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Mainstream, VOL L No 46, November 3, 2012

On the Soviet Stand on India - China Border Conflict

Wednesday 7 November 2012, by Arun Mohanty


Contrary to the widespread view that the former Soviet Union maintained neutrality all through the Indo-China border conflict, this paper argues that the Soviet position on the issue evolved from a position of neutrality to a brief tilt towards China and then switched to open support to India.

The India-China border clash took place at a time when ideological differences between the former Soviet Union and China were approaching the nadir. While scholars mostly agree that territorial dispute as well as the situation around Tibet were the main causes for the clash, new materials suggest that China’s aggressive behaviour had a deeper and a more serious motivation on the part of Beijing. China had calculations to involve the Soviet Union in some way in the India-China conflict in order to expose “Soviet revisionism” through this conflict and score a point against Moscow in the burgeoning ideological conflict between the two communist giants. China as a whole had expected Soviet support for its action against India which was, in Beijing’s view, contemplating a hidden alliance with the USA against it and sought to “expose the ideological hollowness of Moscow’s support to India”. China had expected that Moscow’s support in favour of a socialist state against a bourgeois state would deliver a heavy blow to the growing Indo-Soviet friendship.
Towards the end of the 1950s, in spite of serious differences between the Communist Parties of Soviet Union and China over a wide range of issues, the leaderships of both parties tried to demonstrate a semblance of unity on the surface. However, in August 1959, when the Longju incident in the eastern sector of the India-China border took place, Moscow, having expressed solidarity with Beijing during the suppression of the uprising in Tibet in early 1959, refused to extend support so unequivocally to China.

The Soviet stand on the India-China border dispute was reflected in two documents—The TASS report dated September 9, 1959 and the Soviet Prime Minister’s Report on “the International Situation and the Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union” placed in the Supreme Soviet on October 31, 1959. The TASS report dated September 9, 1959 “expressed regret on the incident on the India-China border, strongly condemned the attempt to use it for intensifying the Cold War and subversion of friendship between peoples”. The TASS report further said: “The Soviet leadership expresses the confidence that the governments of the Chinese People’s Republic and Republic of India would not permit those forces not interested in easing international situation but to aggravate it and strive not to relax tension in inter-state relations, take advantage of the situation.” The Soviet leadership further expressed confidence that “both govern-ments would resolve the emerging misunder-standing taking mutual interests into account in the spirit of traditional friendship between the peoples of China and India. It would also facilitate strengthening the forces fighting for peace and international cooperation.”1

The second document, which is the Soviet Prime Minister’s Report to the Supreme Soviet, said: “We very much regret the incidents that took place recently on the border of two of our friendly countries—China with whom we are associated with unbreakable bonds of fraternal friendship, and Republic of India with which our friendly relations are developing successfully. We are specially sad by the fact as a result of these incidents there were causalities from both sides. Nothing can compensate the losses of the parents and near and dear ones of the deceased. We would be happy if such incidents do not repeat on the Chinese-Indian border and if existing border disputes would be resolved through friendly negotiations to the satisfaction of both sides.”2

These two documents clearly suggest that the Soviet leadership was keen to see that hostilities between India and China do not escalate and had maintained a position of neutrality in the beginning of the India-China conflict.

However, the Soviet Union’s neutrality on the issue was obviously not to the liking of the China. The fact that the Soviet Union did not take a clear “class position” in a conflict between a socialist state and a bourgeois state evoked the indignation of the Chinese leadership. In a confidential letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on September 13, 1959, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China accused the Soviet Government of “accommodation and compromise on important matters of principle“ and noted that “the TASS report showed to the world the different positions of China and the Soviet Union in regard to the incident on the India-China border, which causes virtual glee and jubilation among the Indian bourgeoisie and the American and English imperialists, who are in every possible way driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union”.3

There were several reasons why Khrushchev could not accept Mao’s views on India-China ties. He rejected the Chinese viewpoint that the India-China conflict was an important issue of class struggle on an international scale that calls for support for Chinese actions from fraternal Communist Parties. Khrushchev, who had initiated and championed Indo-Soviet friendship and was associated with the beginning of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, interpreted the India-China border incidents in his own way.

For Khrushchev, Nehru was an invaluable asset in his global strategy of peaceful co-existence and peaceful competition with the capitalist world. Khrushchev had floated the peaceful co-existence and peaceful competition strategy in the historic 20th CPSU Congress held in 1956 and was experimenting the concept in the case of India. Implementing this strategy that was not to the liking of Chinese leadership, Khrushchev had heralded a new era in the history of Indo-Soviet relations. He obviously could neither risk nor sacrifice Soviet friendship with India for China’s whimsical ideological moorings that denounced India’s non-alignment policy in which the Soviet Union had discovered a virtue. Khrushchev was no less concerned over the fact that the India-China border conflict created a precarious situation for Indian Communists and worsened the position of the Communist Party of India. While some experts have suggested that one of the Chinese objectives was to weaken Nehru’s position in India and thus provide an impulse to the struggle of revolutionary forces in India, Soviet researcher Yuri Nasenko, rejecting the version, concludes that “Chinese adventurists were least bothered about the perspective of struggle of the revolutionary forces in India”, adding that the “Communist Party of India was an object of constant attack by Chinese propaganda starting from 1959”.

