Learnt and the Way Forward
India’s national security framework and its antiquated civil-military relationship have not grown in step with the needs of new security challenges. We need to change our mindsets and attitudes and look beyond the narrow boundaries defined by turf and par
India’s national security framework and its antiquated civil-military relationship have not grown in step with the needs of new security challenges.
“Relations between great powers cannot be sustained by inertia, commerce or mere sentiments.” —Aaron Freidburg
in New Republic, August 4, 2011
T HE INDIA-CHINA WAR IN 1962 was independent India’s most traumatic and worst ever security failure which left an indelible impression on our history and psyche. This October marks its 50th anniversary: an appropriate occasion to reflect on its strategic lessons and our current politicomilitary status vis-à-vis China.
It all started with China’s occupation of Tibet, and their surreptitious construction of a strategic road through Aksai Chin, joining Tibet with Sinkiang. The Government of India took two-and-a-half years to confirm the road construction and another one year to disclose it to the Parliament on August 31, 1959.
The uprising in Tibet caused further worsening of relations. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and took shelter in India. China suspected that India was helping the Khampa rebellion and had enabled Dalai Lama’s escape to India. This, alongside skirmishes on several border posts, resulted in the hardening of attitudes. India adopted a strategically flawed ‘forward policy’ of erecting isolated check posts without taking any measures to improve border infrastructure or the armed forces’ capabilities. Failure of the government policy put Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru under intense domestic pressure. He ordered the military to throw out the Chinese from intruded Indian Territory– a task that was well beyond its capability.
In October 1962, the Chinese military launched pre-meditated and calibrated punitive attacks in India’s northwest and northeast sectors of Ladakh and North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). India suffered its worst ever military defeat, and a geographic surgery that continues to fester in the form of line of actual control (LAC) till date.
There are many lessons. My emphasis is on strategic thinking and planning, civil-military relations and capability-building to tackle potential security threats.
According to a Pentagon historical study paper on the Sino-India Border Dispute, de-classified in 2007, “Developments between late 1950 and late 1959 were marked by Chinese military superiority, which, combined with cunning and diplomatic deceit, contributed to New Delhi’s reluctance to change its policy toward the Beijing regime for nine years.”
The study records that the Chinese diplomatic effort was a five-year masterpiece of guile, planned and executed in a large part by Chou En-lai. The Chinese Premier deceived Nehru several times about Chinese maps and carefully concealed Beijing’s long-range intentions. He played on ‘Nehru’s Asian, antiimperialist mental attitude, his proclivity to temporise, and his sincere desire for an amica- ble Sino-Indian relationship’ and strung along Nehru by creating an impression through equivocal language that (a) it was a minor border dispute, (b) Beijing would accept the McMahon Line, and that (c) old Kuomintang period Chinese maps would soon be revised.
The Pentagon study claims that the Chinese and even Nehru saw the use of diplomatic channels as the safest way to exclude the Indian public, press, and Parliament. They used these channels effectively for several years till it became a military fait accompli for India due to the Chinese forces exercising actual control of the area. The study concludes that “in the context of the immediate situation on the border where Chinese troops had occupied the Aksai Plain in Ladakh, this was not an answer but rather an implicit affirmation that India did not have the military capability to dislodge the Chinese”.
Many researchers have pointed out that the then raging Sino-Soviet ideological war played a role in the Chinese decision-making, leading to the Sino-Indian 1962 war. Chinese leaders were also concerned that the US might use a Sino-Indian war situation to unleash Taiwan against the mainland. They used diplomatic subterfuge to obtain reassurance on both these fronts before the war.
India’s Security Policy During this Period?
It is evident that despite Sardar Patel’s prophetic advice to Nehru on Tibet, China and Indian security issues on November 7, 1950 (contents of this letter were kept secret for 18 years), the Indian Government showed no strategic foresight or planning. When Chinese forces reached Changtu on their way to Lhasa, the Indian delegation in the United Nations blocked consideration of a proposal to censure China. In December 1950, Nehru publically supported the Chinese position on the grounds that Tibet should be handled only by the parties concerned i.e. Beijing and Lhasa. The government even allowed Chinese food material to go through Calcutta and Gangtok to reach Chinese troops in Yatung. In September 1952, India agreed with Chinese authorities to withdraw its military-cum-diplomatic mission in Tibet.
