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Better Understanding






A general impression going around amongst the Indian strategic community is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is becoming superpower in the next 20 years. It may even offer a challenge to the US by that time. It is further argued that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is going to be a formidable force in the years to come because of the ongoing modernisation plans. Some even argue that now is the correct time to resolve the Sino-Indian border question and establish cordial relations as quickly as possible with China. Whatever may be reasons for this Indian mindset, whether it was the 1962 debacle or the 1964 Chinese nuclear explosion, these arguments need a closer examination.


The Wars the PLA Fought

Korean War of 1950-51

Before we examine Sino-Indian relations, the first question that needs to be asked is whether the PLA is really militarily so superior as compared to the Indian armed forces or not? A close scrutiny of the PLA’s performance during the past 47 years indicates that at every given opportunity, the PLA flexed its muscle and its performance can best be described as a mixed kitty. During the late Chairman Mao’s years, the PLA went into action five times - three times to fight a war with neighbours, once to fight the US “imperialism” and once to occupy the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The first was in 1950-Y when the PL4 clashed with the US forces in the Korean Peninsula. Whatever may be the claims made by the Chinese, the PLA was defeated and suffered heavy casualties. Many would argue that the technological superiority of the US armed forces played a decisive role in the defeat of the PLA.


Sino-Idian War of 1962

A decade later, after the failure of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward Programme, in October 1962, China decided to resolve the Sino-Indian border issue by the use of force. In October 1962, the PLA moved in swiftly, defeated the Indian Army and declared unilateral ceasefire after taking possession of approximately 30,000 sq km of Indian territory. Though no official history of the war from the Indian side has been published as yet, the Chinese official version is that they repulsed the Indian attack on Chinese territory. Various versions of the people associated with that war from the Indian side, however, indicate that the Chinese succeeded largely due to the failure of the politico-military leadership of India to assess correctly the PLA’s capabilities. Way back in 1974 itself, people like K. Subrahmanyam, who were associated with China during that crucial period in India’s Ministry of Defence, argued that had the Indian Air Force been pressed into action, the course of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 would have been different. In fact, at the time of the war itself elder statesman of India, C. Rajagopalachari, advocated the deployment of the Air Force by India to destroy the supply lines of the Chinese Army.


Nathu La of 1967

Three years later, in 1965, two significant events took place on the Sine-Indian border. The first was the warning issued to India about Chinese sheep not being allowed to graze on their side of the border by India. This happened in September 1965 when the Indo-Pak war was simmering on India’s western border.

At the same time, in September-December 1965, the PLA sent probing missions on the entire Sikkim-Tibet border. According to one account, there were seven border intrusions on the Sikkim-Tibet border between September 7 and December 12, 1965, involving the PLA. In all these border incursions, the Indian side responded “firmly” without provoking the other. Though details of casualties of these PLA border incursions are not reported, there were reports indicating that the PLA suffered “heavy” casualties against “moderate” loss by India.

Two years later, in September 1967, in spite of their setbacks in 1965, the PLA launched a direct attack on the lndian armed forces at Nathu La, on the Sikkim-Tibet border. The six-day “border skirmishes” from September 7-6 to 13, 1967, had all the elements of a high drama, including exchange of heavy artillery fire, and the PLA soldiers tried to cross the border in large numbers.

The attack was repulsed at all points, According to an account of this incident, from the details of the fighting available, it appeared the Chinese had received a severe mauling in the artillery duels across the barbed wire fence. Indian gunners scored several direct hits on Chinese bunkers, including a command post from where the Chinese operations were being directed. The Chinese were also known to have suffered at least twice as many casualties as the Indians in this encounter between Indian and Chinese armed forces.

The important point to be remembered in this context is that the late Chairman Mao launched his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in 1965 and it reached its peak in 1967 to weed out all ‘anti-socialist elements” from the Chinese polity. Though many Sinologists would not like to describe the GPCR in any other manner, for an outsider like me, it was essentially a power struggle between Chairman Mao and his adversaries.

