How India-China Relations Changed Due To Border Dispute And Uprising In Tibet

In 'Fateful Triangle', Tanvi Madan looks at how China's influence on the India-US relationship is not a recent phenomenon.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 4, 2017 in Xiamen, China. 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 4, 2017 in Xiamen, China. 

In 1957, Nehru had commented, “All history shows us that friends and allies sometimes become enemies and enemies become friends.” And over the next few years, China and India did change from being friends to becoming enemies. Two developments in 1959 hastened that process: the Sino-Indian border dispute and an uprising in Tibet. By 1960, only six years after Indians had greeted Zhou with chants of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers), they would protest his return with shouts of Zhou Enlai hai-hai (down with Zhou). Nehru would not go as far, but instead would instruct officials that there was no need to host a public reception for Zhou of the kind that had greeted him in the past and that had feted Eisenhower just a few months before.

First, signs of trouble appeared on the frontier question. Zhou asserted in a letter to Nehru in January 1959 that China neither accepted the McMahon Line in the eastern sector nor withdrew its claim to Aksai Chin in the western one. He stated that the border had never been delimited formally and, in turn, complained about Indian maps. Nehru’s reply in March 1959 laid out the basis of India’s border claims. Furthermore, it suggested a return to the status quo ante, calling for the two countries to give up recently claimed spots.

Even as Indian officials had been drafting that reply, trouble appeared on another front. On March 10, a Tibetan uprising broke out in Lhasa after rumors that Beijing was going to arrest the Dalai Lama or forcibly remove him from Lhasa. As the situation deteriorated, the Indian government tried to deter rebel fighters from entering India. On March 19 the Indian government, however, sent a message to its consul general in Lhasa that it would give the Dalai Lama asylum if he asked for it. The Dalai Lama had already left Lhasa at that point and subsequently crossed over into India. Soon, he would be joined by thousands of refugees. Nehru wanted to help the Tibetans, maintain China’s friendship, and ensure Indian security—all while trying to prevent Tibet from becoming a Cold War issue and even more of a public issue in India. Parliamentary pressure had already led the government to allow an increasing number of refugees to enter. Very soon it would become clear that Nehru had failed on at least one front: maintaining the friendship with China. Initially, Beijing called Kalimpong, an Indian town close to the Sikkim border, the “commanding center” of the rebellion. Then, there were reports that members of the National People’s Congress were accusing India of everything from kidnapping the Dalai Lama to encouraging the rebellion to interfering in Chinese affairs.

Nehru tried to reassure China about Indian intentions, and his government advised the Dalai Lama and his aides to steer clear of political statements or actions that might provoke Beijing further. The inflamed public atmosphere in India, however, did nothing to help his attempt to convince the Chinese government of India’s intentions. In May, an article in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily condemned the Indian criticism coming from the left and right and alleged a “counter-revolutionary ‘holy alliance’ of the Metternich type” of the US and its allies and “India’s reactionary parties—the Praja Socialist Party and the Jan Sangh Party.” It alleged that Nehru, an erstwhile friend of China, had been “pushed by that alliance” into singing a “different tune.” Furthermore, the article criticized his “deplorable error” of blaming Beijing and sympathizing with “the little Chiang Kai-shek.” Subsequently, what Nehru called “a wall of silence with muffled whispers occasionally” descended from China on the subject of Tibet.

Zhou Enlai, then Premier of the People's Republic of China, with then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during a visit to India, 21st April 1960.
Zhou Enlai, then Premier of the People's Republic of China, with then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during a visit to India, 21st April 1960.

The brief period of silence turned out to be the calm before the storm. In August, there were serious Sino-Indian clashes in the eastern sector of the border, which Nehru believed were “the culmination of progressive Chinese unfriendliness towards India.” By this time members of parliament were increasingly asking about the frontier, especially the road in Aksai Chin and China’s attitude toward the McMahon Line. Parliamentarians, including first-time member of parliament and future prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, were unsatisfied with the government’s replies and its response to alleged Chinese claims and actions. Facing significant pressure, Nehru agreed to make public a white paper on the subject.

The government went public—a departure—for a number of reasons, particularly to rebut criticism about its complacency. Dutt also saw it as a potential source of leverage with China. Earlier that year, while acknowledging that publicizing the dispute would allow the “foreign press” to “make much of” Sino-Indian differences, he had stated, “there may be an advantage in our negotiations with China to let the Chinese feel that there is anxiety in our country about the border incidents.” He would subsequently note that India needed to demonstrate both the strength of the feeling in the country and the support for the Indian government to make clear to Beijing that any further intervention would “do more harm than good.” But the release on September 7 of the first white paper—and subsequently additional ones—had an unintended effect: rather than giving India more leverage, it constrained Nehru’s freedom of action. Agitated public opinion became a potential veto point in India’s decisionmaking on China.

The release of the white paper infuriated China. Zhou publicly objected to the public pressure. National People’s Congress standing committee members blamed “Western imperialist forces and their agents in India who wanted to create Sino-Indian conflict” and “change India’s foreign policy of peace and neutrality.” While Dutt noted that the American press had actually been “very discreet” so as not to complicate things for India, criticism from China that the US was inciting India (and its media) continued.

A September 8 letter from Zhou stating that Nehru had misunderstood his past comments about the McMahon Line only exacerbated the situation. It also laid down a basis for delimitation of the whole border, which India would subsequently dispute. A flabbergasted Nehru was particularly troubled by the Chinese claims in the letter on India’s northeast. Indian assessments of China’s motivations ranged from Chinese expansionist ambitions to doubts about India’s Tibet policy. Overall, a sense developed that Beijing was not trustworthy.

The situation deteriorated that fall and winter. After a major Sino-Indian skirmish in the western sector in October and a Chinese statement seen as threatening to hold India’s northeast hostage to concessions in the west, the prime minister’s public stance became even firmer. India subsequently rejected China’s proposal of mutual withdrawals 20 kilometers from the McMahon Line in the east and from the Line of Actual Control in the west. Policymakers believed that to do so would only strengthen China’s position and weaken India’s, both on the ground and at the negotiating table. Then China rejected an Indian counteroffer. India considered various proposals to put forth, including a “face saving” one accepting China’s de facto presence in Aksai Chin and a “barter” one that envisioned swapping India’s claims in the west with those of China in the east. These ideas went nowhere. Neither did discussions with Zhou in Delhi in April 1960 and three subsequent rounds of discussions between Chinese and Indian officials between June and December. Meanwhile, the lack of trust in China intensified within the government, as did anti-China sentiment outside it.

Excerpted with permission from Fateful Triangle by Tanvi Madan, Penguin.