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What did China Gain at the End of the Fighting in November 1962?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • November 21, 2012

    On 21 November 1962, exactly half a century ago today, China unexpectedly announced to the world that it was declaring a unilateral cease-fire on the Sino-Indian border and, beginning 1 December 1962, would withdraw its troops 20 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control [LAC] existing between the two countries as on 7 November 1959. It was further clarified that in the eastern sector, Chinese troops would withdraw 20 kilometres north of the ‘so-called McMahon Line.’ With this announcement, the fighting in the brief Sino-Indian border conflict came to an end since India did not challenge the Chinese unilateral ceasefire declaration, nor did it hinder or obstruct the withdrawing Chinese troops. All Chinese troops were north of the McMahon Line by 1 March 1963. So what did China gain by initiating the fighting and starting the conflict?

    At the very outset it must be admitted that the conflict was an outstanding success for Chinese arms. China demonstrated once again, as it had done in the Korean War, that the PLA was not an army that could be trifled with. It was for the first time that the Chinese had projected their power into the sub-continent1 and beyond the Himalayan crest. But the end result was not as gratifying as has been assessed. For one, the Chinese leadership, because of the international situation rapidly turning adverse for China, thought discretion to be the better part of valour and prudently decided to withdraw their troops north and behind the McMahon Line. The Soviet Russian assessment was probably quite accurate when Khrushchev taunted the Chinese in a report to the Supreme Soviet on 12 December 1962 thus: ‘China had desisted from further hostilities apparently because India had started to receive support from the US and British Imperialists who were supplying it with arms. Therefore China realized that if the armed conflict continued it might turn into a large scale war.’2 Hence, the Chinese took the decision to withdraw unilaterally from territory south of the McMahon Line.

    An additional factor was that with winter setting in rapidly and, given the PLA’s extended and tenuous supply line, it would have been extremely difficult to maintain troops across and far south of the McMahon Line. At the extended points reached by Chinese troops on 20 November 1962, it was easier for India to mobilise larger forces, including heavy artillery and tanks. With winter approaching Chinese forces would have been, for the first time, in a precarious and disadvantaged position. While Indian troops might not have fought well on the high mountains, nevertheless they would be more than a handful if fighting took place on the plains. The outcome may not have been as predictable as before.

    The net gain in terms of territory for China was an insignificant 2,000 square kilometres of alpine desert in Ladakh between the first and second Chinese claim line. There was nothing to show for Chinese exertions in the east. This was the difference between the Chinese insistence of returning to the so-called line of 7 November 1959 and the Indian insistence of returning to the line of 8 September 1962 when the fighting initially commenced. Once again, Khrushchev taunted the Chinese leadership thus: ‘China is now withdrawing its troops essentially to the same line at which the conflict broke out. Would it not have been better not to have advanced from there?’3

    Thus while the withdrawal may be clothed in whatever triumphal terms the Chinese may like, but the hard fact remains that they could not even hold on to Tawang. Had the Chinese stopped after capturing Tawang, which they did, and not penetrated further south into Indian Territory after 24 October 1962, it would have been extremely difficult for India to dislodge them. For one, world public opinion would not have been so deeply aroused; the Western powers would not have taken the issue so seriously and the Chinese supply line would not have been over-extended. It would have been seen as just another border skirmish. And the Chinese would have retained the immensely important and strategic area of Tawang. That would have been a real gain! Extending the war beyond Tawang was a serious Chinese mistake. In any event by first crossing the McMahon Line and then retreating north beyond the McMahon Line on the conclusion of hostilities, the Chinese only served to further reinforce the validity of the McMahon Line as the international frontier between India and China. It also indicated that the Chinese tacitly accepted the McMahon alignment.

    A major gain for India was the fact that for the first time the United States announced that the McMahon Line constituted the international boundary in this region. In the early days the American attitude and position on the border question was ambivalent and far short of Indian expectations. On 12 November 1959, acting US Secretary of State Herter publicly proclaimed that the US had not taken ‘any side on the border dispute’ and as far as the legalities of rival border claims were concerned the US had ‘no views’ [emphasis added]. As a result of the conflict, the United States recognized, on 26 October 1962, the McMahon Line as the International Boundary line. This was a huge political gain for India. In addition, the United States underwrote the Indian position by publicly stating that it would not allow China to browbeat India into submission on the boundary question. On 10 December 1962 Secretary of State Rusk stated that, ‘the important thing in the Indian situation is to give such assistance as we can to India so that India is not subjected to a settlement of problems with China by forceful means applied by China…the central issue therefore is….the security of India as a great Asian democracy.’4

    The British, apart from re-confirming the validity of the McMahon Line, took a step further than even the US position when the then Foreign Secretary Lord Home told the Foreign Press Association that ‘we have taken the view of the government of India on the present frontiers and the disputed territories belong to India.’5 This statement of support was later reiterated by Lord Home at the United Nations, prompting the Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi to remark that Lord Home’s attitude proves that ‘Indian reactionaries and British Imperialists are jackals of the same lair.’ For the former Imperial power on the subcontinent to give such unqualified support to the Indian case both in the western and eastern sectors was indeed hugely important.

    The Chinese were livid over these developments. Foreign Minister Chen Yi felt that the  Western powers had not given due consideration to the sense of national pride and self respect of the Chinese people in seeking to recognise the McMahon Line as the international border. When the Chinese Ambassador Wang remonstrated with his US interlocutor, Ambassador Cabot, at their meeting in Warsaw on 13 December 1962 about the change in the US position on the McMahon Line, Cabot not only simply reiterated Rusk’s statement but significantly added that ‘the US wished to see a peaceful settlement, but one which India can accept with honour’ [emphasis added].6

    It is quite obvious that Chinese aggression on the border had paid no political dividends. All the three major powers of the world at that point in time – the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain – openly supported the Indian cause. On the other hand, China lost a sincere friend in Jawaharlal Nehru. From that point onwards in the minds of most of the Indian public the perception of China changed conclusively and it began to be associated with perfidy. It is a slur that China would find hard to live down for decades.

    • 1. Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation, Delta, New York, p. 338.
    • 2. Report to the Supreme Soviet, 12 December 1962.
    • 3. Ibid
    • 4. Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 1227, 31 December 1962, p. 1000.
    • 5. Survey of International Affairs, 1962, p. 418.
    • 6. State Department File No. 611.93/12-1392, 113th meeting.