However, for the purposes of this essay, three significant things emerged from the Nathu La episode on the Sikkim-Tibet border. First, the Indian armed forces demonstrated beyond doubt that the PLA is not as strong and motivated as it was made out to be. In fact, there were rumours, around September 10, 1967, that the PLA was planning to bring in the Air Force to escalate the conflict. Sensing that the Indians were getting ready for such an eventuality, the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, denied having any such plans.

Second, the Indian politico-military leadership quickly realised this myth about the PLA. This was clearly reflected in the unconditional ceasefire proposed by India in a note delivered to the Chinese on September 12, 1967, all along the Sikkim-Tibet border from 05.30 hrs on September 13. Though officially, the Chinese rejected this unilateral ceasefire offer by India, except for an occasional salvo by the PLA on September 13, 1967, there was a lull all along the border. Many observers felt India scored a psychological victory over the Chinese for the latter’s unilateral ceasefire in 1962.

Lastly, the Indian political leadership also realised that the PLA’s behavioural pattern on the border had something to do with the domestic turmoil then going on in China.


Ussuri Clashes of 1969

By March 1969, the GPCR entered its final phase and at that time the PLA decided that it could decide the border with the former Soviet Union by the use of force. On March 2-3, 1969, there were “border skirmishes” in the area of the Nizhnemikhallovka border post on the Ussuri River. The intruding PLA men were confronted by the Soviet Red Army and their attack was repulsed.

Again, on March 15, 1969, the PLA launched a fresh attack with an infantry regiment strength (estimated to be 2,000 men) with support units at Damansky Island on the Ussuri River. According to the details of the war available, initially the Chinese succeeded in penetrating the island under cover of artillery and mortar fire from their side of the river. But a massive retaliation by the Red Army made the PLA beat a hasty retreat.

Like they had to bring in the Air Force to meet the Indian armed forces’ challenge, this time too, the PLA is reported to have “activated” their North China Sea fleet, but nothing happened; it turned out to be an empty threat.

Again there were border skirmishes in August 1969 in the Xinjiang sector of the Sino-Soviet border between the PLA and the Red Army.

It is a part of history now that the PLA could not take on the Red Army and the Chinese were forced to come to the conference table to resolve the issue through peaceful negotiations.

Capturing of  paracle Island in 1974

After the end of the GPCR in 1969.70, it is still a debatable question, whether Chairman Mao eliminated all his adversaries or not, but radical changes came into the structure and hierarchy of the PLA. Apparently the aging Chairman Mao, in a swift move, ordered the PLA to go and capture the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. With the ongoing conflict in Indo-China al that time, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Vietnam. who also claimed part of these islands, did not offer any resistance to the PLA’s occupation of the islands.

Virtually without firing a shot, the PLA had a total success in this operation.

An assessment of these five PLA actions indicates that it had a total success in two operations and suffered defeat on three other occasions. The PLA success story is also due to the timing of the campaign like in the Paracel Islands. Whenever the PLA confronted an adversary without any element of surprise, or an adversary who challenged them, its performance was poor. This was obvious from the Korean war, and the Nathu La and Ussrui incidents. In fact, in the Nathu La and Ussuri incidents, the PLA did not offer even stiff resistance. From all accounts, it made a hasty retreat the instant the adversary offered stiff resistance or acted “decisively”.

All these five actions of the PLA also clearly indicate three things: (a) the late Chairman Mao, wanted to consolidate his country’s boundaries as quickly as possible, and in that exercise, advantage China should be the guiding principle; (b) also, he pressed the PLA into action, whenever his plans to accelerate the peace of economic developments failed; and (c) in all these wars/engagements, the PL4 was not as professional as it was made out to be.


