International Reaction and Role of the Great Powers
The Indian leadership was quite aware that the developing confrontation at the borders with China [Sumdorong Chu/Wangdung] would not only inevitably draw the attention of the great powers, but that their attitude would influence the outcome in a demonstrable manner. The two great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, watched with increasing alarm as it seemed that India and China were headed for a military clash. Their main concern was that they might get sucked into the looming conflict, which it was clear from the very beginning, that both were very determined to avoid. Pakistan had reasons to believe that this might spill over to involve them as well.
Let us examine US policy first. The US had recognized the McMahon Line as the international boundary between India and China in a formal note sent to India on 26 October 1962 [Note: the US takes no position on the western sector]. This action proverbially drew an angry response from the Chinese government. As both China and the US had no diplomatic relations at that point in time, Chinese Ambassador Wang remonstrated bitterly about this change of position to his US interlocutor, Ambassador Cabot at their meeting in Warsaw [Poland] on 13 December 1962. Since then not only had President Nixon visited China and opened the way for normalization of relations, but by the early 1980s, both were on the same page on larger strategic issues; including intense opposition to the Soviet Union. It became apparent very early on that the US would not like to take sides and particularly not jeopardize its newly established bon homie with China. Throughout the period of the Sino-Indian confrontation, the US never publicly reiterated that the McMahon Line was the international boundary between India and China. When President Reagan met PM Rajiv Gandhi on 19-20 October 1987, the former never mentioned a word about the Sumdorong Chu stand-off, nor did he forward any “messages” from the Chinese government. It was obvious that the US did not wish to take sides.
Earlier US intelligence had become aware that China was increasing its assistance to Pakistan to help develop its nuclear weapon systems. Beginning mid- 1982, Pakistan began enriching weapons grade uranium using uranium hexafluoride supplied by China. Giving in to President Zia’s entireties, Deng Xiaoping in a surprising move, approved the request for 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium along with a blueprint for an atomic bomb devise, already tested by China. All these were carried by a Pakistani C-130 cargo aircraft from China to Pakistan. The US despite full knowledge of this transaction, felt the need to look the other way, due its expectations for continuing Chinese and Pakistani cooperation to sustain anti-Soviet positions, particularly in Afghanistan.* Even in such a sensitive matter as nuclear proliferation, the US was keen not to antagonize China.
Take the case of the other great power—the Soviet Union. Ever since Gorbachov became the Soviet leader, he was keen to establish warm friendly relations with China. In a major speech at Vladivostok on 28 July 1986, Gorbachov accepted the thalweg principle [mid channel] for the Sino-Soviet river boundary, but also announced the withdrawal of six regiments from Afghanistan and the thinning out of troops from Mongolia. The Chinese were keen to test Soviet sincerity and for which the Sumdorong stand-off came in rather handy. The Chinese made it clear in Moscow that if the Soviets supported India, Sino-Soviet normalization could not advance. Thus when the initial reports of the Sino-Indian confrontation came in; there was total silence from Moscow. Even during the 15th anniversary celebrations of the Indo-Soviet Treaty on 9 August 1986, the Soviet representative feigned total ignorance of the ensuing confrontation.
Gorbachov arrived in India in November 1986 ostensibly to reassure India. However in his public statements, Gorbachov pleaded ignorance about the Sumdorong Chu incident, but insisted that better relations between India, China and the Soviet Union would be best if “no one had to choose sides”. Privately, Gorbachov assured the Indian leadership that the Soviet Union would not stand “idly by” if India’s unity and integrity was threatened, but never clarified that if clashes took place with China on the McMahon Line, whether these constituted threats to India’s “unity and integrity”. The Soviets were keen to pursue a policy of strategic ambiguity. It did not go un- noticed in Delhi that when the confrontation with China was at its height, the Soviet Foreign Ministry announced in January 1987, the imminent withdrawal of a Soviet mechanized division from Mongolia.
The Chinese also tried to escalate the political confrontation by sending Qiao Shi, a Politburo Standing Committee member to Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh in March 1987. The aim of the visits was to persuade these countries to minimize support for India in the event of a border clash. The Chinese tried very hard to pressurize President Ershad of Bangladesh, not to permit the movement of Indian troops and material across Bangladesh territory in the event of a Sino-Indian clash. A month later, Ershad visited Beijing and according to press reports acceded to the Chinese request.**
The political lesson of the confrontation at Sumdorong Chu was quite clear for both India and China. If a military confrontation were to ensue, both would find themselves largely on their own, bereft of any great power support. Both would have suffered substantial setbacks and thus the realization dawned that there was little to be gained from a military confrontation. It was this realization that eventually paved the way for a de-escalation on the boundary and thereafter to a momentous decision taken by PM Rajiv Gandhi to visit China in December 1988. It would be the first visit by an Indian PM to China since Nehru’s visit in 1954. This also led to a change of tactics and policy by India. The new policy was of trying to minimize differences with China, while at the same time seeking to enlarge cooperation in all other areas. China too still recovering from the intense political backlash and facing isolation generated by the Tienanmen incidents, embraced this policy then. The success of this new policy can be seen that since then there has been not a single shot fired on the Sino-Indian border and that there has been no large scale military confrontation either. It remains largely a peaceful border.
*John Garver, China’s Quest [New York: OUP, 2016], p 439.
** Ibid, p 443