As the 50th anniversary year of China’s 1962 invasion, 2012 should serve as a time of reflection on what lessons that attack still holds for India. Deception and surprise are enduring elements in the Chinese grand strategy, and 1962 was a classic example.

Integral to deception is taking an opponent by surprise, as emphasized in Sun Tzu’s Art of War some 2,500 years ago. Since the Communists came to power, China has been involved in the largest number of military conflicts in Asia.    In all the conflicts waged by China since 1950, Chinese forces struck with no forewarning.

Indeed, a Pentagon report in 2010 pointed out that China carried out military pre-emption in the name of defense in 1950 (the attack on Tibet, followed quickly by its entry into Korean War), 1962, the 1969 border conflict with the Soviet Union, and the 1979 offensive against Vietnam. The report stated: “The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies in which China’s leaders have claimed military pre-emption as a strategically defensive act.” China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 was another example of offense as defense.

The 1962 attack — justified as a defensive act by Beijing, which used Nehru’s unguarded remarks (“our instructions are to free our territory”) to brand India the aggressor — stands out for China’s masterly blending of deception and surprise. The invasion, mounted from two separate fronts, stunned India, catching it off guard. The “stab-in-the-back” was best summed up by Nehru, who told the nation that “a powerful and unscrupulous opponent, not caring for peace or peaceful methods” had returned “evil for good.”

The 32-day aggression was cleverly planned and timed. It coincided with the start of the Cuban missile crisis, which put the Soviet Union and the U.S. on the edge of a nuclear Armageddon. And the day the U.S. quarantine of Cuba was lifted, marking the end of the Cuban missile crisis, China ceased its aggression against India. The cunning timing, just when global attention was focused on averting a nuclear catastrophe, ensured that India received no outside help.

The deception began much before the war. One example was Premier Zhou En-lai’s 1960 New Delhi visit, during which he dangled the carrot of a border settlement without putting his money where his mouth was. It actually didn’t take much effort to trick the Indians, who had convinced themselves that by merely signing the 1954 Panchsheel (Five Principles) Agreement, they had bought peace with China. It took a humiliating defeat in war for India to wake up to the reality that a nation can get peace only if it is able to defend peace.

Today, as part of its larger game of deception, China identifies Taiwan as the primary focus of its defense strategy. That is to divert international attention from its single-mindedness on achieving broader military goals. Taiwan serves metaphorically as a red carpet on which to invite all the bulls while Beijing busily seeks to accomplish bigger tasks. If the countries around India have become battlegrounds for China’s moves to encircle India, it is because Beijing is heeding Sun Tzu’s counsel: “Contain an adversary through the leverage of having made its neighborhood hostile.” It is that logic which has guided China to build up Pakistan as a military counterweight against India, including through the sustained transfer of nuclear-weapon and missile technologies.

One latest example of China’s strategic subterfuge centers on the 67,500-ton, Soviet-era Varyag carrier. Since buying it from Ukraine in 1998, Beijing repeatedly asserted that it would not be used for any military purpose. Its state-run media reported that it would be turned into a “floating casino” off Macau. China’s first acknowledgement that it was turning the Varyag not into a “floating casino” but into a fully refurbished, deployable aircraft carrier came just when it became ready to set sail in mid-2011. Subterfuge is also apparent in China’s further plans for Gwadar, where a Chinese-built port opened in 2007.

Shifting principles are integral to its game of deception. China rejects Japan’s position that the median line in the East China Sea serve as the Sino-Japanese maritime boundary. But in its disputes with Vietnam in the South China Sea, China insists on the median line.

International law for China is only a means to advance its national interests, not to help establish a rules-based international order. Its interpretation of international law thus varies depending on where its interests lie on an issue. For example, it has sought to expansively interpret its rights under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in such a manner as to constrict freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

China employs deception to also camouflage its refusal to accept the territorial status quo with several of its neighbors. It is seeking to disturb the status quo even on cross-border river flows. The insistence to change the status quo, coupled with its strategic opacity and penchant to take an adversary by surprise, only increases the unease in Asia over its rise.
As long as the territorial status quo is not accepted, the possibility that the Chinese military will strike again cannot be ruled out. Manmohan Singh’s emphatic statement in the Lok Sabha last month that “China will not attack India” thus seems more than gratuitous.

India needs to counter the asymmetrical capabilities China is developing to take an adversary by surprise. Its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, for example, are being designed to “shock and awe in space.” China is already waging a quiet cyber-war, as if to underscore its ability to sabotage vital infrastructure in wartime. Moreover, its military is developing a blitzkrieg approach to warfare: a surprise blitz will seek to stun, confound and overwhelm an opponent.

The lasting lesson of 1962 is that India must be ready to repulse any kind of attack, including by targeting the aggressor where it is the weakest.  

(The author is a Professor of Strategic Studies at Centre for Policy Research)