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Kissinger on India-China War of 1962


Looking at events of the 1962 India-China War and the 1971 BanglaDesh War through Kissinger’s eyes.

Richard Nixon and Dr.Henry Kissinger (Image courtesy - foreignpolicy.com). Click for larger image.

Richard Nixon and Dr.Henry Kissinger (Image courtesy – foreignpolicy.com). Click for larger image.

50 years later

India’s official analysis  of the 1962 war with China, usually referred to as the Henderson report, authored by Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat, remains classified. In the absence of a vital half of the story, Indians are left to fend for themselves with Western narratives or the Chinese version of events.

A recent book by Henry Kissinger outlines his version of events in that crucial year of 1962.

Kissinger writes

When the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 and was granted asylum in India, China began to treat the issue of demarcation lines increasingly in strategic terms. Premier Zhou Enlai offered a deal trading Chinese claims in the eastern part of the line for Indian claims in the west, in other words, acceptance of the McMahon Line as a basis for negotiations in return for recognition of Chinese claims to Aksai Chin.

On the principle that he was not elected to bargain away territory that he considered indisputably Indian, Nehru rejected the Chinese proposal by not answering it. In 1961, India adopted what it called the Forward Policy.

To overcome the impression that it was not contesting the disputed territory, India moved its outposts forward, close to Chinese outposts previously established across the existing line of demarcation. Indian commanders were given the authority to fire on Chinese forces at their discretion, on the theory that the Chinese were intruders on Indian territory. They were reinforced in that policy after the first clashes in 1959 when Mao, in order to avoid a crisis, ordered Chinese forces to withdraw some 20 kms. Indian planners drew the conclusion that Chinese forces would not resist a forward movement by India; rather they would use it as an excuse to disengage. Indian forces were ordered to, in the words of the official Indian history of the war, “patrol as far forward as possible from our [India’s] present position toward the International Border as recognised by us… [and] prevent the Chinese from advancing further and also to dominate any Chinese posts already established on our territory.”

It proved a miscalculation. Mao at once cancelled the previous withdrawal orders. But he was still cautious, telling a meeting of the Central Military Commission in Beijing: “Lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans. We must pay attention to the situation.” It was not yet an order for military confrontation; rather a kind of alert to prepare a strategic plan. As such, it triggered the familiar Chinese style of dealing with strategic decisions: thorough analysis; careful preparation; attention to psychological and political factors; quest for surprise; and rapid conclusion.

In meetings of the Central Military Commission and of top leaders, Mao commented on Nehru’s Forward Policy with one of his epigrams: “A person sleeping in a comfortable bed is not easily roused by someone else’s snoring.” In other words, Chinese forces in the Himalayas had been too passive in responding to the Indian Forward Policy — which, in the Chinese perception, was taking place on Chinese soil. (That, of course, was the essence of the dispute: each side argued that its adversary had ventured onto its own soil.)

The Central Military Commission ordered an end of Chinese withdrawals, declaring that any new Indian outposts should be resisted by building Chinese outposts near them, encircling them. Mao summed it up: “You wave a gun, and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage.” Mao defined the policy as “armed coexistence”. It was, in effect, the exercise of wei qi [Chinese strategic board game] in the Himalayas.

And then there was a war

Precise instructions were issued. The goal was still declared to be to avoid a larger conflict. Chinese troops were not authorised to fire unless Indian forces came closer than 50 metres to their positions. Beyond that, military actions could be initiated only on orders from higher authorities.

Indian planners noted that China had stopped withdrawals but also observed Chinese restraint in firing. They concluded that another probe would do the trick. Rather than contest empty land, the goal became “to push back the Chinese posts they already occupied”. Since the two objectives of China’s stated policy — to prevent further Indian advances and to avoid bloodshed — were not being met, Chinese leaders began to consider whether a sudden blow might force India to the negotiating table and end the tit for tat.

In pursuit of that objective, Chinese leaders were concerned that the United States might use the looming Sino-Indian conflict to unleash Taiwan against the mainland. Another worry was that the American diplomacy seeking to block Hanoi’s effort to turn Laos into a base area for the war in Vietnam might be a forerunner of an eventual American attack on southern China via Laos. Chinese leaders could not believe that America would involve itself to the extent it did in Indochina (even then, before the major escalation had started) for local strategic stakes.

