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KASHMIR AS NUCLEAR FLASHPOINT The Price for India-China Border Conflict of 1962

By Dr Swaran Singh, Associate Professor
School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

         Apart from numerous immediate consequences like their decade-long diplomatic freeze that followed the India-China border conflict of 1962 to split of India’s communist party or long-term impact like question marks raised on India’s reverence to its non-alignment policy to New Delhi’s gradual tilt towards the former Soviet Union, it is perhaps the continued violence in Kashmir valley – and its final outcome in Kashmir becoming one most-threatening nuclear flashpoint – that lies the most decisive legacy of the 1962 India-China border conflict. As a result, the former princely state of Kashmir, which has a size of 86,023 square miles, or about the size of the Korean Peninsula, Kansas, or Great Britain. The territory is divided by a LoC established in 1972 following the 1971 conflict between India and Pakistan, replacing the former ceasefire line of 1949. India administers 53,665 square miles and Pakistan 32,358 square miles. The LoC stretches approximately 450 miles from grid reference NW605 550, at the termination of the international border thirty-five miles west of Jammu, to NW 980 420 in the Karakoram Range sixty-five miles southeast of Mount K2 and twelve miles north of Shyok River.

For sure, Kashmir quagmire could never have obtained the eminence that it has today, had there been no India-China war in 1962 or, had it not happened the way it did following India-China short-lived bonhomie of mid-1950s. Though it is difficult to blame any one side or any one personality yet, if one were to pick and chose one decisive event in Kashmir’s recent history, then the origins of most of the sub-strands of Kashmir imbroglio today can be linked to various events in the run up to this India-China border conflict. By extension of the same logic, therefore, answer to Kashmir problem perhaps lies in undoing those negative trends and influences that had contributed to Kashmir becoming such a complicated and threatening nuclear flashpoint.

To recall, Pakistan had started its innings with the distinction of being part of anti-China military alliances like Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and, apart from its unison with India in denouncing China’s military invasion of Tibet during early 1950s, till as late as 23rd October 1959, President Ayub had publicly been threatening China of “dire consequences” for its military incursions into Hunza and adjoining territories. Indeed, on 10 September 1959, during his stopover at New Delhi’s Palam Airport (flying from West to East Pakistan), President Ayub Khan had formally proposed for a Joint Defence of the subcontinent implying India-Pakistan defence cooperation against the Chinese. All this sure did threaten Beijing a great deal and was to play a a vital role in their South Asia policy as also their policy on Kashmir which defines the core of South Asian security and peace.

Secondly, this was also the time when the initial symptoms of Sino-Soviet split and sinews of a Indo-Soviet defence cooperation had begun to surface thereby making Beijing all the more paranoid about these two giants (India and Russia) coming together in the Pamirs and manipulate China’s soft-underbelly in Tibet and Xinjiang. This was one factor that was responsible for pushing Beijing’s indulgence with Pakistan after their first contact during the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference of April 1954, but especially after exchange of visits by their premiers during 1957. This indulgence by China was aimed simply at (a) ensuring security of their problematic regions bordering Kashmir by befriending neighbouring Muslim countries and (b) using Pakistan as its bulwark to tie-down India in South Asia thereby warding off any future threats to Tibet’s peace and security. No doubt, China had also tried to befriend India to resolve its fear psychosis on Tibet but once these equations reached their nadir following the Dalai Lama’s asylum in India, the derailment of India-China ties was to perfectly coincide with the opening of China’s negotiations with Pakistan to settle its border with Pakistan occupied Kashmir. China’s military attack in Ladakh in October 1962 was to finally herald its future role in Kashmir.

Thirdly, the Anglo-American interest in Kashmir – that had antecedents far older than their recent initiatives on Kashmir problem – had also contributed to China’s suspicions about India playing a frontline in West’s containment policy. India had itself contributed to such fears by unilaterally laying claims to Kashmir’s northern-western borders based on the northernmost Johnson line of all the three boundary lines marked during British government in defining Kashmir borders with Xinjiang. Had India either consulted the Chinese in this subject or even followed the only official proposal that British had made to China in 1899 proposing for a line that ran through the Mustagh-Karakoram-Laktsang Line including the Lingzhithang plains but not including north-eastern Aksai Chin. This would have meant leaving the Karakoram highway (which became bone of contention) far north of these borders. This made Beijing denounce India’s claims in Kashmir as extension of Imperial policies of the British and this was to colour their vision on India-Pakistan claims on Kashmir.