In the decade preceding 1962, the Indian ruling elite was convinced that having woven China into the Panchsheel Agreement, it had managed to craft a sound ‘China policy’. It was neither alert to the Chinese military developments in Tibet nor to the construction of Sinkiang-Tibet road which began in March 1956. Even after 1959, when China displayed its aggressive designs, Indian leaders were profoundly affected by the remoteness and difficulties of Aksai Chin and Tibetan terrain, forgetting that Zorawar Singh, Macdonald and Colonel Younghusband had led Indian troops to these very areas for strategic reasons in the past. Primarily due to ideological and emotional reasons, the Chinese geostrategic challenges and threats were either not accepted or underplayed till the Parliament and public opinion forced the government to adopt a military posture against China for which it was never prepared.
Towards the end of 1961, Mao convened a meeting of China’s Central Military Commission and took personal charge of the ‘struggle with India’. Mao asserted that the objective was not a local victory but to inflict a defeat so that India might be ‘knocked back to the negotiating table’. By early September 1962, China started warning that if India ‘played with fire’; it would be ‘consumed by fire’. On September 8, 1962, 800 Chinese soldiers surrounded the Indian post at Dhola. Neither side opened fire for 12 days. The dice was cast for a showdown. The Chinese had conveyed their intention but we still thought that they were bluffing.
On October 6, 1962, Mao issued a directive to his Chief of Staff Lou Ruiquing, laying down the broad strategy for the projected offensive. The main assault was to be in the eastern sector but forces in the western sector would ‘coordinate’ with the eastern sector. The Chinese Military Command appreciated that the Indian Army’s main defences lay at Se La and Bomdi La. The concept of operations was to advance along different routes, encircle these two positions and then reduce them. Marshal Liu Bocheng outlined the military strategy of concerted attacks by converging columns. Indian positions were split into numerous segments and then destroyed piecemeal. The speed and ferocity of the attacks unhinged the Indian defences and pulverised the Indian command, resulting in panic and often contradictory decisions. Politico-military decision not to use combat air power was an unforgivable error of judgement.
Deception and surprise are enduring elements in the Chinese military strategy and Sino Indian 1962 war was a classic example. The Indian debacle was primarily the result of a failure of India’s strategic foresight and military capabilities.
Beijing justified the invasion as a “defensive act”. It must be noted that China, involved in the largest number of military conflicts in Asia, has always carried out military pre-emption in the name of strategically “defensive act” with no forewarning—Tibet invasion, entry into Korean War, 1962 conflict with India, border conflict with the Soviet Union in 1969, and attack on Vietnam in 1979.
In his book, On China, Henry Kissinger treats the India-China border war of 1962 as an important illustration of the Chinese statecraft wherein “deterrent coexistence” and “offensive-deterrence”, defined as “luring in the opponents and then dealing them a sharp and stunning blow”, are important components. According to him, the confrontation 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”. He empha-
sises on the difference between the Chinese “comprehensive approach” to “segmented policy-making” by other nations. Kissinger concludes that behind the façade of “principled” ideological firmness/political toughness/historic civilisational patience, the Chinese leadership is capable of extreme elasticity and pliability, as seen in the physical contortions of a Chinese circus gymnast. Two other important lessons that emerge from this episode are: political realism versus ideological wish thinking, and interlacing of grand and military strategy.
India’s Military Capabilities
Prior to the 1962 war, there was a steep erosion of every aspect of India’s military capabilities: civil-military relations, military leadership and morale, force levels and armaments.
Throughout the 1950s, the Indian Government paid scant attention to the requirements of the armed forces. This neglect led to a gradual yet steady deterioration of their fighting capacity, skills, and like any other rot within, remained hidden till these were brutally exposed by the war in 1962.
This period also saw Nehru’s contemptuous and Defence Minister Krishna Menon’s acid-tongued, acerbic wit and rude behaviour with senior military leadership. There were incidents like General Thimaya’s retracted resignation, Lt General S.D. Verma’s disagreement over Nehru’s misleading statement in the Parliament on the situation in Ladakh, leading to the former’s supersession and resignation. Political patronage allowed General B.M. Kaul’s elevation and arrogant behaviour amongst senior officers. These events sent the message down the line that one could stand up only at one’s own peril. It also affected their leadership and performance on the field.
