NEW DELHI – The recent 50th anniversary of China’s invasion of India attracted much discussion, especially within India. Yet the debate shied away from drawing the broader, long-term lessons for Asian security.
The lessons are also relevant for China’s other neighbors because the 1962 war helped uncover the key elements of Beijing’s war-fighting doctrine — a doctrine it brought into play in 1969 (provoking bloody border clashes with Soviet forces), 1974 (occupying the Paracel Islands), 1979 (invading Vietnam), 1988 (seizing Johnson Reef), and 1995 (grabbing Mischief Reef). In each of those aggressions, the major 1962 elements were replicated.
As a 2010 Pentagon report citing the 1962 war, among others, put it, “The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies in which China’s leaders have claimed military pre-emption as a strategically defensive act.” In fact, a 2010 essay in the Qiu Shi Journal — the ideological and theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee — underscored the centrality of “offense as defense” in Chinese policy by declaring that “Throughout the history of new China, peace in China has never been gained by giving in, only through war. Safeguarding national interests is never achieved by mere negotiations, but by war.”
Unlike India, which still naively believes that it gained independence through nonviolence, not because a war-debilitated Britain could no longer hold on to its colonies, “new China” was born in blood after a long civil war. And it was built on blood, with Mao Zedong and other revolutionaries ever ready to employ force internally and externally. No sooner had the new China been established than it doubled its territorial size by forcibly absorbing Xinjiang and Tibet. Domestically, countless millions perished in witch-hunts, fratricidal killings and human-made disasters.
In fact, Mao attacked India after his “Great Leap Forward” created the worst famine in recorded world history, with the resulting damage to his credibility serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert his leadership through a war. The military victory over India indeed helped him to consolidate his grip on power, besides raising his international stature.
Yet, like a rape victim being scolded for inviting the attack, India was repeatedly rapped by some analysts during the anniversary debate for having brought on the Chinese aggression through “provocative” gestures and moves.
When the Chinese military marched hundreds of miles south to occupy the then-independent Tibet, bringing Han soldiers in large numbers to the Himalayan frontiers for the first time and setting the stage for China’s furtive encroachment on Indian territory, this supposedly did not constitute sufficient grounds for India to try to guard its undefended Himalayan borders. So when India belatedly deployed some units of its army, the action became, in Beijing’s words, a “forward policy” — a term lapped up by biddable analysts and still being bandied about.
India does not commemorate war anniversaries the way the United States does — with annual ceremonies honoring its fallen heroes. For example, at the exact time the Japanese began bombing Pearl Harbor 71 years earlier, commemorations were held last weekend at Pearl Harbor and memorials elsewhere, drawing thousands of Americans. India, in fact, has not built a single memorial to honor those who were martyred in 1962 or any of its other wars. China, by contrast, has a 1962 war memorial in Tibet and its Beijing military museum depicts India as the “aggressor.”
In this light, the 50th anniversary of what American scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has dubbed “Mao’s India War,” which killed 3,270 Indian troops and 725 Chinese, ought to have served as a time for reflection on its larger lessons. By baring key features of Beijing’s warfighting doctrine, the 42-day war indeed holds lasting lessons for India and other countries locked in territorial disputes with China.
Here are six of the 1962 principles China replicated in its subsequent aggressions: (1) take the adversary by surprise to maximize political and psychological shock; (2) strike only when the international and regional timing is opportune; (3) hit as fast and as hard as possible by unleashing “human wave” assaults; (4) be willing to take military gambles; (5) mask offense as defense; and (6) wage war with the political objective to “teach a lesson” — an aim publicly acknowledged by Beijing in the 1962 and 1979 attacks.
The Chinese strategy to choose an opportune moment to strike became evident before 1962 when China invaded Tibet in October 1950 while the world was preoccupied with the Korean war. China’s rapid success in seizing eastern Tibet emboldened it to intervene in Korea.
The classic case of opportunistic timing, however, was 1962: The attack coincided with the Cuban missile crisis, which threatened to trigger nuclear Armageddon and helped cut off India from potential sources of international support. But no sooner had the U.S. signaled an end to the faceoff with the Soviet Union by terminating Cuba’s quarantine than China declared a unilateral cease-fire. Such was the shrewd timing that throughout the Chinese attack, the international spotlight remained on the U.S.-Soviet showdown, not on China’s bloody invasion of India.
Similarly, China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974 after the U.S. military withdrawal from there had created a strategic vacuum. It occupied the disputed Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 when Moscow’s support for Vietnam had petered out after the Soviets stopped using Cam Ranh Bay as a major forward deployment base. And in 1995, China seized Mischief Reef when the Philippines stood isolated after having forced the U.S. to close its major military bases at Subic Bay and elsewhere on the archipelago.
The 1979 attack on Vietnam occurred after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping convinced U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his Washington visit that a “limited military action” against Vietnam was essential to contain Soviet and Vietnamese influence in Southeast Asia and to force Hanoi to withdraw its forces from Cambodia. After 29 days, China ended its Vietnam invasion and withdrew, claiming Hanoi had been sufficiently chastised.
It is apparent that new China hews to ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice: “All warfare is based on deception. … Attack where the enemy is unprepared; sally out when it does not expect you. These are the strategist’s keys to victory.”
Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011).