It all happened 50 years ago. On 18 October 1962, the Chinese Central Military Committee met formally to approve the decision for a “self defence counterattack war” against India. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was given an operational order to “liquidate the invading Indian army, with operations to commence on 20 October”. On the night of 19/20 October, the PLA crossed the McMahon Line into Aksai Chin and NEFA (present day Arunachal Pradesh), and won decisive victories, wiping out Indian ‘forward policy’ posts. By 24 October, the Chinese had the area they claimed in Ladakh under their control. In NEFA, they had overrun all Indian posts along the McMahon Line.
India was humiliated when China unilaterally announced a ceasefire on 21 November 1962. A diplomatic, political and military failure, 1962 continues to haunt us even today. Others were also guilty but Nehru, who had been the Prime Minister for all 15 years of independent India then, has to be blamed for the debacle. Diplomatically, he failed to prevent the war. The negotiations with the Chinese exacerbated the situation. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans intervened during the war. Militarily, Nehru and his defence minister tasked the army beyond its capacity. The army was unprepared, ill-equipped, poorly-led and dependent on non-existent communication links. Politically, Nehru, trapped by his own rhetoric over China, succumbed to belligerent parliamentary and public opinion.
Nehru may be long gone but the debilitating impact of the 1962 debacle on India’s strategic thought is still thriving. The mantra that “we can’t afford a repeat of 1962” needs a closer scrutiny.
Let us be clear. 2012 is not 1962. India’s military and economic power has increased manifold in the last five decades. In fact, the debacle of 1962 led India to significantly enhance its military capabilities. The difference was demonstrated effectively in the 1971 war of Bangladesh’s independence where Indian army outgrew its second world war legacy of fighting static, defensive battles. India became and remains the preeminent military power in the subcontinent.
During the 1962 conflict, the Indian Air Force was never employed in an offensive role. It neither had enough aircraft nor requisite ground radar and communication support for that task. In 1962, the Chinese had far greater air assets than India. But in very near future, India will have more modern aircraft than China, and in adequate numbers. The Indian navy, despite its acquisition plans running behind schedule, is widely acknowledged to be a potent force against China.
Notwithstanding the conventional military balance, India is a declared nuclear power with delivery systems that can reach the Chinese territory. India’s nuclear and missile capability is the ‘new Himalayas’, to use Nitin Pai’s phrase, the biggest deterrent against any Chinese military threat.
India’s rise as an economic power in the last two decades has given it a unique standing in the world. A member of the G20, its voice counts in international fora. Look no further than the recent Non-aligned meet in Tehran where the Indian Prime Minister was given a seat on the main dais, ostensibly to earn that anachronistic movement some respectability. Contrast this with December 1962 when India and Pakistan were holding bilateral talks over Kashmir. Pakistan’s foreign minister ZA Bhutto then brusquely told the Indian foreign secretary, “You are a defeated nation, don’t you see.”
The world circa 2012 is also not the same as in 1962. The Americans have already declared their plans to be a pivot towards Asia and consider India to be their partner in the region. China, with it territorial claims and aggressive diplomatic moves, has made its East Asian neighbours wary of Beijing’s designs. Pakistan, successfully used by China in the past to tie India down, is battling for its own survival.
Moreover, China is among India’s largest trading partners, with a trading volume of $74 billion in 2011. This means that there will be areas of cooperation, and areas of competition between India and China, not necessarily of conflict.
This is not to suggest that China will never pose a security threat to India. But will that threat have any resemblance to the limited land-war of 1962, when the domains of conflict have moved to space, cyber and even economy? The demand for more ground troops on the China border proves the adage that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Let us not make that mistake. We must be prepared to take on the Chinese threat of the future, not of fifty years ago.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review