The Chinese leaders managed to obtain reassurance on both points, in the process demonstrating the comprehensive way in which Chinese policy was being planned… …

With these reassurances in hand, Mao, in early October 1962, assembled Chinese leaders to announce the final decision, which was for war: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and with America. With none of these did we fear. And in each case we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. We cannot give ground, once we give ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province.… Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasises reciprocity.”

On October 6, a decision in principle was taken. The strategic plan was for a massive assault to produce a shock that would impel a negotiation or at least an end to the Indian military probing for the foreseeable future….

The Chinese attack took place in two stages: a preliminary offensive starting on October 20 lasting four days, followed by a massive assault in the middle of November, which reached the foothills of the Himalayas in the vicinity of the traditional imperial demarcation line.

At this point, the PLA stopped and returned to its starting point well behind the line it was claiming. The disputed territory has remained disputed until today, but neither side has sought to enforce its claims beyond the existing lines of control. (via You wave a gun, and I’ll wave a gun: Mao – Hindustan Times).

Kissinger's 'experience' and 'success' made him a favorite advisor with many US Presidents  |  Cartoonist Tom Meyer Published 04:00 a.m., Monday, December 2, 2002; source & courtesy - sfgate.com  |  Click for image.

Kissinger’s ‘experience’ and ‘success’ made him a favorite advisor with many US Presidents | Cartoonist Tom Meyer Published 04:00 a.m., Monday, December 2, 2002; source & courtesy – sfgate.com | Click for image.

Decades of living dangerously

Post-Stalin Soviet Russia did not see China as any great friend or ally – and the Stalin-Mao treaty of 1950, was dead in the water. China’s aggressive posturing against Soviet Russia on the border island of Zhenbao-Damanskii further alienated the Russians.

After China was made to pay a price.

Stalin’s lukewarm response to Nehru’s overtures and the alleged CIA plot against Nehru in 1955, temporarily brought Nehru close to Eisenhower. After the 1965 War with Pakistan, India-Soviet alliance grew in strength.

The 1971 Bangladesh War changed world perception of India – leading to Nixon’s famous outbursts. China’s inaction, declassified White House Tapes show, in the 1971 Bangladesh War, is rarely analysed in the current India-China narratives. As the tapes show, the US President pushed, prodded and cajoled the Chinese to act against India – to no avail.

Kissinger: I called Bhutto yesterday evening after we talked just for the record, and I said I don’t want to hear one more word from the Chinese. We are the ones who have been operating against our public opinion, against our bureaucracy, at the very edge of legality—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And if they want to talk they should move some troops. Until they’ve done it, we don’t want to hear one more word. I really let him have it.

In another conversation

Nixon: Just go to New York and say, I have a message from the President to Chou En-lai. Put it on that basis. I wouldn’t fool around.

Mitchell: What’s the prospect of the Chinese moving?

Nixon: None. Well, that’s what I mean. If there’s a chance, you told me none, Henry, yesterday. Remember?

Kissinger: No, but that was when they thought they were completely wrong. I’m not so sure there’s none, Mr. President. Because they know that this is a dress rehearsal of what may happen to them.

Nixon: What I would like to do in the note to the Chinese is to state exactly that, that I consider this to be a dress rehearsal and I think their move, some move toward the border would restrain India. And that as far as we’re concerned we hold them harmless. The Russians aren’t going to dump the Chinese. Not now.

Kissinger saw the 1971 situation go from bad to worse – for Pakistan, China and USA.

Kissinger: But the Indian plan is now clear. They’re going to move their forces from East Pakistan to the west. They will then smash the Pakistan land forces and air forces, annex the part of Kashmir that is in Pakistan and then call it off. After that has happened—and then you have another message from the Shah saying this section of West Pakistan now would be a mortal threat to the security of Iran. When this has happened, the centrifugal forces in West Pakistan would be liberated. Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier will celebrate. West Pakistan would become a sort of intricate Afghanistan.

