India China Relations : History & Politics

Though India proclaimed independent on 15 August 1947, the interim government of undivided India formed about a year earlier, had established diplomatic relations with the major powers. When the People’s Republic of China was established after liberation, on 1st October 1949, India was second to Burma, an Asian country to recognise it on 30 December 1949 at the behest of British Prime Minister*.

The main factor preventing a peaceful settlement in Asia in mid-fifties was American intransigence towards the People’s Republic of China, which was denied its rightful place in the United Nations, as the permanent member of the Security Council. The emergence of a strong, united China was of immense significance to India which has over 2,000 km long border with China’s Tibet region. Nehru expected this, his Government decided to remain superficially in the friendliest terms with the Chinese Government and with heavy a heart had to tell the Parliament on 17 March 1950:

“Very great revolutionary changes have taken place in that country. Some people may approve of them, others may not. It is not a question of approving or disapproving; it is a question of recognising a major event in history; of appreciating it and dealing with it When it was quite clear, about three months ago, that the new Chinese government, now in possession of practically the entire mainland of China, was a stable government and there was no force which likely to supplant it, we offered recognition to this new government and suggested that we exchange diplomatic relations.”

The historic liberation of mainland China in October 1949 placed the responsibility upon the Chinese communists towards their other national minorities to enable them to unite with the motherland as equals and stand together against their common enemies and for their common progress. The Communist Party of China proclaimed that the victory of the revolution, which toppled reactionaries in China and made her impervious to imperialist aggression, was now, at last, obligated to checkmate foreign plot-spinning and base-building for coming global clashes. How could any one expect the Chinese people to desert their any nationality by leaving it a prey to these forces?

Firm steps taken by the new born People’s Republic of China opened the way to solution of many previously intractable problems.

The US-British imperialists and some in India’s government conceited with British legacy, were not sitting folded hands. The United States issued a statement, protesting the ‘most unfortunate and serious events’. India sent one protest note after another to the Chinese government. The United States and Britain encouraged El Salvador to submit a motion to the United Nations. When China sternly refuted all claims of wrong doing, these detractors fell silent. Indian rulers feared the comparative outlook of the people would assume dangerous dimensions. So to keep their future safe aloof and to insulate them from China’s development, they decided to check this by creating animosity between Indian people and the Chinese. War, they knew, bred contempt and hatred, would destroy the emerging comparative outlook. Once the Chinese are pronounced as enemy, the people in India would never like to listen and good reports about them.

Pending Problems : Scars Left By Britain

In early 1950, republic of India and new People’s Republic of China both faced an important task of creating the precisely defined and clearly marked boundaries essential to the modern state.

When the Chinese decided to move troops into Tibet in August 1950, India came face to face with a new reality of having to give up its special interests and extra-territorial rights of the early twentieth century inherited from British Raj. India’s ruling class was not reconciled to China establishing its authority over Tibet neither in giving up its special interests. Reacting to this Nehru observed that “the invasion^ of Tibet by the Chinese troops cannot but be regarded as deplorable.”

Nehru however, expressed that the British policy of claiming special interests in Tibet could not be maintained by India. Nevertheless, India’s response to the situation was far from clear, though K. M. Panikkar, Indian ambassador to China in an aide memoire on 26 August underscored to the Chinese government the desirability of a peaceful solution to the Tibet problem. He was assured that while China regarded Tibet its integral part it had no intention of using force to settle the issue. It wanted a negotiated settlement with Tibet’s representatives. When Chinese troops entered Tibet, India deplored the timing of the action (on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly decision on China’s admission) because it would give ‘powerful support’ to those who opposed China’s entry into United Nations and its Security Council. Besides: ‘the international situation is so delicate, any move that is likely to be interpreted as a disturbance of peace, may prejudice the position of China in the eyes of the world’ (Indian Ambassador’s Note of 21 October 1950)

At the very moment of Indian Note, the UN flag was flying over US troops approaching China through Korea. India’s interest, it was contended, was only to ensure China’s entry into United Nations without delay and find out ‘that if possible, a peaceful solution’ to the Tibet issue, because military action might cause ‘unrest and disturbance on her own borders’.