Sino-Vietnam War of 1979

In the post-Mao period, after the initial years’ power struggle was over and Deng Xiaoping managed to place himself firmly in the saddle, he too looked to the PLA to resolve the outstanding claims of China on its borders. The first was, of course, the now famous February 1979 war with Vietnam. Deng wanted “to teach a lesson” to the Vietnamese. In that Sine-Vietnam war, the PLA was badly mauled and forced to retreat. The battlehardened Vietnamese with better strategy and motivation were able to take on the PLA and inflict heavy casualties. According to one strategic commentator, The only thing the Chinese are not interested to discuss is the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979.”

Deng realised that there was need to improve the technological superiority of the PLA. Consequently, the military modernisation segment of the Four Modernisations Programme (the other three being agriculture, industry, and science and technology) was acelerated. Accordingly, we notice greater allocations for defence in the Chinese budget since then.


Sumdorong Cho Valley incident of 1985

Six and half years later, Deng decided to flex China’s muscles again with India. In mid-1986, it came to the notice of India that the PLA had built a helipad at Wandung in Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. India reacted swiftly and the PLA had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the India Army in Sumdorong Chu Valley of Arunchal Pradesh in August 1986. After a week of tense moments both sides mutually agreed to withdraw their forces inside their respective territories and create a no man’s land. The Chinese posture at that time clearly indicated that Beijing quickly realised that 1962 cannot be repeated. Afterwards, we saw some writings in the PLA’s official organ, Liberation Army Daily, about the professionalism the Indian armed forces.


Sine-Vietnam Clashes in the South China Sea

Called the Truong Sa Archipelago by Vietnam, and the Nansha Islands by China, the Spratlys consist of about 150 reefs, sandbanks and islands in the South China Sea, 350 km from Vietnam’s coast and 1,000 km tram China. They straddle busy shipping lanes and are, therefore, strategically important. In addition, the preliminary geological surveys have shown that this area has vast deposits of crude oil and natural gas.

Both China and Vietnam claimed the Spratlys for centuries, but up to 1987 had been content with a war of words. However, from early 1967 onwards, the Chinese started putting markers on some of these islands, making it clear that they had asserted their sovereignty over them. Simultaneously, the PLA also started strengthening its presence and started conducting naval exercises in and around the Spratlys.

This brought a sharp reaction from Vietnam and in the subsequent protest notes exchanged, both sides accused each other of provocation, and claimed that the other side would bear the responsibility and consequences of its actions.

On March 14,1988, the PLA’s Navy clashed with the Vietnamese Navy for the first time. Though it was a very short confrontation, both sides suffered considerable casualties. But the tension continued up to the end of the month. In late March 1988, the war-weary Vietnam proposed bilateral talks with China to resolve the issue. As usual, the Chinese rejected the offer initially, but later agreed to the Vietnamese proposal.

However, fresh tensions erupted in May 1992, when the Chinese authorities leased an oil concession to an American Firm, Creston Energy, for oil exploration in and around the Spratlys, and Vietnam took strong objection to it.

From 1993 onwards, both China and Vietnam realised that they could not resolve the issue militarily and started negotiations.


Invincible PLA ?

Like Mao, Deng also tried to use the PLA to settle the border issues by use of force but had no success. With the Deng era coming to an end, what his successors would do can only be a matter of speculation. They may or may not continue this policy of using force to settle the “Middle Kingdwn’s” boundades.

But the lessons others can draw from the PLA’s past engagements is that the PLA’s conventional armed forces are not an invincible force as they are being made out to be by a section of the Indian strategic community. As far as China’s nuclear capabilities are concerned, the Chinese have given a solemn undertaking to the international community that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. And the doyen of India’s nuclear programme, Dr. Raja Ramanna, in October 1996, observed that the country has acquired the nuclear weapon manufacturing capability. In other words, we have the needed nuclear deterrent capability.

