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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 44, October 23, 2010

1962: Twenty Years Later

Sunday 24 October 2010, by Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea

[(October 20 this year marks the fortyeighth anniversary of the Sino-Indian border war that witnessed the first ever bloody conflict between the two Asian giants resulting in heavy casualties on the Indian side. On this occasion we are reproducing the following article that appeared on the twentieth anniversary of the border conflict in Mainstream (October 1982). Its author, Dr Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, an acknowledged authority on China’s international relations, passed away in New Delhi on December 13, 2009.

Born on April 18, 1930, Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea was educated in Delhi, Karachi, Lahore, London, Oxford, and New York. She was selected for the Indian Foreign Service in 1955 and served in the Indian Embassy, Beijing, from 1957 to 1960 when she resigned from the service. As a Ford Foundation Fellow at Columbia University, New York (1964-1968), she obtained an MA/MPhil in East Asian Studies, specialising on China. She returned to India in 1968 to teach the first post-graduate courses on Chinese Foreign Policy and Chinese Politics at Delhi University, retiring from the University in 1995.

A pioneer of Chinese Studies in India, Professor Bhattacharjea was a founder-member of the China Study Group (predecessor of the Institute of Chinese Studies) in 1969. She became the Institute’s first Director in 1990, and was for several years its Co-Chairperson, retiring from that position in 2003. At the time of her death, she was an ICS Emeritus Fellow, and actively involved in its many academic activities.

Professor Bhattacharjea has been Editor and Consulting Editor of China Report, the journal of the Institute, and continued to serve on its Editorial Board.

Since the publication of her major collection, China, the World and India (Samskriti Publications, 2001), Professor Bhattacharjea has written and presented numerous definitive papers on India-China relations, including: “The ‘Real’ and the ‘Notional’ in the India-China Territorial Issue”; “Thinking beyond the State”;

“Towards a Geo-politics of Peace”; “The World After September 11”; “China in the Post-Soviet World: Developing a Chinese Model”; and “Panchsheel for the 21st century: From ‘idea’ to practice”. At the time of her death, she was working on book-length manuscripts on China’s Foreign Policy for the 21st Century: Managing the Post-Soviet World; India-China Relations 1949-1999; and China and Regional Security: the Role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. )]

Almost exactly twenty years after the border war of 1962, there are signs of a fresh Chinese offensive. Only this time the offensive is diplomatic not military. Within a timespace of three weeks senior Chinese Party and Govern-ment leaders have four times met and talked with visiting Indian newsmen and delegations. Deng Xiaoping received a delegation of the Council of Social Science Research led by G. Parthasarathi, reported to be one of the most influential advisers to Indira Gandhi. Zhao Ziyang was interviewed by G.K. Reddy of The Hindu and later met the new India-China Society delegation led by B.N. Pande. This body is widely believed to be Congress-I founded and inspired. Earlier in the month, Ji Pengfu met the Editor of the Ananda Bazar Patrika.

The thread running through all these interviews was that of Chinese willingness, even eagerness, to resolve the outstanding border issue. The words and emphasis in individual statements may have differed but the message was the same. Nevertheless, given the distinctive style of Chinese diplomacy, the subtle difference of words and expressions has its own significance. At the highest political level, that of Deng Xiaoping, the emphasis was on reasonableness. “It is not difficult to settle it,” (sic) he is reported to have told G. Parthasarathi, “so long as both sides take reasonable measures.” There was no ideology in this formulation, no harking back to the past, no overtones or undertones of the ‘punishment’ that Deng earlier said had been deservedly meted out to India. Premier Zhao, however, enlarged on this formulation a little and spoke of the need to arrive at a “fair, reasonable and comprehensive settlement”. And, to the India-China Society delegation he said that his Government was eager for an early settlement of the border dispute. He was optimistic this would come about given “good faith and the spirit of mutual understanding”.

It is certainly clear that the Chinese leadership has been anxious to communicate its desire for a settlement, and has done so in a remarkably orchestrated fashion. Through these interviews the Chinese have addressed the people of India, the decision-making groups and, above all, Indira Gandhi herself. They have been able to do so because Indira Gandhi had apparently given the green signal, which the Chinese saw and read correctly. For instance, Parthasarathi is reported to have expressed the hope that India-China relations would recover the warmth and cordially of the mid-fifties.

Even more suggestive is the comment made by B.N. Pande, whold told Zhao that Indira Gandhi “hopes all pending problems between the two countries can be solved in our generation rather than left to the next generation”. In appropriate response Deng himself said there was ‘no mutual hostility’ between the two countries, while the Prime Minister expressed China’s eagerness to receive Indira Gandhi warmly in Beijing. The visit, he said, would help keep up the momentum of normalisation in spheres other than the border.

In sum, the Chinese have taken the border issue out of the deep freeze into which it had been placed, and have started unambiguously and publicly that they are anxious to get it out of the way and to arrive at a settlement with Indira Gandhi and her Government, that they believe she may be ready to do so.


But there is a core of iron at the heart of the soft overtures now being made. For one thing, there is no indication that there is any change in the nature and extent of Chinese claims in the territorial issue. Of course it is obvious that if there is such a change it will not be indicated to the general public. It will first be mooted at the official talks and used as a bargaining counter. Nevertheless, Zhao Ziyang has said that China would not compromise its sovereignty or make unilateral concessions. What can this mean? If sovereignty encompasses all territory actually controlled and claimed, then this statement cannot help resolve the border problem. If however the principle of sovereignty is accepted, then both sides have to acknowledge the existence of a dispute over territory and to arrive at a mutually accepted formula for its resolution. In other words, it is India which will have to move away from the first position on the border and admit the existence of a dispute, thus granting some validity to Chinese territorial claims and making give-and-take possible.