Finally, the Soviet leadership was afraid that China’s bellicosity towards India would have an impact on the Sino-Soviet boundary issue. In this connection it is interesting to note the report sent by the Soviet Foreign Ministry on the Sino-Soviet boundary to the CPSU leadership. The very drafting of such a document suggests that some Soviet officials had already foreseen the danger of border problems with China.

Khrushchev never agreed with the Chinese assessment of Prime Minister Nehru, and in this connection the Soviet leader notes in his memoirs that the “Chinese media rebukes Nehru as the opponent of socialism and as China’s enemy number one…we do not share their views on this”.4

IN this connection it is interesting to draw attention to another document—a report dated December 18, 1959 drafted by Mikhail Suslov, the CPSU ideologue in charge of relations with fraternal Communist Parties, about the visit of a Soviet Party and Government delegation led by Nikita Khrushchev to China in October 1959. The document recalls that Suslov—after criticising Beijing’s actions in exacerbating international relations, Mao’s thesis that imperialists were paper tigers, China’s cavalier attitude towards nuclear war—addressed Sino-Indian relations and the border clashes at Longju and Kongka in 1959. Suslov is quoted as berating the Chinese for the May 1959 People’s Daily article under the title “The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru’s Philosophy“ in the document.

Suslov writes: ”Nehru is a well-known politician. One cannot rule out that to some degree he was involved in the intrigues against the PRC. But Nehru is far-sighted enough to recognise the vital importance of India’s friendship with China, with the Soviet Union and the whole socialist camp. Nehru behaved with reserve. In his numerous speeches he admitted that Tibet is a part of China, he spoke against the estab-lishment of a so-called ‘Government of Dalai Lama in exile’, stressing the significance of Sino-Indian friendship. India repeatedly raised the issue of restoration of the rights of the PRC in the UNO. Precisely these actions made the Rightist bourgeois circles in India, who are linked to Anglo-American capital, to assail Nehru.... If these reactionary circles in India succeed, it would cause serious damage to the socialist camp and the entire cause of peace, since the present foreign policy line of the Nehru Government is a positive factor in the struggle for strengthening peace.”

Suslov then goes on to ask: “What objectives did the Chinese comrades pursue in attacking Nehru so uncompromisingly?” Suslov ridicules a view expressed by his Chinese interlocutors that visualised the possibility of the downfall of the Nehru Government and saw no great trouble if a reactionary pro-Westen government came to power in India because that would bring closer a revolution in India. Suslov notes that CPI General Secretary Ajay Ghosh also admitted his inability to explain China’s position on the McMahon Line or why the PRC was letting itself to be pulled by “Indian reaction” into the border conflict. Suslov then goes on to describe Chinese actions as directed not only against India but also against the USSR, since they embarrassed Khrushchev on the eve of his own long-awaited Summit with President Eisenhower in the USA.

The Suslov report too gives an account of the discussions on India at Krushchev’s Summit meeting with Mao on October 2, 1959, where all the members of the Standing Committee of the Polit-Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party were present. The Suslov report says that Khrushchev “told the Chinese comrades that we do not completely understand their foreign policy, particularly with regard to India… The Soviet leader complained that as China’s ally the Soviet side did not know what the Chinese may undertake tomorrow in the area of foreign policy... The report says that that the Chinese side in their reply claimed that their line towards Nehru was correct”, adding that “at times the tone of our discussion became quite sharp. It came to the point when Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi claimed that our line on Nehru is opportunistic and the policy of China is more firm and correct.“ “We gave a resolute rebuff to these pronouncements,” writes Suslov, without providing any details.

A careful reading of the report would indicate that Beijing’s policy towards India was putting the Soviet leaders in an impossible dilemma—either to support what they believed as Mao’s adventurist actions for the sake of an increasingly illusory Sino-Soviet alliance undermining Moscow’s growing ties with India and the West or to take a balanced stand at the risk of an open split with the Chinese leadership.
Finally, the Sino-Soviet Summit ended with the Chinese leadership agreeing in October 1959 to settle the border conflict with India through negotiations. Against this background the offer by Chinese Prime Minister Zhoa En-lai to Nehru for a meeting at an early date to discuss the border dispute and the subsequent downturn in bilateral relations has to be understood.

THE Soviet approach to the Chinese invasion on India in October 1962 was in the beginning reflected in the CPSU mouthpiece Pravda, dated October 25, 1962, that said: “Breakout of conflict between the two great powers of Asia serves the interests of not only imperialism, but also certain reactionary circles in India, closely associating their destiny with foreign capital, with imperialist forces, hostile towards Indian people.” After ten days Pravda, in another editorial, noted “continuation of conflict would involve growing mobilisation of human and resources from both sides and could lead to prolonged bloody war”, adding: “the Soviet people hold the firm view that in the present situation, the main thing is to stop fighting and start talks on peaceful resolution of the conflict… Such a decision would correspond to the interests of both Indian and Chinese peoples and would serve the cause of preservation of peace in Asia and the whole world.”5 (Pravda, 5-11-1962) However, the Chinese leadership ignoring this appeal continued their invasion.

