Saturday, October 24, 2009

Looming tension between India and China

Recent developments on the borders between China and India hint at rising tension between the two giants. Most reports and commentaries portray China as the aggressor and India as the aggrieved state defending its national interest. These developments will bear close monitoring in the months to come.

Most frequently, the cause of the border disputes is traced back to the border conflict fought between China and India in 1962, invariably portraying China as the aggressor. Foster Stockwell has kindly reminded us that a contrary assessment was provided by John Fairbank in 1971. Fairbank was an OSS operative during WWII and a highly respected professor of East Asian studies at Harvard University after the war. Excerpt of Professor Fairbank's commentary as provided by Stockwell is quoted below for the record.

How Aggressive is China?/ by John K. Fairbank, /The New York Review/, April 22, 1971 (pg. 6)

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 buildup 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, l962, 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.

Inevitably Tibet will figure prominently in any conflict between China and India. Go to here for a comprehensive review of the issues on Tibet.

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