However, New Delhi’s Note five days later of this action must have raised doubts in Beijing about India’s bonafides. It expressed surprise and regret that China should have ordered the advance of its troops into Tibet especially when a Tibetan delegation had decided to proceed to Beijing immediately for negotiations. There had been some delay in the departure of the delegation, partly ‘…owing to lack of knowledge on the part of the Tibetan delegation in dealing with other countries (Note from the Govt of India to the Foreign Ministry of China, 26 October 1950)

Further: ‘Now that the invasion of Tibet has been ordered by the Chinese Government, peaceful negotiations can hardly be synchronized with it and there will naturally be fear on the part of the Tibetans that negotiations will be under duress.’

Reference to China in relation to Tibet as some ‘other’ country and description of the Chinese troops’ advance into Tibet as ‘invasion’ hardly squared with the Indian stand proclaimed in the earlier communication. These references in the note amounted to questioning China’s sovereignty over Tibet. No wonder it invited a strong rebuff from Beijing. On 30 October, China made clear that Tibet was part of China and it was therefore entirely a domestic problem needing no foreign interference, that the Chinese army had to enter Tibet to ‘liberate the Tibetan people and defend the frontiers of China’, and that the Tibetan delegation was delaying departure ‘under outside instigation’. It also assailed India’s attempt to link up the Tibet issue with that of China’s United Nations entry and alleged that India had been ‘affected by foreign influences hostile to China’ when it deplored the presence of Chinese troops in Tibet.

India’s reply on 31 October, though strongly worded, bristled with contradictions. It was ‘amazed’ at the insinuation that India was ‘affected by foreign influences’ regarding its own stance and with regard to the Tibetan delegation and assured China that it had ‘no desire to interfere or to gain any advantage’ and rather it had sought peaceful settlement of the Tibet issue ‘adjusting the legitimate Tibetan claim to autonomy within the framework of Chinese suzerainty’. Every step India had taken was to ‘check the drift to war’, an effort often ‘misunderstood and criticised’. India had persisted in this endeavour ‘regardless of the displeasure of great nations’. India had no territorial ambitions in Tibet and did not seek any novel, privileged position for itself or its nationals. The note made these specific points:

  • Tibet s autonomy was a fact ‘which the Chinese government were themselves willing to recognise and foster’. An ‘adjustment’ and reconciliation’ of the ‘legitimate Tibetan claim’ to autonomy within the framework of the Chinese suzerainty should, therefore, be obtained by ‘peaceful means’.
  • India’s concern was not an unwarranted interference’ in China’s internal affairs but well-meant advice of a neighbour interested in solving a problem that concerned it.
  • It was true India had ‘advised’ the. Tibetan government but since there was no justification for military operations or for imposing a solution, it was ‘no longer in a positions to advise the Tibetan delegation to proceed to Peking unless the Chinese government think it fit to order their troops to halt their advance in Tibet’.
  • ‘At the same time certain rights have grown out of usage and agreements which are natural among neighbours with close cultural and commercial relations’. These had found expression in the presence of the Indian government’s agent in Lhasa, existence of trade agencies in Gyangze and Yatung, and maintenance of post and telegraph services on the route and ‘small military escort’ to protect this trade route ‘sanctioned for over 40 years’. India was ‘anxious that these establishments, which are in the mutual interest of India and Tibet, and do not detract in any way from Chinese suzerainty over Tibet’, should continue.
  • India favoured peaceful settlement of international disputes and the recent developments in Tibet had affected ‘our friendly relations’. (Note from Government of India to the Foreign Minister of China, 31 October 1950) The Chinese source, in publishing the document, consistently used the term ‘sovereignty’, wherever the Indian original note had used ‘suzerainty’.

Thus India recognised Tibet as part of China but harped on extra-territorial rights which amounted to abridging China’s sovereignty over Tibet By admitting that if had advised the Tibetan government, India laid itself open to the charge that it had interfered in China’s internal affairs. India and China had different concepts of ‘autonomy’ just as they had different concepts of “suzerainty”. To India suzerainty meant a little less than sovereignty; to China two terms were synonyms.

China’s reply on 16 November welcomed India’s ‘renewed declaration’ that it had no political or territorial ambitions in ‘China’s Tibet’, just ignored India’s claim to ‘certain rights’ but hoped the ‘problems relating to Sino-India diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations with respect to Tibet may be solved properly through normal diplomatic channels’. China had a point here. India was making China’s domestic problem ‘an international dispute calculated to increase world tension’. In an aide memoire on 26 August India had conceded Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but now, when China actually exercised its sovereign rights, India was attempting to influence and obstruct the operation.

