By Mohan Guruswamy
Most Indians rightly see the 1962 war between India and China, and a relatively small military defeat and the major national panic that followed, as a cathartic event. While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it is in 1967 that Indian and Chinese troops last clashed -- at Nathu La. Since then, not a shot has been fired across the border.
Nathu La at 14,200 feet is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined, China never accepted Sikkim as an Indian protectorate with its army deployed there. During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, China gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. Inexplicably, India's 17 Mountain Division vacated Jelep La. It still remains with China.
At the time of the 1967 clash, India's 2 Grenadiers held Nathu La. This battalion was under the command of Lt Col (later Brigadier) Rai Singh. The battalion was under the Mountain Brigade commanded by Brig M.M.S. Bakshi, MVC.
According to a young Indian officer, the routine at Nathu La started with patrolling by both sides along the perceived border, almost always leading to arguments. The only one on the Chinese side who could converse in broken English was the political commissar. Sentries of both forces would stand barely one meter apart in the centre of the Pass.
Arguments between the two sides soon changed to pushing and shoving. On Sep 6, 1967, a scuffle took place. In order to de-escalate the situation, the Indian military decided to lay a wire in the centre of the Pass from Nathu La to Sebu La to demarcate the perceived border. This task was to be carried out by the 70 Field Company of Engineers assisted by a company of 18 Rajput. It was to begin Sep 11.
Under a bright morning sun, engineers and soldiers started erecting long iron pickets from Nathu La to Sebu La while 2 Grenadiers and Artillery Observation Post Officers at Sebu La and Camel's Back were on alert. Immediately, the Chinese commissar came to the centre of the Pass.
The commissar asked Lt. Col. Rai Singh to stop laying the wire. Orders to the Indian Army were clear. They were not to blink. An argument soon built up into a scuffle. In the melee, the commissar got roughed up. Thereafter the Chinese went back to their bunkers. Engineers resumed laying the wire.
Within minutes, a whistle was heard on the Chinese side followed by murderous medium machine gun fire. Jawans of 70 Field Company and 18 Rajput were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties. Col Rai Singh was wounded. Two brave officers, Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput, rallied a few troops and tried to assault the Chinese MMG but both died a heroic death.
2 Grenadier opened small arms fire but it was not very effective. Within the first 10 minutes, there were nearly 70 dead and scores wounded in the open on the pass. Within half hour, Chinese artillery opened up on the pass as well as in the depth areas but it failed to do much damage due to lack of observation.
The Indians sought artillery fire. Because of excellent domination and observation from Sebu La and Camel's Back, the officer say, artillery fire was most effective. Most Chinese bunkers were destroyed and the Chinese suffered very heavy casualties that by their own estimates were over 400. The artillery duel carried on day and night.
For the next three days, the Chinese were taught a lesson. On Sep 14, the Chinese threatened use of air force if shelling did not stop. By then, the lesson had been driven home and an uneasy ceasefire came about.
The Chinese, true to form, pulled over dead bodies to their side of the perceived border at night and accused India of violating the border. Dead bodies were exchanged Sep 15 in the presence of, among others, Lt. Gen. Jagjit Aurora and Lt. Gen. Sam Maneckshaw, the Eastern Army Commander.
On Oct 1, 1967, this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the People's Liberation Army and similarly not found wanting. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then. Today the Indian Army and PLA stand eyeball to eyeball but the atmosphere is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.
Will China provoke a conflict with India or vice versa?
I don't think so. Both countries are now well settled on the actual positions held. In Ladakh, China is pretty much close to what it desired pre-1962, which is along the old Ardagh Line, which British India hastily abandoned after being spooked by reports of Soviet Russian presence in Xinjiang.
This line, long favoured by Whitehall, was dispensed with. In 1942 British India reverted back to the more forward Johnson Line that encompassed the Aksai Chin as Indian territory.
In the eastern sector, India pretty much holds on to the alignment along the McMahon Line. Thrice in the past the Chinese offered to settle this vexatious issue on this as-is-where-is basis, but India baulked because the dynamics of its domestic politics did not allow it, as they still do.
In his last conversation on this with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Chairman Deng suggested freezing the border and leaving it to history to resolve. Good and sagacious advice, if the dynamics between the two countries did not change.
In the mid-1980s, China's and India's GDP's were about the same. Since then China's GDP has grown to become more than three times as big as India's. Its rapid economic ascent has now more or less conferred on it the role of the world's other superpower. China today is also a technology powerhouse and has built a modern military industrial complex.
India's ascent is a more recent story and there are still some decades to go before it can aspire to be again on a par with China.
China's rise has seen the manifestation of a visible and more strident nationalism. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, it is China's growing assertiveness that is causing concern. We see newer manifestations of this in its conduct with Japan over the Senkaku Island chain and its claims in the South China Sea.
