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    Greater China
     Nov 6, 2012

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China 'pivot' trips over McMahon Line
By Peter Lee

China is looking for a "Western" pivot to counter the United States' diplomatic and military inroads with its East Asian neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar.

For China's strategists, as an interesting analysis in the Indian Express tells us, the "Western" pivot means nurturing the PRC's continental Asian relationships with the interior stans and, across the Himalayas, India. Pakistan's descent into basket-case status and the PRC's concurrent anxiety about Islamic extremism in Xinjiang indicates that the old China/Pakistan lips and teeth united front against India (and offsetting threats of destabilization in Kashmir and Tibet) may be past its sell-by date. [1]

But, if Inner Asia lacks disputed islands and the Seventh Fleet, it


has disputed borders and an aggravated Sinophobe faction in India eager to spurn China and strengthen ties with the United States.

This is Sino-Indian friendship year, a good omen for rebooting Sino-Indian relations. Unfortunately for Beijing, it is also the fiftieth anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, a golden opportunity for refighting the battles of 1962.

Sino-Indian relations, like Sino-Japanese relations are potentially hostage to territorial disputes. The disputes date back to imperial escapades from the turn of the 20th century. In the case of Japan, it goes back to the seizure of the Senkakus as war spoils in 1895. For India, it is the McMahon Line, first drawn in 1914, and the grim precedent of the 1962 war.

Although the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 is largely forgotten by Chinese - a Global Times poll apparently showed that 80% of Chinese youth didn't even know it had happened - it is still an occasion for handwringing in India that borders on the masochistic. [2]

That is because India, though it only suffered 7,000 casualties and lost no effective control of territory, lost the brief war in as complete and humiliating a fashion as can be imagined.

The short-form version of the war is that the Indian government escalated its border disputes with the People's Republic of China by establishing military outposts north of the McMahon Line, the Line itself a piece of unilateral boundary-making mischief executed by the British Raj.

The Nehru government calculated that its exercise in establishing "facts on the ground", combined with diplomatic backing from the Soviet Union and the United States and India's position of moral authority, would cause Beijing to back down and accept Indian claims in Aksai Chin (a bleak desert north of Kashmir) and the North East Frontier Administration (the southern face of the Himalayas east of Nepal; now Arunachal Pradesh).

In one of many ghastly miscalculations, the Nehru government had concluded that the PRC would not respond militarily to the encroachment of military posts into the disputed territories.

Unfortunately, Nehru's crystal ball, especially when it came to Chinese supremo, Mao Zedong, was remarkably foggy, especially as it related to the PRC's touchiness over Tibetan issues, the equivocal Indian stance over Tibet and, critically, Nikita Khrushchev's delight in rubbing the Chairman's nose in the debacle of his Tibet policy.

In his study China's Decision for War with India in 1962, John Garver (currently professor of international relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology) describes the encounter:
The question of responsibility for the crisis in Tibet figured prominently in the contentious talks between Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing on 2 October 1959. After a complete disagreement over Taiwan, Khrushchev turned to India and Tibet, saying: "If you let me, I will tell you what a guest should not say - the events in Tibet are your fault. You ruled in Tibet, you should have had your intelligence [agencies] there and should have known about the plans and intentions of the Dalai Lama" [to flee to India].

"Nehru also says that the events in Tibet occurred on our fault," Mao replied.

After an exchange over the flight of the Dalai Lama, Khrushchev made the point: "If you allow him [the Dalai Lama] an opportunity to flee to India, then what has Nehru to do with it? We believe that the events in Tibet are the fault of the Communist Party of China, not Nehru's fault."

"No, this is Nehru's fault," Mao replied.

"Then the events in Hungary are not our fault," the Soviet leader responded, "but the fault of the United States of America, if I understand you correctly. Please, look here, we had an army in Hungary, we supported that fool Rakosi - and this is our mistake, not the mistake of the United States."

Mao rejected this: "The Hindus acted in Tibet as if it belonged to them."
Mao was determined to assuage his feeling of embarrassment (and his jealousy of Nehru's leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and his anger at Khrushchev's pro-Delhi tilt) by knocking India off its perch.

Nehru apparently misread the conciliatory stylings of Zhou Enlai as an accurate representation of China's military determination, and the Indian military was completely unprepared in every conceivable way - manpower, materiel, logistics, conditioning, positioning, tactics, or strategy - to withstand the People's Liberation Army when it attacked on October 20, 1962.

Actually, Indian failures were not limited to diplomatic and military tunnel vision. They also extended to profound conceptual shortcomings, ones that have relevance to today's standoff between the PRC and Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands.

Nehru leaned on the McMahon Line for his definition of the PRC-Indian boundary. The McMahon Line, originally designed to contain China, turned out to be a generous gift to the PRC.