Premier Zhao called for a ‘comprehensive’ settlement of the border. The use of this word is a signal that the post-Mao leadership still adheres to the Zhou En-lai position that any settlement must encompass the entire border. In other words, the Chinese are asking for a new border treaty to be arrived at voluntarily and deliberately by the national governments of India and China, free of the long shadows cast by British machinations in this region. So far, the Indian position, like that of the Soviets, has been to consistently maintain that there is a border, will defined by separate legal documents and sustained by historical tradition. To date the Government of India has refused to renegotiate the entire border and has insisted that only individual disputed areas need to be renegotiated. Once again, it is India which will have to adjust its earlier position to a degree where it is prepared to consider such an overall border treaty.

All said and done, this may not prove to be too difficult a task. The Chinese withdrawal in 1962 left practically all of the McMahon Line areas, claimed and administered by India, under Indian control. On the ground, therefore, the Chinese will be unable to change this position unless they are prepared to undertake a high-risk military adventure. There are no indications that they are considering doing another 1962 on us. Moreover, Indian defences on this vital border are no longer butter soft as they were in 1962, nor is the air arm as inadequate.

On the diplomatic front there is evidence of a subtle but critical shift in Chinese style. None of the Chinese leaders have yet raised the highly emotive issue of the McMahon Line as the product of an unequal treaty. They do not seem to be asking for a prior and overt acknowledge-ment by India that the McMahon Line is illegal and invalid. This is not unimportant, for it could permit both countries to bypass and ignore a very major stumbling block in the path of a border resolution. The McMahon Line delineation would then be subsumed, without even being raised, in an overall border settlement.

Thirdly, the Chinese are reiterating their position of 1959-62, namely, that the only way to settle the border issue is to take a political not a legal approach to the problem. Few, I think, will disagree with this proposition today. Time and the very complexity of the border claims and counter-claims argue against the legal approach that Nehru adopted, quite unexpectedly, in 1959. For India too there are great advantages in moving away from a rigid legalistic approach. To give just one example: Let us take the case of Sikkim. As far as the legal validity of the Sikkim-China border is concerned, there are few problems. But the Chinese have never fully accepted the merger of Sikkim with India. Surely, if a comprehensive border agreement is to be concluded, it must encompass also the Sikkim border as part of Indian borders. This is something which India must demand and work towards in its search for a territorial settlement consistent with Indian interests and Indian honour.


I have argued before that it should be a major goal of Indian foreign policy to secure firm legal and of course defensible borders with all our neighbours, if only to restore the maximum manoeuvrability available to us. Such a resolution of the border problem with China will not necessarily mean a return to the ‘bhai-bhai’ relationship of the mid-fifties. That is no longer desirable. It will however help to remove some of the distortions that crept into our foreign policy after 1962. Since then we have unfor-tunately tended to interpret non-alignment, to distinguish friend from foe, and perhaps even to take positions such as the stand on Kampuchea, with the sole consideration of countering or containing China.

Recent moves to improve relations with both China and the United States have been the first steps in the recification of this distortion. A resolution of the border problem with China will enable us to think of doing so with Pakistan as well. And, having cleared the decks in South Asia, we would with confidence be able to deal with the larger issues of development and of security threats that emanate from expanding Soviet-American rivalry in our neighbourhood. And, if Indira Gandhi is so inclined, she can adopt a fresh and constructive approach to the border question. But she will do so only if she is convinced that an easier relationship with China will serve India’s other foreign policy and political purposes. That she is in an enviable position to do so is obvious. Now she has sufficient strength in Parliament, and now that the Soviets too have indicated their anxiety to talk with the Chinese, even the pro-Soviet lobbies in this country will, in all likelihood, no longer protest Sino-Indian normalisation if it means also a resolution of the border question. In short, there is no lobby or group of any importance that will be able to obstruct a decision to seize the opportunity to settle the border and related issues.

This seems to be true also of Deng’s position at home. The long and extended power struggle in China has reached a decisive stage with the Twelfth Party Congress. Deng’s line now governs the programmes and policies of the Chinese Government and Party. Looking back, it becomes evident that as Deng consolidated his power he began to take initiatives even in foreign policy. The package deal proposals of 1980 and 1981 came soon after his restoration to power within the Party, as did the quiet overtures to the Soviet Union. With the seal of the Twelfth Party Congress on Deng’s policies, he has moved rapidly to open talks with the Soviets and to begin this new diplomatic offensive against India. At present it seems that the Chinese would like to promote and encourage equally paced negotiations with both India and the Soviet Union. And I have little doubt that Indira Gandhi discussed the question of relations with China in fairly great detail with President Brezhnev during her recent visit, thus removing any possibility of mutual suspicions, and that she will continue to do so as the two governments talk separately with the Chinese.

Taken together, all this suggests that not since 1962 has the constellation of events been so conducive to a settlement of outstanding problems with China, as it is today. It only remains for Deng Ziaoping and Indira Gandhi to demonstrate their statesmanship and to find the appropriate formula.

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