1962-2020: How US Played a Role in Escalating Indo-China Conflict

Deepening Indo-US ties is one of the strategic issues that precipitated the violent clash between India and China.

5 min read

Just weeks after the troops of nuclear-armed India and China clashed in Galwan and Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh and began a massive troop build-up, soldiers of the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army brawled once again on 15 June with clubs, iron-rods and stones.

This time, at least 20 Indian soldiers, including a Colonel, were killed and several others grievously injured. These are the first fatalities on both sides since October 1975 as China too, suffered casualties in the recent clash. The deepening Indo-US ties is one of the strategic issues that precipitated this violent clash.

The US was similarly elemental in triggering Chinese aggression in 1962. The broad geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War and the bi-lateral aggravation between China-USSR and China-India, had set the stage for the 1962 conflict.


US Factor in the 1962 Indo-China War

After World War-II, the Communist Party of China (CPC) defeated the Kuomintang (KMT). It then gained control of mainland China, established the People's Republic of China in 1949 and forced the KMT/Nationalist leadership to flee to Taiwan. This was followed by the Korean War that lasted for three years, between June 1950-July 1953. Initially fought between USSR and South Korea/USA, it soon witnessed three major events:

  • The USA deployed its Navy in July 1950 to the Taiwan Strait to protect the KMT government in Taipei, at which China abandoned its plans for a ‘reunification’ invasion of Taiwan.
  • China entered the Korean War after US forces reached the Yalu River (border between North Korea-China) on defeating the North Korean Army.
  • With over 54,000 US soldiers dead and 1,00,000 wounded in this war, the US agreed to an UN-led armistice.

The defeat of the KMT in spite of major US support and close ties between China and USSR, led the US to focus on opening a new front against China. Tibet, attacked by China in November 1950, was in throes of post-invasion unrest. From 1951 onwards, the US commenced efforts to exploit the situation, even asking the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

But with sparse headway, US President Dwight Eisenhower re-orientated US’ covert activities to pushback against communism. The US’ National Security Council directive 5412/2 of December 1954, inter-alia, mandated that “covert operations shall…..create and exploit troublesome relations for International Communism, impair relations between USSR and China…..develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerrilla operations...”. The secret ‘5412 Committee’ set-up for coordinating US’ covert operations thus included the “Tibet Program”.

With Thubten Jigme Norbu, Dalai Lama’s elder brother, in touch in Washington and his other brother Gyalo Thondup establishing contact with the CIA office in Kolkata, US covert operations plan began to take shape. Telegram No 351 dated 28 June 1956, from the US Consul General in Calcutta (US National Archives Item 793.B.11/8/2836) records the Crown Prince of Sikkim (then a protectorate of India) conveying Dalai Lama’s request to the US for weapons to fight the Chinese in Tibet.

China Directs Its Aggression Towards India

After the March 1959 uprising in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of others fled to India, to be welcomed and granted asylum by former Prime Minister Nehru. The Eisenhower administration then expanded its Tibet program, and John Greaney, deputy head of the CIA’s Tibetan Task Force, was soon overseeing training at Saipan and Camp Hale (Colorado) of Tibetan fighters made available by Gyalo Thondup and his deputy Lhamo Tsering under Operation ST CIRCUS.

The fighters were air-dropped into Tibet from an air-base in erstwhile East Pakistan. From 1960, the CIA also began using Mustang in Nepal, for launching hit-and-run raids into Tibet.

By 1960, relations between China and the USSR had also deteriorated to a point where their respective leaders were trading insults publicly. The reasons included USSR’s friendship with India – India had received more economic and military assistance than China. Another reason was the USSR’s neutrality in the Tibet border dispute. 

Thus, Mao ostensibly perceived that India was covertly working with both the USA and USSR to destabilise Tibet. On 20 October 1962, as the world was distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear standoff, China attacked India. Ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel, records in his book, “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War”, that for Mao, India was a surrogate for his rivalry with Moscow and Washington, and he wanted to:

  • Inflict a humbling defeat on India, as that would be a setback for two of Mao’s enemies, Khrushchev and Kennedy.
  • Defeating India would also answer the question Kennedy had raised in his 1959 Senate speech about which country, democratic India or communist China, would win the race for great power status in Asia.
  • Impose a ‘fierce and painful’ blow on India, and expel it from the territory which China “claimed in Kashmir west of the Johnson Line and in NEFA South of McMahon Line”.

What’s Worrying China

In order to maintain global pre-eminence, the US maintains a balance of power in every region and strikes down every rising hegemon who may challenge it. For this, it uses a number of tools – economic, technological, covert, military – but in most cases, also builds a coalition.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and end of Cold War, the US lost interest in the Asia-Pacific region (and NATO). This, coupled with the decline of Japan’s economy, economic boom in the US and rest of Asia, increase in consumerism, and the fall in commodity prices, created a geopolitical opening for China's economy to boom, as also to modernise its military. The US began focussing on limiting China’s ‘rise’ only after the latter downed its EP-3E Aries-II spy plane in April 2001.

However, after the 11 September 2001 attacks, US’ state power and geo-political attention got confined to Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, China continued to “rise peacefully” and now, it’s posing a substantial threat to the US, particularly in its ‘near abroad’.

With an economy almost equal to the US’ on PPP basis and nearly 75% of the Chinese military deployed facing its coast and opposite US allies like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the US needs new partners who can draw some of those military forces away from the coast and thereby present a strategic dilemma to China.

The deepening of Indo-US ties through the nuclear deal, strategic military agreements, supply of advanced military hardware, and Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (which seeks to anchor India in its posture), have together strengthened Beijing’s distrust of New Delhi.

It appears that Indo-US cooperation may lead to China having to contest the US Navy and the Indian Navy in the broader Indo-Pacific, and the Indian Army along its western border. In China’s view, therefore, this China-containment alliance can severely compromise the country’s security, undermine its economy, its influence in South-East and South Asia, and affect its internal stability.

On 20 May, the US government had strongly supported India, saying that “border disputes of China … a reminder of the threat by China.” On 16 June, the US added that it was closely monitoring the situation following the violent clash.

A look at how US’ allies and coalition partners have fared in the past is instructive – with the US invariably, and correctly, focused on fulfilling its own national security objectives. The 15 June violent skirmish, therefore, could be an inflection point for India’s policy.

To what extent can the US assist India? China and now its ally, Russia, too, are members of the UN Security Council. Will we persist with the US, continue our participation in the big power rivalry, and risk secondary damage? On 15 May, Russia had suggested that India and Russia “stay away from the flywheel of the US-Chinese confrontation, which is gaining momentum”. Or, will we rework the existing agreements with China to reach a new understanding?

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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