Faced with the accomplished return of Chinese power to Tibet in 1950, the Indian Government reacted impregnably. The attempt to foster at least a degree of Tibetan independence to maintain some element of buffer status for Tibet, had failed. Physically, there was nothing India could do about it: military intervention, braving immense logistical difficulties as well as war with China, was beyond practical consideration. Or was the Indian Government tempted to intervene militarily in Tibet in 1950? The last British officer in command of India’s eastern defences, Lt.-Gen. Sir Francis Tuker, had recommended only three years before that ‘rather than see a Chinese occupation of Tibet, India should be prepared to occupy the plateau herself’. (M. D. Wainwright, The Partition of India: Policies And Perspectives 1935-47)

According to one writer President Truman offered transport aircraft to help India defend Tibet; ‘The estimate was that India had only to send a brigade of troops to Tibet and China would have held off. Truman is reported to have concurred and expressed his willingness to make the required air transport available.'(A.B.Shah: India’s Defence & Foreign Policies, p. 87).

To entangle China on a second front against India during the Korean war might have suited Washington; but, if the offer was made, New Delhi must have seen the risks and sterility of such an expedition and declined. The choice was between commitment to the lost cause of ‘Tibetan independence’, or of pursuing a policy of friendly relations with China.

Thus Sino-Indian differences over Tibet flowed from divergent approaches to ‘Tibet’s autonomy’. When the Indian Parliament debated the Tibet issue (6-7 December 1950), Nehru gave no indication of these differences and merely said that he had insisted on Tibetan autonomy within Chinese suzerainty which he explained was not the same as sovereignty. Sino-Indian correspondence on Tibet broke off with this. Two members of the Tibetan delegation on their way to Beijing met officials of India’s External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi.

In the year 1950 the new rulers of the People’s Republic of China despatched troops to check the both—centrifugal and centripetal forces in Tibet; insulate her west and west-south border from neoimperialist offensive and to be sure of security of its back side of the house. Reacting to this Nehru observed that “invasion of Tibet by the Chinese troops cannot but be regarded as deplorable “. On 7 November, in Lok Sabha Nehru said: “Since Tibet is not the same as China it should ultimately the wish of the people of Tibet should prevail and not any legal or constitutional arrangements… whether the people of Tibet are strong enough to assert their rights or not, is another matter.”

However, before long when the Tibet question was sought to be raised in the UN Security Council, India under Nehru backtracked. Between the desire and the deed there was a yawning gap. This explains why we have messed up the Tibetan affair often defenders of Nehru ascribed the diabolicism to his innate ambivalence. However, Nehru’s mishandling of India-China relations cannot be ascribed to his ambivalence. How was he to give up the unexpected gains which the British got us through bluff and badinage?

Meanwhile, globally, the US had already replaced the UK as superpower. Now the US pitted against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China desperately sought a foothold in Tibet, precisely for the same reasons which led the UK to wean it away from China. Things would have been different if the KMT leader Chiang Kaishek had won against the the Reds. Tibet, once again, emerged as crucially strategic with the two socialist giants defying all moves to penetrate into their security environment. The Socialist victory in China did not please Nehru. However, die people of India hailed die emergence of the People’s Republic of China. When die information reached that within months of take-over the new Chinese leadership has succeeded in handling problems of land relations the common people in India began to make a comparative appraisal of the two countries or the two systems.

Meanwhile, the US without any provocation declared war on people of Korea and briskly went about over-running the entire Korean peninsula, while India under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru initially supported the US aggression in Korea, China on the other hand, intervened militarily and beat back the US forces to take shelter in the southern tip of the peninsula.

The ruling classes in India had never bargained for a socialist neighbour on its threshold. The message, they rightly feared, would reach the exploited and deprived people. Besides, the people of India knew that both India and China more or less similarly suffered at the hands of the imperialists. If the Chinese, given a socialist leadership, could bring off within the shortest possible span great achievements in the field of land reforms, employment, education and health and so on, the people of India, exposed to comparative appraisal could also like to know what prevented our Cambridge-educated leaders from undertaking similar jobs for the teeming millions of their own country? It was such comparative outlook which unleashed the spring thunder in India.

