Ghosts of '62 can't rest in peace

SINO-INDIAN WAR: 50 YEARS
ON

Ghosts of ’62 can’t rest in
peace

By
Brendan O’Reilly

Five decades ago, Indian and
Chinese soldiers traded bullets and spilled blood
on the world’s highest battlefield. The 50th
anniversary of the Sino-Indian War has been
largely overshadowed in international media by the
50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, this brief, if bitter, border conflict
between China and India has had enormous
geopolitical consequences not only for the two
belligerent powers, but also for the entire world.

The crucial relationship
between the world’s two most populous nations is
haunted by the ghosts of history and the
apparitions of potential future conflict. The
strategic environment remains stuck in a pattern
of confrontation, even as economic, political,
and

 

cultural ties between China
and India improve.

The local geopolitical
conditions that led to Sino-Indian War remain
largely unresolved. China and India still dispute
their mutual border, which was demarked (under
duress) by the British and the Tibetans in 1914.
The Chinese government rejects this border as a
legacy of Western imperialism. China lays claim to
the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, while India
declares jurisdiction over the Chinese-controlled
Askai Chin. Most importantly, India still offers
sanctuary and political support to the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government views this policy as
interference in its internal affairs.

The
Sino-Indian War is bitterly remembered in India.
China’s quick tactical victory and subsequent
implementation of a unilateral cease-fire remain a
humiliating memory for India’s political classes.
This month the Indian press has featured many
detailed stories and poignant editorials
addressing the legacy of the war.

Indian Defense Minister A K
Antony recently toured the northeast border region
and addressed the both the memory of the war and
the current military situation thus:
“Infrastructure in the north-east is not up to our
satisfaction but it has improved a lot compared to
the past … infrastructure, assets and manpower,
everything has improved. India of 2012 is not the
India of that period. We are now capable of
defending every inch of our country.” [1]

Meanwhile, the war has been
largely forgotten in China. A recent poll by the
Chinese Global Times found only 15% of urban
Chinese adults who took part in their survey knew
about the war. [2] Ma Li of the China Institutes
of Contemporary International Relations offered
the following explanation for this striking memory
gap: “Compared to Indians who have a deep
impression of the war because they were defeated,
few Chinese know about the war.” [3]

The
reason for the dearth of memory on the Chinese
side may have other explanations besides victory.
A victorious war against a fellow Asian victim of
Western imperialism may not resonate well with
China’s self-image. Also, the Chinese people are
currently focused on domestic and economic
concerns. Finally, the collective Chinese
consciousness remains preoccupied with vivid
memories of the war of resistance against Japan.

The
strategic environment

The continuing military
confrontation and general rivalry between India
and China is centered on surprisingly similar
strategic concerns. Both countries feel surrounded
by hostile, or potentially hostile, rivals. A
quick look at a map reveals why India’s geography
makes her particularly sensitive to fears of
encirclement. To the west is the fraternal
adversary Pakistan, with whom India has fought
three wars. Although the border has quieted down,
India and Pakistan still contest control over
Kashmir, and face each other down with new and
growing nuclear arsenals. China, ever expanding in
power and the victor of their brief war 50 years
ago, lies on India’s northern border. Most
ominously, Pakistan and China have been consistent
allies for over five decades.

China feels similarly
constrained. America’s pivot towards Asia, along
with the current territorial disputes with Japan,
the Philippines, and Vietnam, put pressure on
China’s eastern flank. While the contemporary
relationship with Russia is quite friendly, this
is has not usually been the case from a historical
perspective. Afghanistan and other predominantly
Muslim nations lie to China’s West, and are seen
as a potential source for instability within
China’s Muslim-dominated border regions. To
China’s south is India, a growing economic force
and newly minted nuclear power. China sees the
growing political and security relationship
between Washington, New Delhi, and Tokyo as a
potentially serious long-term threat.

There is a strange dance
between India, China, the United States, and
Pakistan developing on the Asian mainland. On one
hand, the United States is forced by the volatile
situation in Afghanistan to remain locked in a
mutually unhappy marriage of convenience with
Pakistan. At the same time, Washington is trying
to woo India into a tacit anti-Chinese alliance.

Washington’s billions in
military aid to Pakistan greatly complicate
efforts to cozy up to New Delhi. China’s alliance
with Pakistan also complicates Chinese overtures
to India. Meanwhile India feels (understandably)
distrustful of the major powers, and is attempting
to secure a lasting peace with Pakistan in order
to achieve more geopolitical maneuverability.

Besides these classic
geopolitical concerns are fears of domestic
instability and disintegration. India and China
are both “civilization states” containing a myriad
of linguistic and ethnic groups. China’s main
source of contention with India is Indian support
to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile
based in northern India’s Dharamsala. China’s vast
western interior, which borders India, is
populated by often-restive minorities. For
historical and geopolitical reasons, the Chinese
government remains extremely wary of any threats
to China’s territorial integrity.

New
Delhi also faces a multitude of threats from
within. Kashmiri insurgents, Maoists guerillas,
and ethnic rebels in India’s far northeast all
challenge New Delhi’s sovereignty. Just as India
provides political support to the Dalai Lama,
Beijing has, in the past, given logistical aid to
some armed rebel factions within
India.

