Lies and distortions about western policies in Asia: The Sino-Indian frontier dispute. Part 1 of 2

Jul 9, 2020

Most governments lie and distort, sometimes blatantly.  For me, one of the worst examples has been over the hostilities along the Sino-Indian frontier.  I give details since I was once personally involved. 

In 1962, as an early entrant to Canberra’s Department of External Affairs and trained in Chinese I was placed in the Department’s Far Eastern section just as growing tensions along the 3000 kilometer Sino-Indian frontier were demanding attention.  The main dispute in the eastern sector of the border involved the North East Frontier Area (NEFA) in Assam bordered by the McMahon line established by the colonial British government in 1914 as its northern frontier with Tibet. In the western Ladakh sector the disputed border was a loose affair, said to have been laid down in the Aksai Chin area of Tibet by various documents during the same colonial era.

On the face of things it seemed hard not to sympathise with the Chinese position. The arbitrary borders imposed by the British meant large areas populated by Tibetan Buddhists had to be included in India. None of these areas seemed to have much relation with the Hindu or Muslim masses on the plains below.

The British said they had had to push India’s frontiers as far north as possible to counter feared Tsarist Russian or Manchu Chinese expansionism. But that does not seem to be a good reason why Beijing today should have no claim to all or part of those lost territories.

Certainly the Nationalist Chinese government, then recognised by Canberra as the sole legitimate government of China, had no doubts;  it claimed them all.  But its post-1949 rival, the Communist government in Beijing, was more relaxed.  It accepted the British-claimed frontiers as Lines of Actual Control (LAC) to serve as a starting point for border negotiation.

But for New Delhi the only negotiation could be over its claims for land even further north of the LAC and backed by military intrusions. The claims and intrusions reached a peak in 1962  with India beginning to claim large areas of Himalayan plateau land in the  western Aksai Chin sector and pockets of land north of the McMahon line,  including some river flat land known as the Dho La Strip.

At first China did little more than issue protests.  But eventually the violations in the  Dho La Strip area were so blatant, with Indian troops crossing the Thag La ridge well to the north of the McMahon line,  that a Chinese retaliation seemed inevitable. It came on October 20, 1962, with Chinese troops entering the disputed areas and then continuing to move south to occupy much of the NEFA and Ladakh.

As China desk officer I had to prepare a draft policy submission.  I checked with US and UK opposite numbers to confirm they had seen things as I had. They had. I then went through the mass of materials sent us from Beijing to support its position, including a copy of the original Mc Mahon line proving who really could claim the right to own the disputed Dho La Strip. Clearly the Indian position was less than water-tight, I wrote, suggesting that if we felt obliged to support India there should also be a call for renewed negotiations. We should do all we could to avoid continued conflict.

The submission was promptly killed by my superior- David Anderson (later to be ambassador Saigon): “I fail to see it is not in the Australian interest to have the Chinese and Indians at each others’ throats,’ he annotated.  Those further up the line embraced the ‘unprovoked Chinese aggression’ mantra without even reading the submission, I suspect. Our hawks warned darkly that China’s aim was to get an opening to the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

But after routing Indian troops right along the border the Chinese troops did not go to the Bay of Bengal.  Instead they withdrew,  all the way to the original Lines of Actual Control in both sectors, returning to India the large amounts of weapons captured from its fleeing troops in the process. In effect China was saying it had given India the lesson it deserved and please do not do it again. But in the West, including Canberra, the attack continued to be denounced as unprovoked Chinese aggression halted only by the firm Western response.

In Indian the public opinion exploded with predictable anti-China hysteria. Chinese firms and individuals were expelled. More than decade had to pass before some of the more balanced Indian commentators and even the military began to blame Nehru’s ‘forward’ policy along the length of the frontier for what had happened.  Nehru, they said, had felt he should move to protect India’s traditional rights in Tibet. Those rights had been lost following Beijing’s assertion of control over of Tibet after 1949 followed by the forceful suppression of the CIA’s, India-based Tibetan uprising of 1959.

Today we see a dangerous revival of those ‘forward’ policies along the frontier. In the volatile Aksai Chin area Indian troops are moving in a seeming effort to cut the important Sinkiang-Tibet highway built back in the 1950’s.  At the time India did not even know the highway existed but that did not stop its claims to that territory.  Today the stronger Chinese military presence in the area means even stronger moves in future to block Indian intrusions, leading to more Indian demands for retaliation.

In the sixties India could only rely on a reluctant Moscow for support. Today it can turn to a US eager to gain allies for its anti-Beijing crusade in Asia. And as in the past  we can be sure that there will be little effort to establish rights and wrongs of yet another frontier dispute, particularly one which promises to add even more fodder to the never-ending Washington-Canberra search for enemies and  allies in Asia. (For further details see my book In Fear of China, Lansdowne  Press, Melbourne, 1968.)


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