The Indian leaders feared, the comparative outlook of the Indian masses would certainly assume dangerous dimensions. So they decided it must be destroyed through hysterical nationalism. And to keep up the tempo of such hysteria it should be essential to keep border issue and Tibet alive. The most effective remedy would be a war, war they knew, bred contempt and hatred. War, as no other device would destroy the; emerging comparative outlook. Once the Chinese were pronounced as enemy, die masses in India would not like to hear any good reports about them. Enduring hostility between India and China, reckoned the Indian leaders, could be the best bet against the likelihood of Indian masses ever asking them inconvenient questions.

And later, ten days before the Sino-Tibetan agreement was signed in Beijing in May 1951, Nehru told newsmen in New Delhi that ‘the Chinese attitude for the past quarter of a century or more had been that Tibet was an integral part of China’. He implied that India was reconciled to the situation and would accept China’s claim without reservation. The ‘Tibet Issue’ apparently ended ‘in words but not in deeds’.

The arrival of Chinese power on the northern borders in 1950 alarmed political opinion in India, just as the reassertion of Manchu power forty years ago had alarmed the British. The alarm was greatest on the political right, where the communist nature of Chinese power was most feared, and Nehru and his Government were attacked for acquiescing in China’s move into Tibet.

Impracticability of armed intervention rather than a desire for a peaceful solution of the Tibet issue seems to have deterred the belligerent sections of the Indian government from sending troops to a territory on which India declared it had no designs. Given-adequate military strength, India might have embarked on a military campaign in Tibet in 1950. To this day, the same belligerency persists over Tibet, and India’s media have not yet ceased mourning the loss of a ‘buffer’ between ‘democratic’ India and Communist China. Nehru was to be lambasted for recognising China without a quid pro quo, namely Chinese guarantee of Tibet’s autonomy. These elites have not forgotten the rebuff the Nehru government invited on itself by offering advice against Chinese troop movement into Tibet.

What is the case of these belligerent Indian elites? It rested on the arguments by Vallabhbhai Patel who earned the reputation of being India’s Ironman in the early phase of independence. The letter he addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru the then Prime Minister, on 7 November 1950 is often cited in support of a stronger and interventionist policy on China and Tibet in particular. In his letter Patel expressed anguish that ‘India had let down the Tibetans who had put faith in us; or they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama’. As he argued at length he did not approve of the conduct of the Indian Ambassador in Beijing who had been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. He drew Nehru’s attention to a telegram sent by the External Affairs Ministry to the same Indian Ambassador

in Beijing finding fault with the latter for ‘a lack of firmness and ‘ unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese government on our behalf? Pressing for yet a greater firmness in our policies Patel remarked: ‘even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friendsNow why this lack of reciprocity? Patel comes with this answer: ‘With the communist mentality of ‘whoever is not with them being against them’ this is a significant pointer of which we are to take due noticeNow that China was at the next door, he asked Nehru to initiate effective measures to take care of ‘the undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to Tibetan or Chinese’. ‘Confront China’ and ‘Tibetan Independence’ lobby in India, lamenting on Tibet’s lost cause, must understand on the strength of Patel’s letter. What did Patel mean by these words “the undefined state of the frontier”? Patel was very much clear about the unsettled state of the boundary between China and India and worried about the ethnic groups in the north-east, he argued for ‘the people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even the Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongloid prejudices. During the last three yeas we have not been able to make any appreciable approached to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had beer in touch with but their influence was in no -way friendly to India and Indians’. Ruling out any soft approach on the matter he told Nehru: ‘Recent and bitter history also tells us that communism is no shield against imperialism and that communists areas good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes but also include important parts of Assam’. He wanted Nehru to reciprocate his firm conviction that ‘Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the Western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous’. Underlining his stand on Tibet Patel finally observed: ‘In 1914 we entered into a convention with Tibet which was not endorsed by the Chinese, we seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty friendship. Presumably all that we required was Chinese counter-signature. The Chinese interpretation of suzerainty seems to be different. We can therefore safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. This throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century’. (full text Appendice I) Nehru had already ordered Indian administration to be extended through the North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal), as the tribal

May 10, 2018