Swedish journalist and researcher Bertil Lintner, author of the recently released China’s India war, Collision course on the roof of the world, on the India-China war of 1962, explains how Mao Zedong initiated the hostilities to draw attention away from his domestic troubles in the shadow of the Great Leap Forward to win the power struggle in his party. In conversation with Ananda Majumdar, he says that China has moved on from what it was back then, is now more confident of its position as a global player and will more readily focus on its strategic interests and boost trade instead of limiting its relations with India to the border dispute
Q: How far do you think India can trust China?
A: China is a different country today. It does not export revolution,does not need to. It would much rather sell consumer goods and expand its political influence, and military experience. It is a much stronger power today than it was in 1962.
Q: There is an interesting passage in your book, which talks about how the war in 1962 was a diversionary tactic, and used by Mao Zedong to shift focus away from political challenges at home. How was that?
A: There is, of course, Neville Maxwell’s view that the 1962 war was provoked by India, but that does not make any sense at all (journalist and scholar Neville Maxwell, widely regarded as a India-hater, authored India’s China War which made the above claim and blamed India’s so-called ‘forward policy’ under Jawaharlal Nehru as being the trigger for the conflict).
The Great Leap Forward in late 1950s China was a disaster. A lot of people, about 30 million to 40 million, died in the famine. At that time, China was a closed country and no one knew what was happening there. One person who was blamed for what went wrong as a result of the Great Leap Forward was Mao. His position was very bad in 1962, it was worse than at any time before that. So, in China at the time, it was necessary to unite people against a perceived enemy. India fitted that description of an enemy and the factors that were raised were those concerning the Dalai Lama and the border issue with India.
Q: How did Mao’s problems escalate since the fiasco of the Great Leap Forward, to the point that he had to start looking for an external enemy to bail him out of his domestic problems?
A: It was initially not an issue, but in the mid-1950s, around 1955, it became a big issue. Mao needed something big to unite the people, the military and the Chinese communist party. This was why the Chinese decided to go to war against India.
Q: Were their other motivations to, so to say, show India its place?
A: There are important distinctions between India and China. India has its democracy. In India, the laws are important, treaties with foreign countries are important. However, China does not see it that way. For China, any treaty they do not like is an unequal treaty. That was when China was weak. But that also happened when China was strong. An example of that is what happened in Hong Kong.
So, while India was preparing white papers (about its development programmes), China was preparing for war. However, you must understand that the war was never about the India-China border. It was about the internal politics in China and about Mao’s vision of China and his own role in global affairs. This was the important thing about the war.
Under Nehru, India had a leadership role in the Bandung Conference (a meeting of newly-independent nations of Asia and Africa took place in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955) and in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). However, Mao saw the world differently. He thought that China should be the leader of the Third World.
Q: So, what did Mao achieve with the 1962 war?
A: For one, China dethroned India from its position as a leader of the Third World. It also emerged as the strongest voice, the most important voice of the newly-independent nations. Finally, and most importantly, Mao emerged as the Great Helmsman of China and the role model of revolution.
Q: Is the trust deficit between India and China a permanent thing?
A: The problem between India and China is one about the clash of cultures, but I don’t think there will ever be a war in the Himalayan region. The Chinese, I reckon, are quite happy with the strategic stalemate on the border.
Their attention is on the Indian Ocean. That is where they are entering. They are interested in pushing the One Belt One Road initiative. They want to promote trade to Africa and Europe through the Indian Ocean. The Chinese under Xi Jinping have realised that trade across the Atlantic is passive. But Indian Ocean trade is expanding.
Q: Does that provide the ground for a confrontation between the two countries?
A: Yes, China’s interests in the Indian Ocean region provide the ground for conflicting interests. The formula lies in the joining together of India, Japan, the United States, Australia and Japan for an economic exclusive zone in the southern Indian Ocean.
China is positioning itself in a big way in the region. As a country, it is very self-confident right now under Xi, and believes it can wield huge economic, business and political influence. However, in its own interest, I think, China would need to take India more seriously, especially because trade between the two countries is massive.
Q: How would you assess the current leadership in the two countries?
A: In China, the leadership does not have to worry about public opinion. It means, there will be no need for popular movements. By contrast, in India, politicians have to worry about being reelected while the Indian media can write about the government and the military. The civil society in India is strong. There are also strong environmental groups.
Q: Does China use Pakistan as a counterbalancing force against India?
A: In my view, Pakistan is not important (where relations with India are concerned). True, Pakistan is China’s ally but it is extremely unstable. For the sake of trade and wielding influence, it would be foolish to put all its eggs in one basket.
Q: What is your takeaway from your research on the book?
A: I think there was no way that the war could have been fought in any other way than it was. By travelling to those areas in Arunachal Pradesh, it was evident that Maxwell never went there.
The areas had been selected very carefully by the Chinese in 1962 and they had human intelligence sent much before. These were areas where people spoke dialects very akin to Tibetan. It helped the Chinese to send Tibetan-speaking spies. So, the Chinese, when they came, knew exactly where to go, and in places they came from behind and attacked. The Chinese knew the terrain.
My conclusion, though, was that the 1962 war not about the border but about the power struggle (in China).
Q: How do the Chinese people view the 1962 war?
A: The 1962 India-China war is remembered in India, but the Chinese people don't discuss it at all. That's because contemporary history is not taught there. I had a lot of problems getting material for the 1962 war.
Q: Where is the scope of friction between India and China now, apart from the continuing border issue?
A: China’s expanding interests in the Indian Ocean islands could lead to clashes in the region. There is a possibility of a Cold War in the Indian Ocean.
Q: What about the border situation? Will it eventually become of secondary interest?
A: My belief is that China will continue to raise the border issue and play around with Indian interests while pushing for its own strategic goals. However, they don't have friendly relations with anyone.
Q: What about China’s ambitions for becoming a world power?
A: Xi Jinping believes that China will become a world power. Meanwhile, the US is becoming a laughing stock (of the world) after Donald Trump’s election.
Once again, it is important to see how the Chinese look at treaties when it comes to enhancing trade and its interests. There are treaties pertaining to the South China Sea, but I don't see them withdrawing from the islands because the International Court of Justice has said so.
Many people don’t understand that the Chinese foreign ministry has no power. It is the Communist Party of China that has the highest power. It is important to remember that. What melds India together, though, is the acceptance of democracy.
Q: How strong is the Chinese system then?
A: China has been kept together by the monopoly of the party, if the monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party collapses, China might collapse too. There is no doubt that China has been kept together by a strong hand. Now we have a new emperor in China. But, Mao was an emperor too.