At this stage of the India-China border conflict, the Soviet policy was influenced by the Cuban missile crisis in which the US and Soviet Union were locked in the most serious confrontation of the Cold War period. Khrushchev sent a letter to Pandit Nehru urging him to accept Zhou En-lie’s offer for ceasefire and talks. The Soviet Union also suspended the supplies of MiG fighters under the agreement reached between the two sides in August 1962. This was a clear tilt towards China, which has to be understood in the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis that reached its peak at this time, and Moscow was ostensibly striving to secure Chinese support against US designs. The Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union, T.N. Kaul, too attests to this view. Ambassador Kaul in his memoirs writes: “Their (Soviet) attitude at the end of October 1962 was not even neutral but slightly tilted in favour of China, and this was, as Khrushchev explained to me later, due to the fact that the Cuban crisis was at its height and the Soviet Union could not afford to relax its combat readiness for a possible conflict with the USA over Cuba.”5
That the tilt was temporary became clear from Khrushev’s statement to the Supreme Soviet in December 1962, when he reverted to a position of neutrality on the India-China conflict and ordered the release of the MiG fighter planes.

As the Cuban missile crisis subsided, Moscow slowly but surely started supporting India in its conflict with China. Kaul in this context writes: “As further time went by and India showed a spirit of determination to resist China’s aggression, the Soviets were impressed. Their attitude became more sympathetic to India, both in their public statements and even more so, in their private conversations.”6 (ibid) This was the first time in history that a socialist country supported a developing country in its fight against another socialist state. Thus the Sino-Soviet differences snowballed and gradually came out in the open. As Khrushchev confided to Kaul, one of the reasons for differences between China and the Soviet Union was the Soviet friendship with India.8 (Ibid.)

The Soviets never wanted the Sino-Indian conflict to escalate and advised both sides to find a peaceful political solution to the border dispute through negotiations. They were also watching how India would emerge from the conflict and how China and the West would react. The declaration of ‘unilateral ceasefire’ by China was, in the Soviet eyes, a recognition by China of India’s unity and potential strength, the realisation by China that she had gone too far and had extended her lines of communication, without being able to support them. They were expecting India to go down on its knees and beg for peace. When this did not happen and they saw the unity and determination of India to resist, they made a virtue out of necessity by declaring a unilateral ceasefire.

Ambassador Kaul also writes in his memoirs that, as told by the Soviet leaders, they were impressed by India’s determination not to give in to the aggressor. The Soviets, perhaps, had underestimated India’s potential at first, but were impressed with Nehru’s adherence to the policy of non-alignment. They also saw the attempts of the West to turn India against them and India’s refusal to do so. Both India and the Soviet Union found common ground in the danger from the Sino-Pak axis which would pose a threat not only to India, but also to the Soviet Union’s southern underbelly.7 Pakistan had already joined the US-propped military alliances like SEATO and CENTO, and India had refused to do so. The Soviet Union realised that a strong, stable, non-aligned India, friendly to the USSR, is important for Moscow’s own security.8 This turned out to be the time when Delhi and Moscow laid solid foundations for a meaningful and productive defence cooperation that now constitutes one of the major pillars of their special and privileged strategic partnership. Prime Minister Nehru had appealed to the US leadership for military assistance which did not come forth. The Soviet Union showed readiness to fill the critical gaps in India’s defence that were widened by the US-Pak alliance.

Thus the Soviet stand on the India-China conflict—that evolved from a position of neutrality to a brief tilt in favour of China and then to open support for India, both politically and materially —was very significant This was the first instance when a communist country supported a non-communist country in its conflict with another communist state. The conflict was a serious test of India’s non-aligned policy withstood the vicissitudes of time. It was established that non-alignment does not mean maintaining equidistance and spurning friendship of a neighbour who might be ideologically different but has commonality of interests with us. For the Soviets, it was a vindication of Khrushchev’s strategy of peaceful co-existence and competition with the non-communist world, something not approved by China.

1. Pravda, Moscow, 10-9-1959.
2. Pravda, Moscow, 1-11-1960.
3. Prozumenschikov, M.Y., “The Sino-Indian Conflict, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Sino-Soviet Split”, October, 1962: New Evidence from Russian Archives.”
4. Khrushchev Remembers, Moscow, p. 93.
5. Pravda, Moscow, 5-11-1962.
6. Kaul T.N., (1982) Reminiscences Discreet and Indiscreet, New Delhi, p. 240.
7. Ibid., p. 241.
8. Ibid., p. 241.

Dr Arun Mohanty is a Professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the Director of the Eurasian Foundation.

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