SPEAKING FREELY Tibetan roots of 1962 Sino-Indian war
By Abanti Bhattacharya
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Indian news media are awash with reports of journalist Neville Maxwell's disclosure on his website of the first part of the classified Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 India-China war. The timing of the leakage is intriguing, given India's general election around the corner. Quite expectedly, the Indian government has blocked the report, written by two Indian army
officers in 1963. There were apprehensions it would expose the role of Jawaharlal Nehru - India's first prime minister - in triggering the war and causing a humiliating defeat for India.
In fact, Maxwell's 1970 book India's China War is already drawn from the Henderson Brooks Report, which the author had access to. The book squarely blames Nehru's "Forward Policy", which placed outposts beyond India's border with China, for the 1962 war. And it is imperative to point out that if Neville Maxwell's polemical account on the 1962 war is largely responsible for distorting the truth behind the conflict and spreading deep apprehension in Indian minds, other scholars, mostly foreign, are equally at fault for treating Maxwell's account as authoritative. They have not only allowed the distortions relating to the responsibility for the war to prevail, but more critically, blurred the truth on the Tibet issue, the real cause behind the 1962 conflict.
Beijing hailed its invasion of Tibet in 1950 as the "liberation" of Tibet from the "double oppression" of the imperialists and the feudal Lamas. But the occupation of Tibet was driven by the security imperatives of China, to integrate its vulnerable periphery into the national geography. Tibet was, in fact, the only area that could not be "provincialized" by the last of the Qing emperors, as was Xinjiang in 1884 and Taiwan in 1887, when Western imperialism in the post-Opium-War era pushed the dynasty to bring its periphery under direct Chinese rule.
Tibet escaped such a fate thanks to the "Great Game" of the 19th century, and, more particularly, the British aim of using Tibet as a buffer between its domains and advancing czarist Russia.
Thus, while Xinjiang saw intermittent Chinese influence and even control during the Han and Tang dynasties, Tibet had never been a province of China. But in 1950, the People's Republic of China (PRC) accomplished the left-over task of integrating Tibet with the Chinese core. This task was not simply driven by the need to fulfill the national narrative of territorial unification, but more pertinently by the strategic geopolitical location of Tibet. Right from the 1890s, the reformist writings of Qing China echoed the strategic location of Tibet, noting that Sichuan would be rendered defenseless if Tibet was lost. By identifying Sichuan as a "courtyard" and Tibet as a "screen" or a wall, the writings articulated the importance of the periphery in the defense of the core.
Quite inevitably after 1949, the first thing the PRC embarked upon was the occupation of Tibet. This was soon followed by massive construction of roads to consolidate its hold there, including an all-weather road through the Aksai Chin region, which India considered its land. The road through Aksai Chin was the only one that was viable throughout the year, and which strategically connected Tibet and Xinjiang. About 193 kilometers of the road crossed Aksai Chin upon its completion in 1957. This was seen as a Chinese incursion and occupation of Indian land. Naturally, this triggered Nehru's Forward Policy.
The security of China's northwestern frontier, which till the early part of the Qing dynasty witnessed nomadic incursions, was the preeminent national strategy in post-1949 China. The era also coincided with the intensification of Cold War politics, as the threat of American forces using Pakistan as a base of operations against Tibet became formidable. This fear was compounded by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, challenging China's northeastern frontier. In this context of the Cold War, China's control over Tibet had an added rationale.
But its sovereignty over Tibet needed to be legitimated, not only to remove the stain of the invasion, but also because it was the government of Taiwan that was recognized by the United Nations, not the PRC. And by signing the 1954 agreement with Beijing recognizing Tibet as part of China, India sealed China's legitimacy over Tibet.
This was a huge unilateral concession, made by India without a reciprocal recognition of the Indo-Tibetan border. Once India recognized Tibet as part of China, China then used that as a rationale to officially demarcate an Indo-Tibetan border. It was at this juncture that Tibet got entangled with the general India-China dispute over borders. More importantly, it suggested a Chinese belligerence that led to a deterioration in Sino-Indian relations.
China refused to recognize the 1914 Simla Accord that demarcated the eastern sector of the Indo-Tibetan border on the grounds that it was an imperialistic relic. That rationale did not hold up, since China had signed border agreements with Burma (Myanmar) based on the same British-drawn borders, known as the McMahon Line. But as noted Tibetan Sinologist Dawa Norbu has pointed out, the Simla Accord, in effect, accorded treaty-making powers and sovereignty rights to Tibet, something Beijing could not tolerate.
Had it not been for the Tibetan revolt of 1959, the India-China border dispute could have been resolved through negotiations. But the revolt and the consequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India hardened the Chinese stance on the border. China not only began to see the revolt as an Indian conspiracy, but as collusion between the US and India to subvert China's claim on Tibet. The revolt of 1959, and a subsequent series of uprisings, including the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet, all call into question China's claim on Tibet. And although China did defeat India in 1962, it has not been able to settle the Tibet issue.
Nehru, for his part, bred in liberal ideology and a belief in Asian unity, failed to comprehend the strategic importance of Tibet to China. The war was inevitable not merely because of misconceptions on both sides, but due to differing strategic perceptions in each country. For India, Tibet was a cultural frontier that did not need to be occupied, and was best left as a buffer in accord with British practice. But for China it was a strategic frontier. The security of the Chinese core was contingent on securing the periphery, so Tibet had to be part of China, laying the groundwork for the 1962 war.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Delhi, India.