Similar strategic concerns on
both sides of the Himalayas are just one of many
areas where China and India share profound
similarities. Both lands are the inheritors of
thousands of years of cultural tradition. Both
have had rapid economic expansion in the last few
decades. Beijing and New Delhi are equally eager
to step onto the world stage and claim their
rightful place in the sun after centuries of
abuse, mismanagement, and incredible human
suffering.

Despite the history of
contention, the Sino-Indian relationship has
significantly improved in the last decade. In
2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed a treaty to
peaceably resolve their border dispute and
implement a “strategic partnership”. During this
crucial summit, China recognized India’s
sovereignty over the former Himalayan kingdom of
Sikkim, and expressed support for New Delhi’s bid
for a permanent seat on the United Nations
Security Council. Manmohan Singh extolled the
potential of Sino-Indian partnership by saying
“India and China can together reshape the world
order.”

And indeed they can. Bearing any
unforeseeable shock to the human race, China and
India will be the world’s largest economies by the
end of the century. Already their impressive
economic growth has shifted the balance of world
economic and financial power further east. As
rising economies still populated by relatively
poor citizens, both sides have offered mutual
political support for climate change agreements
favorable to their respective
countries.

China’s massive capital resources could
be invested for common gain in India’s ambitious
infrastructure projects. Most importantly, the
bilateral trade between India and China has
expanded rapidly, and is now valued at nearly
seventy-five billion dollars annually. China is
India’s number one trading partner.

Such
fertile grounds for mutual benefit may not
completely neutralize the old geopolitical fears.
Trade is good, but the potential for a sudden
breakdown in relations between such huge and
growing powers remains a possibility. However, one
military factor in the Sino-Indian equation should
utterly nullify the old shared fears of military
encirclement.

The
bottom line

India and
China have reached a state of mutually assured
destruction. India’s successful test firing of the
Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile in April
of this year could bring the entirety of China
within India’s strategic missile range. This
development, along with the deployment of
submarine-based second-strike capabilities, has
allowed India to achieve a credible level of
nuclear deterrence against China. Both sides know
that there must never be another Sino-Indian war,
because neither New Delhi nor Beijing could
guarantee that such a conflict would not escalate
into full-scale nuclear exchange.

As
the China Institutes of Contemporary International
Relations’ Ma Li said: “It’s unimaginable for two
nuclear-armed powers to fight each other.” [4]
Concerns of geopolitical encirclement have been
rendered obsolete by the brute logic of Mutually
Assured Destruction.

After the successful test
launch of the Agni V in April, China’s foreign
ministry was remarkably conciliatory regarding
India’s improved ballistic capabilities. Spokesman
Liu Wenmin responded to the test by saying “China
and India are large developing nations. We are not
competitors but partners … We believe that both
sides should cherish the hard-won good state of
affairs at present, and work hard to uphold
friendly strategic co-operation to promote joint
development and make positive contributions
towards maintaining peace and stability in the
region.” [5]

This is particularly friendly
and far-sighted rhetoric from a rival nuclear
power.

Because China and India must
never go to war, they have little choice but to
cooperate. The great potential for mutual gain
could be harvested if both sides act with
long-term interests in mind. Indeed, areas for
increased cooperation between the two most
populous nations in the world extend far beyond
the traditional economic and political realms.

India’s strengths are largely
China’s weaknesses, and China’s recent
accomplishments are the mirror image of India’s
failures. China’s dramatic success in bringing the
vast majority of the Chinese people out of extreme
poverty in the last three decades is heavily
contrasted by India’s persistent problems of
widespread malnutrition and illiteracy. The level
of extreme material want in Indian cities and
villages far exceeds anything that can currently
be seen in China.

On the other hand, India’s
has done a much better job of preserving her
traditional culture than has China. The majority
of Indians still prefer traditional garments to
Western clothes. Bollywood films and Indian pop
music are hugely popular with foreign audiences,
while most contemporary Chinese cultural exports
remain generally uninspiring. Where China has done
a better job of supplying the Chinese people with
material necessities, India has sustained and
advanced a vibrant culture that attracts admirers
from all around the world.

China and India are perfectly
suited to develop a friendly rivalry. Both nations
have much to learn from each other. Their peoples
stand to benefit greatly from improved economic
ties and a strategic outlook that recognizes the
utter futility of armed conflict.
The lessons of China’s
material successes could help lift hundreds of
millions of Indians out of extreme poverty.
India’s cultural accomplishments could serve as an
example to help China to fill her creative and
spiritual void. If the leaders of China and India
can recognize their shared hopes and fears while
exploring the vast avenues for mutual gain, then
perhaps the ghosts of 1962 can finally rest in
peace.

Notes:
1. India fully capable of
defending itself
: A K Antony, The Economic
Times, Oct 19, 2012.
2. India war not likely:
poll, Global Times, Oct 20, 2012.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. India test launches Agni V
long-range missile
, BBC News, Apr 19, 2012.

Brendan P O’Reilly is a
China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He
is author of
The Transcendent
Harmony.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times
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