In practice, this was to make China (a) fortify its heavy defences in territories bordering Kashmir, (b) settle Xinjiang’s borders with Kashmir even at cost of making concessions that weak Manchus had refused to make against the mighty British, (c) physically take control of about 20 per cent of Kashmir province that was seen as its bargaining chip for settling India-China boundary, (d) emerge as the largest and most reliable weapons supplier to Pakistan military regimes, and (e) launch an anti-India joint front with Pakistan and raise anti-India campaign on Kashmir throughout 1960s.

China’s indulgence and negotiations on border settlement with Pakistan occupied Kashmir was to greatly bolster Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir. With an agreement-in-principle announced during December 1962, and the formal agreement signed at Beijing on March 2, 1963, these two years were to lay the very foundations of Beijing’s “special relationship” with Islamabad which had its most decisive impact of China putting its weight behind Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir. Apart from their moral support and military supplies during 1960s and 1970s, this was to later flourish itself into making it a unique example of one state propping another nuclear weapon state with no parallel in history. Even the United States in 1945 had refused to share nuclear bomb with the British, though British scientists had participated in the Manhattan project for developing nuclear devices on urgent basis. Pertinent question is as to whether, behind all this, China saw its national interests promoted by backing Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir and in arming Pakistan with nuclear technologies to realize its dream.

On this, experts on both sides remain equally inconclusive to say the least. Going by China’s actual behaviour until recent years, however, it was perhaps continued instability in Kashmir that was seen as the best option for ensuring security of China’s Tibet and Xinjiang. Assuming the contrary that China was really interested in resolving Kashmir, 1962 was clearly India’s weakest moment in its post-independence history. Moreover, this was also the only time when Pakistan could have achieved most favourable solution on Kashmir. Indeed, during the India-China war of 1962, there were voices, loud and clear, in Pakistan urging President Ayub to use this occasion to settle Kashmir, once and for all. The Anglo-American establishments had fully understood this situation and their officials had been working in tandem to hammer out a solution to this intractable problem apparently in favour of incorrigible military regime of Pakistan.

The excuse for asking India to undertake peace talks with Pakistan as such precarious moment had been that these talks would facilitate President Kennedy in obtaining Congressional approval to supply much-needed American military aid to Indian armed forces. This had resulted in pushing India into series of six rounds of talks between Swaran Singh (then India’s railway minister) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (them Pakistan’s Industry Minister). Beijing was again paranoid about these Western initiatives on Kashmir and was to try its best to derail these peace initiatives. So much so that Beijing (along with Islamabad) was to announce their agreement-in-principle on settling their borders between Xinjiang and adjoining areas currently under control of Pakistan on the very eve of this first round of India-Pakistan talks; when India delegation had already arrived in Rawalpindi.

It was also under this burden of defeat of 1962 that India was to make historical shifts in its policy on Kashmir. But, aligned with radical Chinese of the Cultural Revolution vintage, this had only further emboldened Pakistan and none of these proposals could wash with Bhutto’s pride who insisted on taking nothing less than almost all of Kashmir which ultimately led to failure of these peace initiatives. Nehru was to accept his agreement to the Partition of Kashmir along the ceasefire line – a proposal that had reportedly been even approved by Indian Cabinet – though Nehru later denied it in Parliament. Various proposals discussed at the highest level had even agreed to propose a transfer 1500 to 3500 sq km of Indian side of Kashmir to Pakistan. Indeed, failure of these talks was to be followed by more aggressive postures both by Pakistani and Chinese leadership.

Bhutto was to declare in Pakistani Parliament on July 17, 1963: “In case of war with India, Pakistan would not be alone. Pakistan would be helped by the most powerful nation in Asia.” The implications of Bhutto’s statement were to become far more serious following Premier Zhou’s statement in Rawalpindi during February 1964: “The continuous development of friendly cooperation between our countries is not only in interest of Pakistan and China, but also in the defence of peace in Asia and the world.” Moreover, this was to be followed with Beijing making a fundamental shift in its policy of silence and intransigence on Kashmir (where most it had said so far was that India and Pakistan should have bilateral peaceful negotiations on the subject) to more anti-India postures of supporting Kashmiri people’s struggle for freedom as also supporting Pakistan and denouncing India as aggressor and asking for plebiscite in Kashmir.

