Indian perceptions of China in Pre and Post 1962 Periods

Departure of the British from the subcontinent in 1947 deprived India of the necessary military strength that England had represented for so many years- a strength that was clearly indispensable for the implementation of viable defence system. In the post-Independence situation in India the new political leaders who were at the helm of affairs were unable to continue to follow a forward policy in the north. Poverty-stricken and problem-ridden India had, in their view, other priorities to judiciously use her unexploited resources. Furthermore, they had a different political goal, which was to contribute to the promotion of peace and welfare of mankind. In the meantime the regional security environment had also changed considerably from the time of the British. At the juncture, Nehru’s conviction that China would not take any strong action against India played a decisive role. On the basis of different intelligence and diplomatic reports, he allowed himself to be convinced that China’s growing adverse relations with the two superpowers and her serious domestic economic situation would restrain her from taking any military action.

Initial basics of Indian thinking about China

The defeat and humiliation of India on the battlefield in 1962 generated a new mood in the country- a mood of re-evaluating country’s concept of national security. For the first time India’s foreign policy was no longer allowed to remain the domain reserve of the political leaders and accusing fingers were pointed at those who were guilty of having neglected India’s defence. China, since the establishment of Communist rule on October 1, 1949, was viewed by India as a threat to its security. Despite his faith in peace, friendship and cooperation in dealing with the nations of the world Jawaharlal Nehru was alert to the danger from China and in 1952 he instructed the Director of Indian Intelligence to regard China as an intelligence target along with Pakistan. India and China- the two giants of Asia were also assigned to play a role in the region and viewed in this context India always thought of China as a potential foreign policy partner who shared a concern to moderate the effects of super power imperialism in world affairs.

Despite apprehensions, Nehru could not believe that relations with China could or would deteriorate as they did in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. When it happened, his China policy failed to know the full extent of the change in Chinese motives and designs. Not after the outbreak of the war but even before in December 1958 it had become known in Delhi that the Chinese had established a number of posts in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh, true to the intuitive approach to foreign affairs, Nehru said in the Indian Parliament, “The normal idea is that security is protected by  armies. That is only partly true; it is equally true that security is protected by policies. A deliberate policy of friendship with other countries goes further in gaining security than almost anything else.” He called this attack a strange twist of history that had brought us face to face with something that we had not experienced in this way for over a hundred years or more. The Chinese aggression on our border during the last five years, bad as it was and indicative of an expansionist tendency, though it troubled us greatly, hardly led us to the conclusion that China would indulge in a massive invasion on India. Charging cynicism and duplicity on the Chinese side he drew the conclusion that Chinese interpretation of various lines changes with circumstances and that they accept the line which is more advantageous to them. Sometimes they accept part of a line and not the rest of it which is disadvantageous to them.

India, to Nehru’s satisfaction, faced this challenge with ‘new anger, new determination and new gratitude’- anger at Chinese perfidy, determination to accept no dishonorable settlement and gratitude to those countries which had rallied to her aid.  The reaction to Chinese behaviours was far from defeatist and led Nehru to speak of the war repeatedly as a blessing in disguise. After independence, foreign policy became a responsibility of the national government under Jawaharlal Nehru. A variety of factors enabled him to play a unique role in this realm. His personal position was so dominant that, as one of his biographers remarks, he was “the philosopher, the architect, the engineer and the voice of his country’s policy towards the outside world.” And lastly, his personal strength, acquired during the freedom movement, and greatly augmented after independence, established him as a world statesman par excellence, so that his opinion and authority could not be successfully challenged and undermined even by the events of 1962. But the conflict left a strong mark on it for a number of years in all the three spheres, domestic, regional and international. Nehru himself said that India had been living in an unreal world, and that “We are growing too soft and taking things granted,” but he added “We are not going to give up basic principles because of our present difficulty.”

Post-1962 Indian thinking

The conflict with China suddenly subjected foreign policy to what appeared at the time intolerable pressure. In the new situation there was not much scope for the stock in trade of Indian diplomacy- mediation, peace-keeping and amelioration of tension with which she played in the past a dramatic role on the international scene. In preparing for a long phase of Chinese hostility, the domestic situation and the military requirements had to be placed in world context. India, experiencing a crisis of the spirit, had found herself, and this new mood should be utilised to achieve both industrial advance and military readiness. Defence and developments were parts of the same process; and planning, socialism and non-alignment were all ways of preparing the nation to face renewed Chinese aggression. Real strength, as Nehru said on January 18, 1963, came not from the purchase of arms but from the building of an industrial base which could be converted, when the need arose, into a war machine, the development of power and transport, increased productivity in agriculture, improvement in public health and spread of technical education. Thus, in domestic dealings the war crisis reinforced the importance of the kind of socialism suited to India. On the other exercise in favour of the search for a way to honorable negotiations with China remained in active consideration.

Premiership of Shastri and Indira

Nehru’s successors- Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and others who succeeded to the throne had not only reaffirmed their resolve to cling to old lines of policy, but had moved in measure albeit still tentatively towards negotiations with China. On assuming office Shastri had made it clear that if the intention of China was really to arrive at a settlement and if Peking would not put forward at the negotiating table claims to large areas of territory with threats to take them by force, then there could be negotiations between the two countries. He clearly viewed Chinese motives behind the attack and said in Parliament on 20 September 1965, “The basic objective of China is to claim for itself a position of dominance in Asia, which no self-respecting nation in Asia is prepared to recognise.  The annual report of the Ministry of External Affairs for the year 1964-65 also spelt out India’s perception of Chinese motivations. It said, “India was the key to the “vast intermediate zone’ of Asia, Africa and Latin America, China would like to see India reduced to the status of a secondary power in Asia and to destroy the policy of non-alignment which has earned for India so much respect and prestige in the Asian-African world.”  After Shastri, Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India who, in a statement, on February 16, 1966, reiterated that India was prepared to talk with China “should proper conditions arise.”

However, apart from keeping the door opened for talks with China, post-Nehruvian strategy was also faced with a dangerous situation and India finally resulted in the adoption of a dual method of upgrading the armed forces, and of seeking a military alliance with the Soviet Union. It gave a new direction and a broader definition to the concept of national security. Gradually successors of the throne gave the concept of national security a wider dimension and created a triple defence strategy–a strategy of upgrading India’s armed forces, a strategy of seeking a military alliance and, finally, a strategy of greater institutionalization of the Indian system for the identification of national security objectives.  It is also to note here that  in quest for national security, India has indeed come a long way since her independence and  has, through the years, acquired a military clout that no one in the region can challenge – probably not even China in the conventional sector.

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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