Five kilometres more land we have or five kilometres less—this is not important,” Nikita Khrushchev told Mao Zedong in 1959, his raised voice rolling over the Garden of Abundant Beneficence as their disagreement grew darker. The issue was India. The Soviet Union had ceded territory to Persia and Turkey, Khrushchev noted, trading land to secure its security. Mao’s use of force against India, though, was pushing then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru into the United States-led Cold War camp.
Less than three weeks after that argument, an Indian patrol led by Deputy Central Intelligence Officer Karam Singh was ambushed as it entered the mouth of the Kugrang Tsangpo river, close to where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) now runs. Ten police personnel were killed, and seven taken prisoner.
Last week, foreign minister Wang Yi made the first visit to India by a senior Chinese official since the murderous clash in Galwan in 2020. He came with no proposals to end the still-simmering military tensions at Patrol Point 15, close to the site of the 1959 killings, nor in the Depsang plains or Demchok. Instead, the foreign minister said, India ought to put the border conflict in its “proper place” and engage on other issues.
For months, though, India has tried to do exactly that. New Delhi’s statements coyly refer to “friction points,” not territory seized by China. India agreed to asymmetric disengagement in Pangong Lake and Gogra. Trade with China has boomed, and New Delhi has broken with its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on Ukraine. In spite of this, Wang’s visit shows, China is unwilling to give up its coercive posture on the LAC.
To address the challenge, India should take the advice Mao spurned. Instead of obsessing over a few kilometres of strategically irrelevant territory on the LAC, it needs to define a genuinely defensible border with China, and grow the resources to hold it.
From talks to war
“No ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ slogans,” the young Indian diplomat K. Natwar Singh, later foreign minister, wrote in his diary in April, 1960, as China’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai arrived in New Delhi, “The welcome was subdued, if not chilly.” For months after the 1959 clash, Nehru rejected calls from China for high-level negotiations. Then, he decided to take a chance. “Although for the moment there is no basis for negotiations,” the prime minister had written to Khrushchev, “a personal meeting will generally be helpful.”
Wang Yi’s visit—and the multiple summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping which preceded it—show that isn’t necessarily the case. There are important lessons to be learned from the failed diplomatic efforts that punctuated the period from the 1959 clash to the war of 1962.
Following the 1959 fighting, Chinese leaders indicated they understood Indian concerns. In a 1960 meeting with Swaran Singh, foreign minister Chen Yi accepted that the 1959 ambush had “perturbed Indians, and made them think about their own security.”
The two sides proposed arrangements for preventing clashes, involving demilitarising swathes of territory, but neither could accept the other’s terms.
In the build-up to the 1960 Nehru-Zhou summit, historian Srinath Raghavan has recorded, both sides considered dramatic concessions. Early in April, vice-president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan told British High Commissioner Malcolm MacDonald that India’s border claims in the northeast were immutable. In return for their recognition, though, New Delhi was prepared to allow China to remain “in practical occupation of the territory which they now occupied.”
For his part, Zhou suggested a trade-off. In his talks with Nehru, the Chinese foreign minister noted the two countries stood on either side of the British imperial MacMahon line, India’s claimed border in the east. In Ladakh, China was poised on the line running from Karakoram to the Kongka La Pass, the site of the 1959 skirmish. The two sides, he implied, could swap.
Facing a public enraged by the 1959 clash, and untrusting of China’s intentions, Nehru declined the deal. For his part, scholars like Bertil Litner have shown, Mao was determined to extinguish challenges to China’s regional hegemony.
The failed forward policy
Faced with an impasse, India began setting up small outposts to assert its presence in Ladakh. “The Chinese would like to come right up to their claim of 1960 wherever we ourselves were not in occupation,” the Intelligence Bureau blithely recorded in 1961. “But where even a dozen men of ours are present, the Chinese have kept away. The Army concurred: “The Chinese will not attack any of our positions even if they are relatively weaker than theirs,” the chief of general staff told the Defence Ministry on the eve of war.
In the summer of 1962, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrol through the Galwan valley discovered the Indian Army had beaten them to it: Some 30 troops of the 1st Battalion of the 8 Gurkha Regiment were already there. Even as a diplomatic protest note made its way to New Delhi, 350 PLA troops surrounded the post on 10 June 1962.
Then, on the morning of 20 October, PLA troops attacked across the entire Ladakh sector. Faced with intense artillery and mortar bombardment that levelled their ramshackle shelters within minutes, the troops in Galwan fought to the last bullet, losing 36 of their number before they were overrun. In spite of heroic resistance from other posts, too, the Indian Army was steamrolled.
India’s Forward Policy flailed in the face of fire. “In trying to defend every inch, the Indians ended up losing much more than they need have,” the Defence Ministry’s still-classified official history of the war of 1962 records.
The dangers ahead
Even though the concessions India has made on the LAC have angered hawks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response makes strategic sense. The crisis on the LAC has involved enormous resources, sucking in troops and materiel with no clear end. Forces earlier committed to the Pakistan border have had to be thinned out, including two infantry divisions earlier committed to the I Strike Corps.
Growing India’s troop strength won’t fix the problem. Logistics experts estimate China’s high-speed rail and roads could allow the PLA to move up to seven division-sized formations into Tibet inside a week, and over 32 inside a month.
India’s posture on the seas isn’t comforting, either. Financial problems have forced the Navy to shelve ambitious plans to grow its fleet. Fond hopes of support from Western allies haven’t materialised, either. The Pentagon’s Global Posture Review last year decided against committing more resources to the region, and a $1 trillion plan to grow the United States navy is in cold storage.
Ladakh—the terrain where India, facing the high mountains, has an inexorable geographical disadvantage against the PLA, which is on a plateau—threatens to become a black hole, swallowing up already overstretched resources.
Fond dreams of capturing Aksai Chin need to be replaced with clear-eyed thinking on the borders India considers worth fighting for, and what is needed to defend them. Like in 1962, India is in real danger of trapping itself on the LAC. From the war in Ukraine, though, we’ve learned that smart militaries, not big ones, win wars. India needs to encourage thinking on creative ways of war-fighting, the technologies that can enable it, and an economy that can power them both.
Lawrence Freedman, in his magisterial work on strategy, defines it thus: “Identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods for meeting such objectives.” India’s real strategic problem isn’t the wastelands along the Line of Actual Control but a rising superpower with massively greater economic wealth and military resources.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)