Similarly, other post-1962 pacifist gestures of Nehru government were to prove counter-productive with both Chinese and Pakistani leadership. Firstly, Sheikh Abdullah was released from detention during December 1963. But encouraged by this new indulgence of China, Sheikh Abdullah was to take his first trip to Pakistan to further enflame this self-determination thesis. From there, he visited Algiers to meet Zhou En-lai who invited Abdullah to Peking and assured full support for his struggle in Kashmir. Meanwhile, Nehru had also agreed to hold a summit meet with President Ayub though, Nehru’s death in May 1964 did not allow them to meet. Instead of responding to these pacific gestures, the death of Nehru was to further ignite speculations about post-1962 India being at its weakest point thus pushing Pakistan to begin their second war on Kashmir in September 1965.

Here again, China was to play an active pro-Pakistan role that went to the extent of threatening India with opening a second front while allowing Pakistan its airspace and other moral and material backing. This was to tie large number of Indian forces to northern borders and fighting with Pakistan with one hand tied to the back. This was to only further sharpen India-Pakistan hostilities resulting in 1971 and dismemberment of Pakistan where lay the origins of its search for nuclear technologies and their linkage to Kashmir. From Indian side as well, it was again the Chinese nuclear detonation in 1964 that had singularly caused diversion of India from its pure scientific search for autonomy in all fields including nuclear sciences towards a nuclear weapon thinking and policy which was to build its own spiral with successive Pakistani leaders and then get entangled into Kashmir conflict.

India’s diversion towards nuclear weapons was also to facilitate China’s nuclear supplies to Pakistan though Cold War politics of Pakistan playing the frontline of US-China-South Arabia axis supporting anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan was to greatly facilitate this China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation throughout 1980s leading to Pakistan declaring itself a nuclear weapon capable state towards late 1980s. Rest, of course, remains well-known recent history, where 1980s had also witnessed India’s engagement with China leading to many breakthroughs in mutual confidence building leading to Kashmir gradually disappearing from China’s dealings with Pakistani leadership. The first noticeable and oft-cited example of this return to silence by the Chinese was 1982 Joint Communique between Zia-ul-Haque and Zhao Ziyang in Islamabad from where China has since moved to its much celebrated neutrality in Kargil conflict during May-June 1999 as also more recent India-Pakistan military stand-off since January this year.

All this has been possible following some positive trends during 1990s like stable coalition governments becoming an accepted reality, economic growth rates staying much beyond the tradition Hindu rate of growth and slow yet successful opening of economy following by India’s decision to exercise its nuclear option during 1998 which all resulted in India being recognized as one of the emerging powers of 21st century. The Chinese sure have noted these changes over the years. Plus their own rise as major power has put restraints on their behaviour as being acceptable as a responsible power remains the biggest challenge for the Chinese which has powerful adversaries to malign them of misdeeds. It is in this context that bilateral interactions of India and China have resulted in increasing mutual interactions and trust making India the largest trading partner of China from South Asia since 1993. India today supplies half of the South Asian trade with China and this has sure created mutual awareness and goodwill on all issues including Kashmir. Conversely, these years have seen, Pakistan becoming isolated and a failing state with multiple challenges from political instability and economic adversity.

Thus it is these ground realities that have gone in favour of India-China friendship resulting in Beijing’s policy on Kashmir coming a full circle from silence to intransigence during 1950s to becoming a radical supporter of Pakistani claims on Kashmir as also of Kashmiris during 1960s and 1970 to again becoming silent since early 1980s and now keeping a pro-India neutrality since mid-1990s when President Jiang had advised Paksitani Senate in December 1996 to resolve all their disputes with India on bilateral basis to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being rebuffed by Chinese leadership in Beijing during his June 1999 visit for seeking China’s help on Kashmir. In the end, therefore, though one can not envisage that return of China to its original 1950s policies will make it possible to postulate same solutions to Kashmir that could have been possible during that time yet despite so much damage being done all these years this change in China’s policy on Kashmir should ensure tranquility on India-Pakistan nuclear front and in the long run contribute towards a final resolution of Kashmir.


1.  There are conflicting figures (e.g. 84,471 square miles given in Alan J. Day, (ed.), Border and Territorial Disputes, 2nd Edition (Harlow, UK: Longman Group, 1987).  These and other area data are taken from Alastair Lamb, Kashmir, a Disputed Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 14-15.  Lamb indicates that India revised the figure in 1961 to 86,023, “because of the official inclusion in India of the Aksai Chin.

2.  Micharl Krepon and Chris Gagne (eds.), Nuclear Risk Reduction n South Asia, (New Delhi: Vision Books, 2003), p.

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