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China’s India War - Collision Course on the Roof of the World

A writer argues that long before the 1962 war, China had hardened its position against Nehru and prepared itself militarily

On February 24, 1962, the Indian army established an outpost at Dhola in the gorge of Namka Chu river where the borders of India, Bhutan and Tibet intersect. For centuries, the region on that trijunction has been in use for traders who brought meat, herbs, rare spices and gems from the Tibetan people to the Indian subcontinent. Travellers and monks have left their signs in the gigantic mountains nearby in the form of holy sculptures and stupas. Yet, when India erected that outpost, it attracted a backlash from China as Beijing countered that Dhola was beyond the McMahon Line. This was one of the crucial points scholar and journalist Neville Maxwell highlighted in his much discussed book, India’s China War.


Another interpretation

In China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World, author Bertil Lintner has given a counterpoint.

With thorough fieldwork study and research, Lintner shows that the Chinese were preparing for a great war with India for years before the Dhola outpost or even the 1959 arrival of the Dalai Lama in India. While Maxwell’s arguments were focused on what India did to provoke China, Lintner shows that China had progressively hardened its position against Jawaharlal Nehru and prepared itself militarily to counter what it perceived as India’s continuation of the interpretation of the India-Tibet border according to the 1914 Shimla Agreement.

Even before the war, Beijing in a publication described the McMahon Line as ‘notorious’ — that was agreed upon between the British and the Tibetan authorities ‘behind the back of the representatives of the Chinese Central Government’. Maxwell had agreed to the Chinese argument of deceit. But Lintner goes a step ahead and demolishes the argument of ‘deceit’ by citing the records of the Shimla Convention, which revealed that the Chinese delegation led by Chen Yifan or Ivan Chen was preoccupied with the larger issues of sovereignty over Tibet and was unprepared for the technical discussions that followed. Lintner shows that China’s persistent argument against Nehru and his following of a colonial era agreement overlooked the fact that they were not prepared for the Shimla Convention as the main delegate himself had no idea of where the India-Tibet border was located. He shows that the Chinese delegation was well qualified but did not have the ground work that is necessary for such a major discussion.

With detailed research, Lintner explains that apart from the obvious Chinese plan to camouflage their team’s below par performance at the Shimla Convention, there were a series of interconnected events that had indicated that the Chinese were ready for a major military confrontation. The issues regarding the outpost at Dhola or the ‘Forward Policy’, fall apart when faced by the enormity of Lintner’s argument.

Lintner, who has researched the book for years, has mixed extensive travel in Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and the Kachin, Shan states of Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and, of course, China and has presented a picture, which is not imbued with the pronounced tilt towards China that is apparent in Maxwell’s work. Lintner never tried to meet Maxwell while countering his argument, but he did meet the other author, Alastair Lamb, even as he countered his conclusions on the Shimla Convention.

Apart from field trips to Tawang, Walong, Kibihitoo and Tezu among other locations in Arunachal Pradesh, Lintner has connected the dots about how China’s interpretation of the Shimla Convention and the McMahon Line have now matured to influence its attitude towards other bordering states like Nepal and Bhutan, and how it currently conducts its border-related discussion with India from that prism.


Build-up to the war

Though the latter part of the book connects China’s war with India and its current South Asian push with detailed analysis of Nepal and Bhutan, Lintner shines brightest in the chapters on the border dispute and the war. With a remarkable and almost cinematic sweep, Lintner shows that the intelligence gathering and preparations for the war had been ongoing from May 1962, much before the overall deterioration in ties and traces China’s war preparation to the mid-1950s.

It is probable that apart from Beijing’s misgivings about Nehru, there were multiple other factors like a possible Tibetan independence, which could have prompted Tibet to join hands with the Soviet Union or that the fear of Western domination propelled the Chinese to plan the war much earlier than Maxwell had suggested. He rewinds to the resistance groups of Tibetan youth, Chushi Gangdruk and the hostile reception from the Tibetans during the uprising and ultimate occupation of Tibet in 1959 as sources of continued threat to China’s plans in Tibet. In the end, he rescues Nehru from the blame of provoking China with the ‘Forward Policy’.

Lintner says that Nehru probably was not fully aware of the dislike that Beijing had harboured for him and he did not exercise the policy of consolidating India’s position along the Arunachal boundary with South Tibet — the McMahon Line with any aggressive intention. Because, even Bhola Nath Mullik, Nehru’s chief of intelligence, failed to assess the Chinese actions correctly.

Following his assertions, Lintner credits Nehru for following the ‘Forward Policy’ as a normal measure to assert what was then understood to be the traditional Indian border.

The book is a definite landmark in understanding the Chinese position on the border issue which will continue to be in the news in the post-Doklam scenario.

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