In the early years of the 20th century, protecting India by creating a Tibetan buffer zone between China and Russia and the precious Raj was a priority for imperial British thinkers. To this end, the British government took advantage of China's post-1911 disarray to convene a conference of representatives of China, Tibet, and Britain in New Delhi in 1914 to negotiate the Simla Accord.

Its key objective was to partition Tibet into Chinese-governed Outer Tibet and locally governed Inner Tibet "under Chinese suzerainty" and define a border between India and ethnic Tibetan regions that had the buy-in of the largely autonomous Tibetan government in Lhasa. The Tibetans were eager to sign, since the Accord implied the ability of the Lhasa government to conduct its own foreign policy and conclude treaties; the Chinese government repudiated the treaty.

The British Foreign Office did not support Tibetan independence, however, and was more mindful of maintaining cordial relations with China; it let the initiative fade away. The Accord was published in the official compendium of Indian treaties, Charles Umpherston Aitchison's Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads, with the notation that no binding accord had been reached at Simla.

The Accord and the McMahon Line languished in obscurity until Olaf Caroe, a strategist in the Indian Foreign Office, decided to invoke them in 1937 as a binding precedent for settling persistent border tiffs between India ... and Tibet.

Since the historical record showed that the British government itself did not acknowledge the validity of the Simla Accord, some unseemly imperial legerdemain was called for. A new version of Aitchison was commissioned; instead of noting the Accord was not binding on any of the parties, it stated that Britain and Tibet, but not China, had accepted the Accord.

As Steven A Hoffmann wrote in his India and the China Crisis:
The Aitchison changes were allowed to appear in 1938. In order to publish them quickly, and to give a greater sense of authenticity to the new entry without having it attract undue notice, the India Office (and possibly Caroe) contrived to issue an amended version of the appropriate 1929 Aitchison volume, without giving it a new publication date. Copies of the original 1929 volume - located in offices and libraries in India, England, and elsewhere - were then replaced by request and discarded.
Perhaps only three original versions of the relevant 1929 Aitchison volume exist in the entire world (including one at Harvard University). The McMahon Line found its way onto India Survey maps and never left.

After Indian independence, Nehru inherited the now-sacrosanct McMahon Line, largely by default, and used it as the baseline for many of his boundary discussions with the People's Republic of China. (Caroe's deception was not discovered until 1964, after the war, when a British diplomat compared the two versions of the Aitchison volume at Harvard.)

But the McMahon Line had a fatal flaw: it was in a terrible, terrible place.

The line was conceived as a series of heroic outposts strung along the bleak Himalayan ridgeline. The vision of a hundred fists of stone raised in defiance against the enemies from the north on the edge of the Tibetan plateau perhaps enthralled armchair strategists, but fortifying and defending the McMahon Line demanded that troops and supplies had to be pushed from the southern valleys up to the 4,000- and even near 5,000-meter commanding heights.

For the purposes of a military commander defending Indian territory, it would have been infinitely preferable to have the boundary at the base of the foothills, within reach of reasonably expeditious resupply and reinforcement, and leave to the enemy the glory of clambering across the jagged mountains and battling out of the valleys.

Neville Maxwell, the London Times South Asia correspondent at the time and author of India's China War, a widely-read (and, in India, widely-resented) depiction of the 1962 war as Nehru's folly, described the military state of affairs in an interview:
The very idea of a strategic frontier was out of date by the 1930s. Any sensible soldier will tell you if China is going to invade India from the Northeast the place to meet them and to resist them is at the foot of the hills. So when the invaders finally come panting out of breath and ammunition, you can meet them from a position of strength. The last place, strategically, to meet the Chinese was along the McMahon alignment. Caroe is very much the guilty party in all of this. [3]
In an atmosphere of escalating tensions and distrust between India and the People's Republic of China in the aftermath of the Tibet rebellion and the Dalai Lama's flight to India, Nehru compounded his geographic disadvantage by sending troops beyond the McMahon Line to establish outposts on the Chinese side - the so-called "Forward Strategy".

The PLA pounced, and the result was a humiliating defeat followed by a unilateral Chinese withdrawal to north of the "Line of Control", the unofficial but effective boundary that divides India and the People's Republic of China even today.

On the 50th anniversary of this debacle, it is hard for Indian nationalists to find silver linings. One noteworthy example was an article describing the closer integration of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh into the Indian linguistic, cultural, and political mainstream: "India Lost War With China But Won Arunachal's Heart"

When the Dalai Lama thinks of India's consolidation of Arunachal Pradesh, however, he probably feels little joy and more than a twinge of bitter melancholy in his heart, relating to the great religious town and market center of Tawang, which occupies a thumb of territory sticking out on the northwest corner of the state and which has always been the critical pivot upon which the northeast Indian version of the Great Game has revolved. 

Continued 1 2 

Ghosts of '62 can't rest in peace (Oct 31, '12)

Beijing, Delhi tread fine line (Oct 30, 12)



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