The recent stand-off between China and India has been the headlines around the world, especially since the stand-off went ugly with 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number (probably less than 20) Chinese soldiers losing their lives in a vicious hand to hand combat. Since then, nationalistic sentiments in India are running high with immense public pressure to account for the Chinese for what happened in Galwan Valley. In order to understand the motives behind the recent clashes, one has to go back to 1962 or even before that.
This is not the first time that tensions along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) have flared up and definitely this is not the end of such events. Strategically, what was true in 1962, is true today. The real bone of contention is still Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is the Dragon’s hanging sword on Delhi, which can be unleashed anytime keeping India continuously in a state of passive defensive. As long as China adheres to its strategy on Aksai Chin, it will always have the strategic initiative, and India’s “great power ambition” will continue to lay in the abyss of the Indian Ocean.
Aksai Chin indeed was a part of the State of Kashmir but since Kashmir already was being fought over between India and Pakistan and the region being far from both India and Pakistan was inaccessible to both claimants. Beijing saw an opportunity and with tacit approval from Pakistan, went ahead to control this “Sand Sea of China” which is the literal translation of Aksai Chin in Turkic.
Aksai Chin is strategically very important for China. It is the only possible land route that connects China’s Xinjiang Region to Tibet. China’s G219 Highway and the New Tibet Railway Line both pass through Aksai Chin. If there was not to be an Aksai Chin, the Chinese had to cross the hard terrain of the Kunlun Mountains to connect China’s two big landmasses. In 1962 when China took the initiative to cross the LAC, Beijing had several things on its mind. Firstly, it had to secure Aksai China so that a land link between Xinjiang and Tibet can be established. Secondly, China knew that controlling the heights over India is going to give it a long term strategic advantage and through it, it could always keep the initiative in its hands, keeping Delhi in a defensive position for an unprecedented time in the future. Thirdly, it wanted to support Pakistan which was having its own problems in the Kashmir sector. In case of any future Indo-Pak conflict, China would be in a better position to intervene. Lastly, and most important of all, Beijing wanted to ensure no future disturbances along the LAC. The main objective of the 1962 War was made very clear by Chairman Mao at the Xiangshan meeting: “At least 30 years of peace must be guaranteed.”
One may wonder that what does thirty years of peace do. What merited the risk of crossing over the LAC by the Chinese? The answer is rather simple: Integration of Tibet! Tibet was having internal problems and especially after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet it was getting harder for Beijing to keep it under control, but that couldn’t be possible unless and otherwise New Delhi would be completely knocked out of the Tibetan game and this is exactly what the 1962 War did.
Some analysts believe that instead of focusing on Aksai Chin which is a rugged piece of land, China should’ve gone for the Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call “Southern Tibet”. The area is also much richer in natural resources than Aksai Chin. The point made then by Beijing was that Arunachal Pradesh was a more difficult terrain to be defended plus the aim was to stabilize the whole of Tibet, instead of just Southern Tibet. Another interesting reason why Beijing kept mum about Southern Tibet was that it was the “Granary of Tibet”, the absence of which meant that Tibet had to rely on Beijing for its basic necessities. Another well-calculated move by Beijing to reign in Tibet.
All along the 1962 War, Beijing was clear of its objectives. It was not expansionism that drove the war but rather strategic interests. The war was initiated by China, and China itself took the initiative to end it. It was clear to the Chinese planners that any War with India had to be swift, decisive and must set the tone for future engagements. That is why after the PLA took over control over large swathes of land across the LAC and the “McMahon Line”, then quickly retreated back to the “McMahon Line”. Since the battleground is usually too cold for battle, the PLA had only a two-month window to launch an offensive
Prior to the war, at the Beijing Xiangshan meeting in which it was decided to fight the 1962 War, Zhou Enlai specifically instructed that “logistics must be done well, and we must never increase the number of casualties due to logistical factors like in the Korean War.”
Learning on the lessons of 1962, India unilaterally decided not to build any infrastructure in the region surrounding the LAC, fearing that the same infrastructure might be used by the Chinese to come into the Indian mainland. Since now New Delhi is ascertaining its regional and global power, it is constructing new roads and infrastructure along the LAC and China is clearly not happy with India changing the status quo. Previously, the status quo maintained gave Beijing a strategic advantage. One border issue had pinned India for decades, wasting a lot of India’s national power, and has allowed China to develop with peace of mind for decades.