The other aspect of the PLA is its equipment. Right from the liberation of mainland China in October 1949, the Chinese strongly believed in self-reliance. At the height of the Sine-Soviet friendship, in the early 1950s, a considerable amount of Soviet technology was transferred to China. One can say that the Chinese arms industry was built on this in the subsequent years. The Soviet technology stopped coming from the mid-1950s onwards. With the embargo and containment policy of the West up to 1971, the Chinese arms industry, it is generally agreed upon by China watchers, remained, more or less, stagnant.

In other words, for about 16-17 years, China had no access to any rapidly changing conventional arms technology in the international arms market. In addition, how much the social engineering experiments of the late Chairman Mao affected the overall technological standards in the PLA and outside is a debatable question. Some Western scholars have observed that the PLA was insulated against the social upheavals created by the late Chairman Mao. Still, at least two generations of young people were affected by Chairman Mao’s experiments in the 1950s and 1960s. This must have automatically resulted in a low level of technological base in the Chinese society. It certainly affected the civil sector, We can see this by the low quality of Chinese consumer products. And, therefore, its impact on the arms industry cannot be ruled out.

Whatever may be the actual position, there has been a scramble for weapon related technology since 1971, from the international market by China - how much they are able to absorb is an open ended question and can be debated.

The performance of the equipment the Chinese are selling in the international market leaves much to be desired. For instance, some of the biggest recipients of Chinese arms like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran have bought this equipment as a last choice, when it was denied to them from others or they were cash starved. In fact, the Pakistani arms acquisition pattern over the years indicates that their first preference is arms from the West and the last choice is China. This is in spite of an indepth relationship with China, and the fact that Chinese equipment is cheap and available on easy credit.

In this part of the world, the Chinese equipment saw action in war in recent years only in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1990s. The Iranians used the Silkworm missiles from China quite successfully to confront Iraq, but in the later stages of the war only, when Iraqi ammunition was almost depleted.

Therefore, one need not be unduly alarmed at the technological level of the PLA’s weapon systems.


Myth of Economic Miracle

The other myth that is perpetuated by a group of China watchers is that Beijing is likely to become an economic superpower in the next two decades, that is, by about 2015 or so. And to support their argument, the World Bank report on China and the Economist (London) are liberally quoted. One is tempted to compare this Chinese miracle with the 1970s’ assessments of the West about China’s crude oil reserves, There used to be screaming headlines in the mid-1970s in the Western Press saying that China’s crude oil reserves are bigger than Saudi Arabia’s, We, at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, were the first to question these assessments, and the late Mr. Mirchandani, then General Manager of the United News of India promptly carried it on his wire services, Within a few months, that bubble burst.

The Chinese economy witnessed some spectacular development (but not development in the broad sense of the term, that is economic, cultural, social, etc, which India is attempting) of 10-t 1 per cent growth in recent years. This has been achieved largely due to heavy doses of foreign investment. Here one should not forget the fact that the foreign investor will continue to make investments only if his profits are assured. One more factor needs to be borne in mind here, international capital has no nationality and concepts like nationalism and patriotism have no relevance to it. The overseas Chinese who made the bulk of investments in China may not continue to do so. Already reports are appearing in the international media that investors in China are not happy with their returns and are looking for greener pastures. This means that the flow of foreign investments into China is going to slow down in the years to come. And in the long run, the Chinese economy may have to settle down for a 5-6 per cent growth rate. Anything beyond that requires at least a couple of trillion dollars of investments in the next two to three decades, First, that type of capital is not available in the international capital market. The $80 billion foreign investment of the past decade created such regional and social imbalances in China that the Chinese authorities have been forced to take a fresh look at the process of liberalisation of the economy.

Therefore, in these circumstances, China becoming an economic superpower, say in the next 20 years, can at best be described as wishful thinking by members of a China admirers’ club. And, in fact, a couple of Chinese scholars with whom I interacted with in 1993 were surprised at these assessments. They said that like in any planned economy, they too fixed some target; and if they can achieve even 50 per cent of those targets, they would consider their planning process successful. This is understandable. In fact, any student of economics will be able to tell that a developing country with a population of one billion plus cannot sustain a 10-l 1 per cent growth rate for too long.


