The inviolability of virtually the entire 4,057 km India-China border—one of the longest in the world—has been called into question by China’s increasing cross-frontier military incursions and its calculated refusal to participate in drawing a mutually agreed line of control along the Himalayas. As the 50th anniversary of China’s 1962 invasion approaches, history is in danger of repeating itself. China’s expanding axis of evil with Pakistan confronts India with a two-front scenario in the event of a war.

By deploying several thousand troops in PoK, including near Pakistan’s line of control with India, and playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways, China is clearly signalling that Jammu and Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. The military pressure China has built up on Arunachal Pradesh may just be tactical. China’s real aggressive designs could be centred on J&K because India’s vulnerability there has been heightened by the new Chinese military encirclement.

    By muscling up to India, what is China seeking to achieve? Is it trying to prevent the rise of a peer rival? Or is it seeking to actually fashion an option to wage a 1962-style surprise attack? Ominously, the present situation—in several key aspects—is no different from the one that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 war. Consider the following parallels:

■ Like up to 1962, it has become commonplace internationally to pair and compare China and India. The aim of “Mao’s India war” in 1962, as Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has called it, was large political: To cut India to size by demolishing what it represented—a democratic alternative to the Chinese autocracy. The swiftness and force with which Mao Zedong defeated India helped discredit the Indian model, boost China’s international image, and consolidate Mao’s internal power. The return of the China-India pairing decades later riles Beijing.
■ Just as the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 set the stage for the Chinese military attack, the exiled Tibetan leader today stands as a bigger challenge than ever for China. With Beijing stepping up its vilification campaign against the Dalai Lama and treating him as its Enemy No. 1, India has come under greater Chinese pressure to curb his activities and those of his government-in-exile. The continuing security clampdown across the Tibetan plateau since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the harsh Chinese crackdown in Tibet during 1959-62.

■ The prevailing pattern of cross-frontier incursions and other border incidents is no different than the situation that led up to the 1962 war. Yet, just as New Delhi up to 1962 sought to play down Chinese military intrusions and failed to adequately beef up border defences, India is again repeating that mistake. Indeed, gratuitously stretching the truth, Indian officials say the incursions are the result of differing perceptions about the line of control. But which side has refused to define the line of control? It speaks for itself that China hasn’t offered this lame excuse. The fact is that Chinese forces are intruding even into Uttarakhand—the only sector where the line of control has been clarified—and into Sikkim, whose 206-km border with Tibet is recognized by Beijing.

■ The 1962 war occurred against the backdrop of China instigating and arming insurgents in India’s northeast. Although such Chinese activities ceased after Mao’s death, China has come full circle today, with Chinese-made arms increasingly flowing into guerrilla ranks in northeast India, including via Burmese front organizations. India says it has taken up this matter with Beijing. In fact, Pakistan-based terrorists targeting India now rely on Chinese arms—from the AK-56 assault rifles to the Type 86 grenades made by China’s state-owned Norinco firm.
■ China’s pre-1962 psychological war is returning. In recent years, Beijing has employed its state-run media and nationalistic Web sites to warn of another armed conflict. It is a throwback to the coarse rhetoric China had used in the build-up to the 1962 war. The People’s Daily, for example, berated India in 2009 for “recklessness and arrogance” and asked it to weigh “the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” China’s merrily builds strategic projects in an internationally disputed area like PoK but responds with crude threats when others explore just for oil, with its party’s official broadsheet warning India and Vietnam this month of “actions” to stop “more reckless attempts” to challenge Chinese interests in the South China Sea.

■ Just as India had retreated to a defensive position in the border negotiations with Beijing in the early 1960s after having undermined its leverage through a formal acceptance of the “Tibet region of China,” New Delhi has been left in the unenviable position today of having to fend off ever greater Chinese territorial demands. With its focus on process than on results, India has stayed locked in continuous border negotiations with China since 1981—the longest and most-barren process between any two nations in post-World War II history that has aided China’s containment-with-engagement strategy.  Little surprise the spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal rather than on the core issue, Tibet itself.

■ In the same way that India under Nehru unwittingly created the context to embolden Beijing to wage aggression, New Delhi is again staring at the harvest of a mismanagement of relations. The 20-fold increase in bilateral trade in the past decade has yielded only a more muscular Chinese policy. In fact, the more China’s trade surplus with India has swelled—jumping from $2 billion in 2002 to $30 billion now—the greater has been its condescension toward India. To make matters worse, the insidious, Krishna Menon-style shadow has returned to haunt Indian defence management and policy. India has never had more clueless defence and foreign ministers or a weaker prime minister with a credibility problem than today.

Whether Beijing actually sets out to teach India “the final lesson” by launching a 1962-style attack will depend on several factors, including India’s domestic political situation and defence preparedness and the availability of a propitious international timing of the type the Cuban missile crisis had provided in 1962. If India is not to be caught napping again, it has to come out of the present political paralysis and inject greater realism into its China policy, which today bears a close resemblance to a studied imitation of an ostrich burying its head in the sand.