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Prime Minister Nehru's Indian government has apparently resigned itself to a long, dreary border war against the Chinese Communists. The most interesting aspect of the war, however, is that no one, the Indians included, knows exactly how much the Chinese are after.
In the northeastern corner of Kashmir, the Chinese goal is fairly clear. The area in dispute, Ladakh, forms a salient between Tibet and Sinkiang. Although this area has been officially under Indian administration since the days of British rule, very little attention was paid to it, and there was no interference with Chinese traffic on the trade route between Tibet and Sinkiang. After China took control of the Tibetan government, a hard-surfaced road was built through Ladakh, and Chinese troops occupied the region. This alarmed the Indians, who moved up troops of their own and began harassing the Chinese. Today the Chinese hold most of the disputed area, and are bringing up troops for assaults on the last remaining Indian strongholds.
Far more dangerous to the Indians is the Chinese attack on the North-East Frontier Agency, located farther to the east. No boundary in this area is clearly delineated, but the southern border of Tibet, as fixed by the McMahon line, runs more or less along the peaks of the Himalayas. The hill country south of the Himalayan range comprises (from west to east) Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and the NEFA. There has been considerable competition between China and India to dominate the first three of these areas--Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Though Indian influence was originally very strong in all of them, the Indians have of late been losing ground to the Chinese. In the extreme east, where India and Tibet meet directly, some-what more than 100,000 Chinese troops are currently trying to wrest the area from Indian control.
Chinese motives in this area are difficult to determine, since the territory in question is hardly worth fighting for. The people who live there are ethnically closer to the Tibetans than to the Indians, it is true, but this does not adequately explain China's sudden decision to attempt seizure.
Some observers feel that the Chinese are attacking here merely to offset Indian efforts to drive them from Ladakh. This view is supported by Chinese statements, made last April, in response to Indian demands that the Chinese leave Ladakh. The statements claimed both Ladakh and the NEFA as Chinese territory. It is an unreasonable prelude to negotiations, the statement claimed, for India to insist on occupying all the disputed territory. It is quite possible that Chinese offers to negotiate were made in good faith, since China did reach an amicable boundary settlement with Pakistan. China may well have regarded the Indian harassment of its posts in Ladakh as "aggression" to which an attack farther east was an appropriate reply.
Whatever the reason for the Chinese attack in the east, the Indians have good cause for alarm. South of the NEFA lies Assam, with its oil reserves and potential hydroelectric sites. This land-locked area is east of East Pakistan, and is connected to the rest of India by a neck of land which in one place is only about 20 miles wide. If the Indians cannot stop a Chinese advance through the Himalayas, they cannot hope to stop it once it reaches the plains. From there, the Chinese could drive on to East Pakistan and close off Assam.
This is not to say that the Chinese necessarily intend to seize Assam in the current military operation. Even if they merely occupied the area which they now claim, they would be in a position, at any time, to resume their advance. There is no doubt why, aside from any questions of the legality of the McMahon Line, India refuses to accept Chinese claims in this area.
If the Chinese attack in the east was intended to divert Indian attention from Ladakh, it has failed miserably. The threat to Assam has focused Indian attention on its border problems with China and, if anything, increased the Indians' determination not to accept Chinese occupation of Ladakh. On the other hand, the attacks may be designed to slow up Indian economic development or to demonstrate that China, in comparison with Russia, is an aggressive fighter for socialism. Finally, the Chinese may, indeed hope to annex Assam. Chou's latest message to Nehru, however, which seems to offer a Chinese withdrawal to the McMahon Line in exchange for continued Chinese occupation of Ladakh supports the first theory.
In any event, the Western nations should not expect too great a change in India's international position. India has pursued its neutralism not so much because of a love for peace above all else--its dealings with Pakistan and Goa, as well as with rebellious groups within India itself prove this--but because this path saves it a lot of the problems that come with participation in the Cold War. The desire to avoid these problems will probably continue long into the future.
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