty soon he went further and declared that the boundary had in fact already been delimited. The boundary had been “approximately where it now runs for nearly three thousand years.” This soaring rhetoric was not without tergiversation. In August and September, 1959, Nehru said that no clear boundary had ever been defined in the western sector. But by November he declared that “any person with a knowledge of history…would appreciate that this traditional and historical frontier of India has been associated with India’s culture and tradition for the last two thousand years and has been an intimate part of India’s life and thought.”

The effect of this flood of rhetoric was to befuddle the outside world with the view that China was indeed being aggressive, as the West already assumed. But its worst effect was to befuddle the Prime Minister himself. He had now denounced China’s presence in Aksai Chin as aggression and so found he had to do something about it. The result was his “forward policy,” by which Indian army patrols were to be sent into the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin area from the beginning of 1960 to establish an Indian presence there and undermine the Chinese position. Maxwell points out a curious similarity: the forward policy would in effect apply to the Chinese the same tactics of satyagraha that the Indians had used against the British. Instead of passive civil disobedience, however, this would now be done by armed troops, whose presence would oblige the Chinese to give way, for if they used force it would rebound against them just as it had against the British in India.

To the professional generals of the Indian army, the forward policy seemed like dangerous nonsense. At both the western and the eastern ends of the disputed Sino-Indian boundary, the Chinese had feeder roads that brought truck supplies and reinforcements to their border posts. The Indian army on the contrary had no roads anywhere near the forward positions it was now asked to assume. All supplies, even sometimes water, had to come by airdrop. Troops patrolling at fourteen or fifteen thousand feet had to be acclimatized, but frequently lacked arctic clothing; and Indian patrols went forward with only the ammunition and blankets they could carry on their backs.

In the face of these logistic and climatic obstacles, the Indian army held back until late in 1961. The forward policy was not really put into effect until the Nehru administration put political generals into the high command. These were inexperienced careerists who were ready to do the civilians’ bidding partly because they were themselves militarily incompetent and knew no better. Such politicization of the Indian high command injected an element not only of incompetence but of downright imbecility into the developing debacle.

The eventual disaster was precipitated in 1962 by the carrying out of the Indian forward policy. Posts were set up on the Indian claim lines so that the armed forces of the two sides were within range in fluid situations concerning which India still refused to negotiate. Chou En-lai reiterated his proposals for negotiated delimitation of boundaries and, pending that, for mutual withdrawals, twenty kilometers on each side, until the diplomats could work out a settlement. All this was refused by the Nehru government, which asserted that its unilateral claims were non-negotiable, while meantime claiming to the world that the Indian patrols were defending themselves against Chinese aggression. Border fire-fights began to occur, but the Chinese held back from using their superior equipment.

The Indian political generals were urged on by the Indian politicians who assured them that the Chinese would never retaliate and would withdraw under pressure. “The press and governments of the Western world cheered India on, as they saw her pluckily standing her ground against what they believed to be the expansionist drive of China.”

By August, 1962, there were some forty Indian posts, each consisting of a dozen or two score troops, within the Chinese claim lines under the guns of the adjoining Chinese outposts. They were supplied by air only and quite helpless, “hostages to the conviction of Nehru and his associates in New Delhi, civilian and military, that China would never attack.” But this reckless Indian gamble to threaten to expel the Chinese by force instead of negotiation was represented by Nehru as being purely defensive, and consequently he was under attack in New Delhi for possible appeasement. He had painted himself into a corner.

The border war was triggered when the Indians sent 2,500 troops, in summer uniforms and with only the equipment they could carry, across high passes north of the McMahon Line, with orders to assault Chinese bunkers that were heavily reinforced on the mountain ridges farther north. This truly suicidal project was denounced by some of the professional officers, who resigned on the spot, but was ordered by the political generals now in command. Supplying a post at 15,500 feet, for example, required a five-day climb by porters from the air strip, and on a ten-day round trip the porters could carry almost no payloads beyond what they needed for their own survival. Among 2,500 troops beyond the McMahon Line only two or three hundred had winter clothing and tents, and none had axes or digging tools, to say nothing of heavy guns and adequate ammunition. As ordered, they mounted a small attack, and the Chinese reacted and drove it back on October 10.

The Chinese reaction against the announced Indian build-up for an attack north of the McMahon Line initially produced in New Delhi not only the excitement of warfare but even euphoria. Chou En-lai’s proposal that everybody stop where they were and negotiate was again denounced as aggressive. Nehru said that China’s proposal “would mean mere existence at the mercy of an aggressive, arrogant and expansionist neighbor.” He began to accept American and British military aid as well as Russian. As Maxwell remarks, “It was almost forgotten that the Indian army had been about to take offensive action; ignored, that the government had refused to meet the Chinese for talks.” Meanwhile, after their initial reaction, the Chinese paused and built roads to supply their advanced positions, while the Indian forces were kept widely distributed in defenseless, small contingents, still in the belief that the Chinese would never dare to attack.

