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    Greater China
     Oct 31, 2012


SINO-INDIAN WAR: 50 YEARS ON
Ghosts of '62 can't rest in peace
By Brendan O'Reilly

Five decades ago, Indian and Chinese soldiers traded bullets and spilled blood on the world's highest battlefield. The 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian War has been largely overshadowed in international media by the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, this brief, if bitter, border conflict between China and India has had enormous geopolitical consequences not only for the two belligerent powers, but also for the entire world.

The crucial relationship between the world's two most populous nations is haunted by the ghosts of history and the apparitions of potential future conflict. The strategic environment remains stuck in a pattern of confrontation, even as economic, political, and

 

cultural ties between China and India improve.

The local geopolitical conditions that led to Sino-Indian War remain largely unresolved. China and India still dispute their mutual border, which was demarked (under duress) by the British and the Tibetans in 1914. The Chinese government rejects this border as a legacy of Western imperialism. China lays claim to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, while India declares jurisdiction over the Chinese-controlled Askai Chin. Most importantly, India still offers sanctuary and political support to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government views this policy as interference in its internal affairs.

The Sino-Indian War is bitterly remembered in India. China's quick tactical victory and subsequent implementation of a unilateral cease-fire remain a humiliating memory for India's political classes. This month the Indian press has featured many detailed stories and poignant editorials addressing the legacy of the war.

Indian Defense Minister A K Antony recently toured the northeast border region and addressed the both the memory of the war and the current military situation thus: "Infrastructure in the north-east is not up to our satisfaction but it has improved a lot compared to the past ... infrastructure, assets and manpower, everything has improved. India of 2012 is not the India of that period. We are now capable of defending every inch of our country." [1]

Meanwhile, the war has been largely forgotten in China. A recent poll by the Chinese Global Times found only 15% of urban Chinese adults who took part in their survey knew about the war. [2] Ma Li of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations offered the following explanation for this striking memory gap: "Compared to Indians who have a deep impression of the war because they were defeated, few Chinese know about the war." [3]

The reason for the dearth of memory on the Chinese side may have other explanations besides victory. A victorious war against a fellow Asian victim of Western imperialism may not resonate well with China's self-image. Also, the Chinese people are currently focused on domestic and economic concerns. Finally, the collective Chinese consciousness remains preoccupied with vivid memories of the war of resistance against Japan.

The strategic environment
The continuing military confrontation and general rivalry between India and China is centered on surprisingly similar strategic concerns. Both countries feel surrounded by hostile, or potentially hostile, rivals. A quick look at a map reveals why India's geography makes her particularly sensitive to fears of encirclement. To the west is the fraternal adversary Pakistan, with whom India has fought three wars. Although the border has quieted down, India and Pakistan still contest control over Kashmir, and face each other down with new and growing nuclear arsenals. China, ever expanding in power and the victor of their brief war 50 years ago, lies on India's northern border. Most ominously, Pakistan and China have been consistent allies for over five decades.

China feels similarly constrained. America's pivot towards Asia, along with the current territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, put pressure on China's eastern flank. While the contemporary relationship with Russia is quite friendly, this is has not usually been the case from a historical perspective. Afghanistan and other predominantly Muslim nations lie to China's West, and are seen as a potential source for instability within China's Muslim-dominated border regions. To China's south is India, a growing economic force and newly minted nuclear power. China sees the growing political and security relationship between Washington, New Delhi, and Tokyo as a potentially serious long-term threat.

There is a strange dance between India, China, the United States, and Pakistan developing on the Asian mainland. On one hand, the United States is forced by the volatile situation in Afghanistan to remain locked in a mutually unhappy marriage of convenience with Pakistan. At the same time, Washington is trying to woo India into a tacit anti-Chinese alliance.

Washington's billions in military aid to Pakistan greatly complicate efforts to cozy up to New Delhi. China's alliance with Pakistan also complicates Chinese overtures to India. Meanwhile India feels (understandably) distrustful of the major powers, and is attempting to secure a lasting peace with Pakistan in order to achieve more geopolitical maneuverability.

Besides these classic geopolitical concerns are fears of domestic instability and disintegration. India and China are both "civilization states" containing a myriad of linguistic and ethnic groups. China's main source of contention with India is Indian support to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile based in northern India's Dharamsala. China's vast western interior, which borders India, is populated by often-restive minorities. For historical and geopolitical reasons, the Chinese government remains extremely wary of any threats to China's territorial integrity.

New Delhi also faces a multitude of threats from within. Kashmiri insurgents, Maoists guerillas, and ethnic rebels in India's far northeast all challenge New Delhi's sovereignty. Just as India provides political support to the Dalai Lama, Beijing has, in the past, given logistical aid to some armed rebel factions within India.