Looking at the present state of the armed forces, it appears that we have not learnt from that experience. The armed forces are not in any major strategic consultations and decision-making loop; not even on issues that seriously affect the welfare and morale of soldiers. There are visible signs of dissatisfaction amongst serving soldiers and veterans over status, pay and pension anomalies. There is mounting discontentment over the political leadership’s inability to set things right.
One of the cornerstones of democracy is a healthy politico-military relationship. A major reason for the fragility of India’s politico-military relationship is that instead of maintaining ‘political control’, it practises a unique system of ‘bureaucratic control’ over the military. With bureaucracy ensconced in between, there is hardly any discourse.
The Way Forward
On the face of it, India and China have a cordial bilateral relationship with burgeoning economic cooperation. But the deep strategic fissures cannot be ignored. In recent years, China has been more vocal and assertive on its claim over Arunachal Pradesh. China is non-committal over nuclear arming of Pakistan and induction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). By issuing stapled visas to Indian passport holders from J&K, Beijing is virtually questioning the status of the state, providing support to Pakistan’s position on the issue, and ensuring greater security to its occupied territory in Aksai Chin.
Some Sinologists say that China does not
We have weak strategic culture and thinking. Despite several foreign aggressions in our post-independent history, we seem to lack realism.
nurse extraterritorial ambitions. But there are many who feel that China never gives up its border claims. The problem is that most of China’s neighbours do not know which Chinese era is its territorial benchmark. What exactly is the Chinese territory? China recognises the McMahon Line as its boundary with Myanmar but not with India. Till date, it has not revealed its perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which will reduce frequent local tension and allow implementation of confidence building measures envisaged in Article 3 of the ‘Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC-1996’. China’s refusal to indicate its version of the LAC points towards a larger ploy; of progressively building up a case of its claims over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Its inroads in India’s neighbourhood and assertive maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean echo its long-term strategic motives. These developments will soon give it a wide array of options, including military coercion, to resolve impending disputes in its favour while bargaining from a position of strength.
China now has the benefit of an extensive military-oriented infrastructure in Tibet which provides capability for rapid build-up of forces and a smooth chain of supply, supplementing its power projection capacity. Lack of infrastructure on the Indian side creates huge logistic difficulties and restricts military deployment and manoeuvre.
India is not capable of fighting a two-front war (Pakistan and China) in the foreseeable future. This must be avoided diplomatically. However, such a scenario in Gilgit-Baltistan area cannot be ruled out. We must prepare ourselves; develop military infrastructure along the Northern border, put in place synergised border management operations, and build greater surveillance (satellite, aerial and ground level), night fighting and rapid deployment capabilities for the mountains. We must modernise our armed forces and be able to convince the other side that any aggressive move will invite countermoves.
Need for a Realistic Strategy
Strategy and diplomacy in international relations is based on the art of possible and the advancement of national interests. At strategic level, we require a long memory and a longer foresight and vision. We have weak strategic culture and thinking. Despite several foreign aggressions in our post independent history, we seem to lack realism. There is a sense of self-righteousness and singular faith in words, without looking for underlying falsehoods and incompetence.
India’s national security framework and its antiquated civil-military relationship have not grown in step with the needs of new security challenges. We need to change our mindsets and attitudes and look beyond the narrow boundaries defined by turf and parochialism. It is high time that we ask ourselves (a) Does our political leadership demonstrate critical understanding of larger strategic issues, constraints, effects and implications of military strategic and operational employment and its institutional conduct? (b) Does our military demonstrate critical and creative understanding of the strategic purposes and contributions? Does it demonstrate a willingness to speak up and when necessary? (c) Are the civilian authorities who oversee the military adequately competent in military strategy and defence planning? Objective answers to these questions will lead us to a correct strategic path.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Marshal of Indian Air Force Arjan Singh, the Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral D.K. Joshi and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne paid tribute to war heroes at Amar Jawan Jyoti on the occasion of 50th anniversary of 1962 War, in New Delhi