All this was resolved on November 17 when the Chinese did attack again and in three days overran or routed all the ill-supplied Indian forces in the field, east and west. Many brave Indian troops died at their posts and were found frozen there months later. India’s political generals behaved like headless chickens. The Indian defeat was complete. On November 21, 1962, China announced a unilateral cease-fire and a withdrawal in the west by stages to positions twenty kilometers behind their lines of control and in the east to the north of the McMahon Line, so that they would hold essentially what they had been proposing for three years past.

But the Indian government, while accepting the cease-fire in fact, objected to the proposal publicly. Its forward policy was finished and two or three thousand Indian troops had been lost; but “no negotiations,” was still the Indian policy. “The border war, almost universally reported as an unprovoked Chinese invasion of India, had only confirmed the general impression that Peking pursued a reckless, chauvinistic and belligerent foreign policy.” China had won the match but India the verdict.

Neville Maxwell’s picture of Indian ineptitude is the end product of much study by many observers, both Indian and foreign. His picture of Chinese reasonableness in this case seems unlikely to be greatly altered by new information in the future. But Chinese negotiators have a wide repertoire of styles. Chou En-lai’s readiness to bargain the McMahon Line for the Aksai Chin motor road contrasts markedly with the intransigent and vituperative behavior of the Chinese military at the Panmunjom bargaining table in Korea, and it says nothing about Peking’s feeling over Taiwan, which the People’s Republic has always claimed to be even more Chinese than Tibet.

When we seek perspective from this case study on our own dispute with Peking, we see at once that the Sino-Indian frontier and the Sino-American frontier are in opposite circumstances. The Chinese were established in force on their claim lines along the boundary with India. When a reasonable settlement could not be negotiated, they defended their positions with superior power, but did not expand them. In the Formosa strait, on the other hand, Chinese power is as yet inadequate to face the Seventh Fleet, and the Chinese claim to Taiwan cannot now be made good by force. We may therefore expect it to be preserved in the record in forceful terms, even though an imperfect situation has to be acknowledged, and denounced, in the meantime.

Taiwan as a boundary dispute must be analyzed on two different planes. The first is procedural and de jure: how is a new settlement to be reached on the new grounds that “China has stood up,” and is now master of her own house and sovereign over Taiwan? Our present support of Taiwan separation from the mainland is in Peking’s view a holdover from the imperialist era; and we acknowledge this when we remark that Taiwan has been separate from the mainland for seventy-five years, from 1895 to 1945 under the Japanese empire, and since 1950 under our naval protection.

Liquidation of the old imperialism is therefore one tenet in Peking, and we may note that Peking demanded that the McMahon Line and the Sino-Burmese border, both inherited from the British empire, should be renegotiated in order to purge them of imperialism—although in the end the Sino-Burmese treaty of 1960 and the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 resulted in China’s accepting the lines originally negotiated or proposed by the British. The equivalent in the case of Taiwan would presumably be the universal acknowledgment of Chinese sovereignty over it in de jure form, as is demanded by both Peking and Taipei. Pro forma, they still dispute who rules all China, while both claim that Taiwan is part of China.

A second plane is that of de facto power relations, and here it is clear that Taiwan as an island is and has been politically independent of the mainland for most of three generations, and is likely to remain so for a long time in the future. This is because Taiwan has become a focus of several interests, in addition to the interest of Peking. These other interests include that of the Taiwanese Chinese population. They are more than eleven million out of the fourteen million total and thus they far outnumber the mainlander element who still control the government of the Republic of China. The American public and other peoples around the world are likely to sympathize with the Taiwan Chinese demand for self-determination. Both Japan and the United States meanwhile have a strategic-economic interest, and we may expect this Japanese interest to grow stronger with time, while possibly ours may relatively decline.

If Taiwan’s separateness from mainland China is thus likely to continue for some time in fact, how can this situation and the idea of self-determination be reconciled with the claims of Chinese sovereignty? The answer, if there is any, lies in the concept of autonomy (tzu-chih), a term that in the Chinese lexicon can cover a wide spectrum of situations with varying degrees of central control over the autonomous area in question.

China’s performance in the Indian boundary dispute a decade ago suggests that the formal de jure situation requires our attention quite as much as the de facto situation, but that negotiators of the caliber of Chou En-lai are likely to be flexibly concerned for the substance: for example, the imperialist-sponsored McMahon Line could be accepted as part of a bargain when it was not a strategic threat. Thus we may speculate that the autonomy of Taiwan might in certain circumstances be accepted or tolerated within the framework of China’s sovereignty, provided that Taiwan ceased to be a strategic military threat; whereas a continuing military threat on this frontier will continue to invite a quick settlement in a short, sharp border war whenever China feels strong enough to accomplish it. The Indian case, in short, suggests that China’s expansionism is of the reactive kind, not compulsive or inbred, and we shall have trouble, as Nehru did, to the degree that we ask for it.


China and Taiwan May 20, 1971

  1. *

    Author of The China-India Border; The Origins of the Disputed Boundaries (Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1964) and The McMahon Line: A Study in the Relations Between India, China, and Tibet, 1904-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2 vols., 1966).

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