Indian Policy Options

It is in this backdrop that we must examine India’s policy options vis-a-vis China in the short and medium terms. To discuss long term perspectives at this stage is not feasible as there are so many imponderables.

At one level, the current phase of Sir-m-Indian relations started some time in the early 1980s by the late Indian Prime Minsister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, progressed satisfactorily, except for the 1985 aberration mentioned earlier. In fact, from 1987 onwards, efforts were on from both sides to ensure that 1995 is not repeated. Both sides took a number of confidence building measures, including high level political visits, armed forces to armed forces contacts, dialogue at various levels, etc. The Sine Indian joint working group has been meeting regularly. Even the bilateral trade which was at a low level, started picking up. In other words, both India and China have engaged themselves in a constructive dialogue which proved to be mutually beneficial.

Can we take this relationship forward? This is the question haunting many policy analysts. In this context, one needs to look into three broad ‘areas. Foremost among them is the border question. This issue has two dimensions. First, some-boundary specialists would argue that at the end of 1994, there were more than 100 disputed boundaries around the world. This is a vexed problem of the international community and there are no fixed ground rules for this. And these experts feel that after the 1958-59 India-China boundary talks, it became clear that this issue has no academic solution.

Second, India is not in a position to cede any territory to others except for a few kilometers this way or that. Therefore, to resolve the vexed boundary issue and establish cordial relations with India, China has to vacate the occupied territory.

In addition, both Jiang Zemin and Atal Behari Vajpayee are new to the centre of power in their respective countries.

Neither of them are charismatic personalities like Pandit Jawaharfal Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi , Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. They have limited political clout in their respective countries. Therefore, to expect the governments of these two leaders to find a solution to the decades-old India-China boundary question is just not possible. Hence, status quo will continue and this may remain as one of the unresolved boundary questions, which will be carried into the 21st century.

Second is the economic cooperation between the two countries. Both China and India are developing countries, and each side enjoys some advantage over the other in trade. Incidentally, both are exporters of primary commodities and semi-manufactured goods. At the moment, in the international market, India enjoys a marginal advantage over China, because of its being a member of the World Trade Organisation.

Otherwise, both the economies are competing with each other in the international market. Therefore, the scope for a larger volume of India-China trade is rather slim. The existing volume of India-China trade at around $1 billion may at best grow into $4.5 billion by the turn of the century In percentage terms of foreign trade of India and China, this is less than one per cent of each country’s trade. I am not arguing against increasing trade between China and India. But as I mentioned earlier, the ground realities are different. Any expectation of faster growth of India-China trade is nothing but wishful thinking.

India-China joint ventures in third countries is once again a low feasibility proposition because of the reasons mentioned above.

Therefore, we can assume that in the immediate future, say in the next ten years, both sides should reconcile to the fact that the existing level of economic cooperation cannot be improved dramatically, and efforts to improve upon it may result in some changes, but marginally only. In fact, here one should also note that China is mixing politics with economics to a certain extent. For example, China would prefer the US to India in awarding a contract.

Lastly, the option to improve people-to-people level contacts between India and China. This, undoubtedly, is one area where more interaction can take place between the two countries. But, the spirit of Hindi-Chini Bhai Thai of the 1950s cannot stage a comeback for obvious reasons.

To conclude, for their own strategic interests, both China and India broke the impasse that had set into their relations from 1962 onwards, in the early l980s, and continued to do so even in the 1990s. The political leadership of both these nations have, over the last 15 years, evolved a mature relationship which is mutually beneficial. To take it beyond this level in the immediate future does not seem possible at this point of time. However, both nations would continue the existing level of relationship in future also in their own interest.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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