Similar strategic concerns on both sides of the Himalayas are just one of many areas where China and India share profound similarities. Both lands are the inheritors of thousands of years of cultural tradition. Both have had rapid economic expansion in the last few decades. Beijing and New Delhi are equally eager to step onto the world stage and claim their rightful place in the sun after centuries of abuse, mismanagement, and incredible human suffering.

Despite the history of contention, the Sino-Indian relationship has significantly improved in the last decade. In 2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed a treaty to peaceably resolve their border dispute and implement a "strategic partnership". During this crucial summit, China recognized India's sovereignty over the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, and expressed support for New Delhi's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Manmohan Singh extolled the potential of Sino-Indian partnership by saying "India and China can together reshape the world order."

And indeed they can. Bearing any unforeseeable shock to the human race, China and India will be the world's largest economies by the end of the century. Already their impressive economic growth has shifted the balance of world economic and financial power further east. As rising economies still populated by relatively poor citizens, both sides have offered mutual political support for climate change agreements favorable to their respective countries.

China's massive capital resources could be invested for common gain in India's ambitious infrastructure projects. Most importantly, the bilateral trade between India and China has expanded rapidly, and is now valued at nearly seventy-five billion dollars annually. China is India's number one trading partner.

Such fertile grounds for mutual benefit may not completely neutralize the old geopolitical fears. Trade is good, but the potential for a sudden breakdown in relations between such huge and growing powers remains a possibility. However, one military factor in the Sino-Indian equation should utterly nullify the old shared fears of military encirclement.

The bottom line
India and China have reached a state of mutually assured destruction. India's successful test firing of the Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile in April of this year could bring the entirety of China within India's strategic missile range. This development, along with the deployment of submarine-based second-strike capabilities, has allowed India to achieve a credible level of nuclear deterrence against China. Both sides know that there must never be another Sino-Indian war, because neither New Delhi nor Beijing could guarantee that such a conflict would not escalate into full-scale nuclear exchange.

As the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations' Ma Li said: "It's unimaginable for two nuclear-armed powers to fight each other." [4] Concerns of geopolitical encirclement have been rendered obsolete by the brute logic of Mutually Assured Destruction.

After the successful test launch of the Agni V in April, China's foreign ministry was remarkably conciliatory regarding India's improved ballistic capabilities. Spokesman Liu Wenmin responded to the test by saying "China and India are large developing nations. We are not competitors but partners ... We believe that both sides should cherish the hard-won good state of affairs at present, and work hard to uphold friendly strategic co-operation to promote joint development and make positive contributions towards maintaining peace and stability in the region." [5]

This is particularly friendly and far-sighted rhetoric from a rival nuclear power.

Because China and India must never go to war, they have little choice but to cooperate. The great potential for mutual gain could be harvested if both sides act with long-term interests in mind. Indeed, areas for increased cooperation between the two most populous nations in the world extend far beyond the traditional economic and political realms.

India's strengths are largely China's weaknesses, and China's recent accomplishments are the mirror image of India's failures. China's dramatic success in bringing the vast majority of the Chinese people out of extreme poverty in the last three decades is heavily contrasted by India's persistent problems of widespread malnutrition and illiteracy. The level of extreme material want in Indian cities and villages far exceeds anything that can currently be seen in China.

On the other hand, India's has done a much better job of preserving her traditional culture than has China. The majority of Indians still prefer traditional garments to Western clothes. Bollywood films and Indian pop music are hugely popular with foreign audiences, while most contemporary Chinese cultural exports remain generally uninspiring. Where China has done a better job of supplying the Chinese people with material necessities, India has sustained and advanced a vibrant culture that attracts admirers from all around the world.

China and India are perfectly suited to develop a friendly rivalry. Both nations have much to learn from each other. Their peoples stand to benefit greatly from improved economic ties and a strategic outlook that recognizes the utter futility of armed conflict.
The lessons of China's material successes could help lift hundreds of millions of Indians out of extreme poverty. India's cultural accomplishments could serve as an example to help China to fill her creative and spiritual void. If the leaders of China and India can recognize their shared hopes and fears while exploring the vast avenues for mutual gain, then perhaps the ghosts of 1962 can finally rest in peace.

Notes:
1. India fully capable of defending itself: A K Antony, The Economic Times, Oct 19, 2012.
2. India war not likely: poll, Global Times, Oct 20, 2012.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. India test launches Agni V long-range missile, BBC News, Apr 19, 2012.

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)






Beijing, Delhi tread fine line (Oct 29, '12)

 

 
 



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