There is equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs (Part III of 3-part series of 50 years after the war)
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.
(28.9.2012 - 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 email@example.com)
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