In doing so China has stirred up concerns among all the littoral ASEAN states, and even in India which has had oil assets there since the early 1990s. The international community with interests in the region says that China's bullying is unacceptable. Yet China persists with its tone and forward postures.
While India has made its position clear (South China Sea an international passageway), and that it will not be deterred from oil exploration in Vietnamese waters, there are concerns that still find resonance in New Delhi's dovecotes.
In recent years China has built as many as 18 forward air bases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan that put most northern and eastern Indian cities, industrial centres and military targets within striking range of its new generation fighter-bombers. By contrast most Chinese cities and industrial centres are deep within and not easily reached by Indian aircraft.
It is somewhat ironical that Tibet, which throughout history was seen as a buffer protecting India from China, has become a buffer the other way around. The Chinese military buildup has been unprecedented and unnecessary also. Yet China has built a huge military infrastructure and of a kind that would be quite redundant against threats the freedom-loving Tibetans may pose to its control over Tibet.
India has taken note of this and has sought to suitably counter it. But buildups lead to more buildups and mistrust. But of one thing we can be sure. If there is a conflict, it will not be a limited war a la 1962.
The use of airpower is implicit. China threatened it in 1967 when it got bloodied at Nathu La. Both the countries maintain large and powerful air forces, and it would seem that they would come into play quite early in the conflict. There is also every possibility that it could extend into the Indian Ocean region, effectively internationalising the conflict.
India has for decades had good reason to distrust China, with its increasing close military ties with Pakistan and its supply of nuclear weapons technology and missiles. Every Pakistani missile threatening to deliver nuclear weapons on distant Indian cities is of Chinese origin. India draws the logical conclusions from this.
Conflicts are generally the result of a serious military asymmetry or by misjudging intentions or by local conflicts spiraling out of control or when domestic failures require a diversion of attention or when domestic dynamics make rational discourse impossible. In 1962, we saw the last two at play.
After the disastrous Great Leap Forward and after over 30 million died of starvation between 1959 and 1962, Chairman Mao desperately needed a diversion to assert his control of the Communist Party and PLA. His rival, the popular Marshal Peng Duhai, was still in Beijing after being purged by Mao. Many speculate that anticipating a putsch against him by reformers opposed to the personality cult, Mao busied up the PLA in a low cost high return limited war.
On the Indian side the unthinking escalation of attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru by the opposition and from within the Congress forced the government to embark of an ill-fated Forward Policy. This was despite advice by its Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daulat Singh, that a policy without the military means to support it would have grave consequences.
As Indian and Chinese forces jostled for space on the narrow ridges of the eastern Himalayas, India's declaratory policy and Chinese realpolitik clashed and the die was cast. As wars go, it was a small war. In all three Indian divisions and maybe a few more PLA divisions took part.
But the dramatic Indian debacle in the Tawang Tract led to a panic that had the nation cowering in fear and its leaders flopping around like headless chicken. When Bomdila fell, Nehru went on AIR and effectively announced the abandonment of Assam saying his heart went out to the people of the state in their moment of dire peril.
But Mao was made of wilier stuff. After administering a quick and telling blow, he ordered the PLA to withdraw back to pre-conflict positions. Fifty years later, the rankling memory of those dark days never allow the wound to quite heal.
Neither India nor China is now ruled by imperious Emperors, like Nehru and Mao were. In their place we have timid bureaucrat politicians, vested with just a little more power than the others in the ruling collegiums. Collegiums are cautious to the point of being bland and extremely chary of taking risks.
As for serious asymmetry, it does not occur now. India's arms buildup and preparations make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean. In 2012, both countries have sufficient arsenals of nuclear weapons and standoff weapons to deter each other. Above all, both nations have evolved into stable political systems, inclined to be far more cautious in their dealings with each other.
This leaves a local conflict rapidly spiralling out of control, or another Gavrilo Princip incident where a single shot at the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand sparked World War I, highly improbable. After 45 years of not shooting at each other, and not even confronting each other by being at the same contested space at the same time, local commanders have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behaviour and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics.
Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace at the frontier.
While China has shown assertiveness in the recent years, India has been quietly preparing for a parity to prevent war. Often parity does not have to be equality in numbers. The fear of pain disproportionate to the possible gains, and the ability of the smaller in numbers side to do so in itself confer parity. There is an equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs that make recourse to force extremely improbable.
Both modern states are inheritors of age-old traditions and the wisdom of the ages. Both now read their semaphores well and know how much of the sword must be unsheathed to send a message. This ability will ensure the swords remain concealed and for the plowshares to be out at work.
Mohan Guruswamy is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, a privately funded think-tank. He is the author of several books, the latest being "Chasing the Dragon: Will India Catch-up with China?" He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This paper was originally published as a three parter with the Indo-Asian News Service