Nixon: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kissinger: East Pakistan would become a Bhutan. All of this would have been achieved by Soviet support, Soviet arms, and Indian military force. The impact of this on many countries threatened by the Soviet Union or by Soviet clients. … it will have a catastrophic impact on the Middle East. No one could guarantee or give up any territory that they have because they won’t believe it. The Arabs will think if they can get the same cover from the Soviets that the Indians got, they could try another round and maybe more. The Chinese, now this part is my judgment, up to a certain point being aggressive. But if it turns out that we end up with the complete dismemberment of Pakistan, then they will conclude, “All right. We played it decently but we’re just too weak.” And that they have to break their encirclement, not by dealing with us, but by moving or drop the whole idea. So I think this, unfortunately, has turned into a big watershed, which is going to affect our chances in the situation in South Asia.

This web of events proves one thing. Bravado or timidity have no place in foreign policy – not in India, not anywhere else. India’s successes in 1971, Kargil, should give us confidence.

Dependence on foreign defence supplies should worry Indians.


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  1. June 4, 2011 at 4:35 pm | #1

    so it comes out that it was Nehru’s policy that led to 1962 war..

  2. neel123
    June 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm | #2

    India is a nation that played into the hands of people like Nehru and Gandhi, and ditched a great leader like Netaji Subhash Bose ….. the result is there for all to see after six decades where the country is being systematically looted by the Congress thugs and 75% of the population do not have the basic necessities of human existnce ……. !

    Neel – Your comments and participation is appreciated. Your feelings are understandable. But expletives in this forum are not acceptable. Regards -Admin

  3. India economy
    June 30, 2011 at 8:20 am | #3

    I read article is interesting. Richard Nixon and Dr.Henry Kissinger are the two good leaders. India is a nation that played into the hands of people like Nehru and Gandhi, and ditched a great leader like Netaji Subhash Bose ….. the result is there for all to see after six decades where the country is being systematically looted by the Congress thugs and 75% of the population..
    ———————
    Arrow

  4. Mc
    March 26, 2012 at 7:14 am | #4

    So we now believe Kissinger over Nehru. Why?
    This account is interesting and entertaining. Especially as Kissinger was dead wrong with all his predictions – every one of them. And thanks to China’s refusal to get involved and to the quick military campaign there was no WW3 with china + USA vs. India + ussr. Nehru may have misinterpreted some signals. So did the Chinese and the USA.

  5. Varun
    July 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm | #5

    Those who have objectively looked at the modern India-China situation and not muddled by the Media/Govt propaganda knows that the Indian claim of “Absolute Innocent Victims in 1962″ is bullshit, putting it mildly.

    India increasingly is getting nervous and anxious of China in recent decades and this isn’t helping the situation where accurate understudy of past becomes acceptable & tolerable.

  6. July 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm | #6

    Mc :

    So we now believe Kissinger over Nehru. Why?

    It has become fashionable among Indian Right to take potshots at Nehru – rightly, or wrongly. The Western ‘Capitalist’ especially on the Far Right, are Righter than any Indian. One serious Right Winger confessed to me his hopes to become ‘India Tea-Party Movement to the BJP’

    This account is interesting and entertaining.

    More interesting – and hence also entertaining.

    The execution of the Indian Foreign Policy comes out very well in the White House Tapes.

    Especially as Kissinger was dead wrong with all his predictions – every one of them. And thanks to China’s refusal to get involved and to the quick military campaign there was no WW3 with china + USA vs. India + ussr. Nehru may have misinterpreted some signals. So did the Chinese and the USA.

    This is very well put.

    The idea that any one can read the minds of governments correctly, all the time, can be so difficult.

  7. July 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm | #7

    Varun :

    Those who have objectively looked at the modern India-China situation and not muddled by the Media/Govt propaganda knows that the Indian claim of “Absolute Innocent Victims in 1962″ is bullshit, putting it mildly.

    I think broadly there is concern in India, if we are being soft – especially in relation to China. There is an Indian self-perception that we are a soft state.

    India increasingly is getting nervous and anxious of China in recent decades and this isn’t helping the situation where accurate understudy of past becomes acceptable & tolerable.

    The twin-track lionization /demonization of the Chinese economy for much of the last 20 years in the Western media has given us Indians an unbalanced view of the Chinese nation and economy.

    For instance, only of late has Indian journalism been able to write about Europe and all its problems (Read Pallavi Iyer column on Europe in Business Standard).

    So, it will take a while for Indians to see China for being close to what it is.

  8. Surya
    June 21, 2013 at 4:15 am | #8

    The key point is missing while talking of Indias foreign policy.. Nepal. How come India never helped Nepal when it was taken over by “revolutionaries” ?

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