By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, December 27: When India and Pakistan were at war in December 1971 over the founding of a new nation to be known as “Bangladesh”, China was expected to rush to the aid of Pakistan, a close ally. But Beijing did little more than issue periodic anti-India and pro-Pakistan statements. To be sure, China publicly condemned “Indian aggression” and India’s “interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan” but at no stage did it say that it would militarily help Pakistan maintain its territorial integrity, though the seceding “Bangladesh” was “East Pakistan”.
In fact, behind the scenes, China kept advising Pakistan to settle its issues with the East Pakistanis through talks. The Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan had been agitating since 1952 for their language, political and economic rights. But to no avail. West Pakistan unleashed terror to quell the agitation, following which, the movement became separatist.
China’s silence on the question of military involvement, despite appeals for it, was a huge disappointment for Pakistan which not only shared China’s animosity towards India and but had also played midwife in the birth of Sino-US friendship in 1969-1970. US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had used Pakistan to connect with Mao’s China, using Pakistan’s pre-existing links with Beijing.
India, which had had fought a disastrous war with China in 1962, continued to have a cold relationship with it. When troubles in East Pakistan began and millions of East Pakistanis were pouring into India as refugees, India feared a Pakistan-China military gang up against the East Pakistanis and India. But that such a gang up did not take place. The reasons for China’s inaction are explained in detail by the Indian military historian, Srinath Raghavan, in his book: 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Permanent Black, 2013).
On November 5, 1971, a month before war broke out, Pakistani President Gen.Yahya Khan sent his Special Envoy, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to Beijing to talk to the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai to find out if the Chinese would render military help. To Bhutto’s disappointment, Zhou advised him to come to a “reasonable settlement” on the political issues agitating the East Pakistanis. He then advised Pakistan to take the “initial blows” and then launch a worldwide propaganda offensive against India to put it in the dock as the aggressor. But there was no word about military help or opening a front against India on the Xinjiang or Tibet border. China even broke a promise to deliver military planes to Pakistan.
Was China’s reticence due to the difficulty in fighting in the snow-bound Himalayas in winter, or was it due to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship signed in August 1971? By the close of the 1960s, China and the USSR had fallen out, and in 1969, they even had brief but brutal clashes on the border. According to Raghavan, the reason for China’s reluctance to deploy troops was that, at that time, there was a revolt in the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLC) led by the Defense Minister and Mao’s designated successor, Marshal Lin Biao. Mao was busy purging the PLA.
Since 1970, China had been urging Yahya Khan to solve the East Pakistanis’ problems peacefully, Raghavan points out. China had close relations with leading East Pakistani leftists like Maulana Bashani, who had, over time, become Bengali nationalists. But the Chinese were not for Bengali or East Pakistani “separatism”. They felt that a separate East Pakistan would link up with India and also the USSR which was backing India. This is the reason why the Chinese leaders wanted the Pakistani leadership to save united Pakistan by negotiating a deal with the Bengalis.
But Yahya was dead against any deal, especially with the most popular East Pakistani leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib’s Awami League was anathema for Yahya as it had swept the general elections in East Pakistan in December 1970, on the basis of a six-point charter which to him was plainly secessionist. Zhou tried to convince Yahya that if war was avoided by taking some political steps in East Pakistan, India and the USSR would have no valid reason to militarily intervene. “Quick political and economic measures are needed to still the demand for separation,” Zhou said. In one of his letters to Yahya, Zhou bluntly said: “The question of East Pakistan should be settled according to the wishes of the people of East Pakistan.” Pakistan released Zhou’s letter, but only after deleting that critical sentence.
Meanwhile, India was making determined efforts to get the USSR on its side to blunt any hostile moves by China. But in 1968, the USSR dropped a bombshell by supplying weapons to Pakistan to counter the influence of China and the US on that country. After scripting the Tashkent Agreement, which brought the India-Pakistan war of 1965 to an end, the USSR had developed a taste for influence in Asia. It sought links with both India and Pakistan. But this alarmed both India and China. While it was a “betrayal” for India, China feared the emergence of the USSR as an Asian power.
To checkmate the Soviets, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi initiated moves to make up with China. She was keen on improving ties with China also to cut down mounting defense expenditure since the 1962 war with China. She wrote to her Chinese counterpart, Zhou En Lai, seeking discussions on issues bedevilling the relationship. But the meetings that the Indian Charge d’ Affaires Brajesh Mishra had with Chinese officials were unproductive though cordial.
However, suddenly, in April 1970, Mishra received a surprise invitation to join the Chinese leaders and other foreign envoys at the leaders’ rostrum to view the May Day parade. As Chairman Mao was greeting the envoys one by one, he paused on seeing Mishra and told him: “We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again. India is a great country. Indian people are good people. We will be friends again someday.” Mishra promptly said: “We are ready to do it today.” He rushed to his office after the function and sent a message to the Prime Minister.
But the Prime Minister was advised by her lieutenants to move cautiously as rushing into the arms of the Chinese could alienate the Soviets who had been trying hard to conclude a military alliance with India since 1969. Though nothing concrete emerged from Mao’s unusual gesture, China did not intervene when broke out with Pakistan.
According to Raghavan, the reason why Mao did not commit his forces during the December 1971 war was his tenuous control over the PLA since 1969. In October 1969, following the military standoff with the Soviet Union, the Chinese Defense Minister and Mao’s designated successor, Marshal Lin Biao, had ordered a massive mobilization of China’s air and ground forces. But Mao was incensed by this action because only he could order such a massive mobilization. Due to this and other incidents, Mao began regarding Marshal Lin Biao as a challenger. In early 1971, Mao sought self-criticism from Lin, but Lin dodged. In September 1971, Lin’s son, an air force pilot, hatched a plot to kill Mao. When the plot was discovered, Lin fled to the USSR but his plane crashed in Mongolia. And in Beijing, Mao got busy purging the PLA of disloyal elements. Thus, in December 1971, Mao was in no position to indulge in any military adventures abroad, Raghavan says.
As war clouds gathered in November-December 1971, Mishra cabled Delhi to say: “China will not intervene in the event of war between India and Pakistan.” Thus the Indian armed forces were spared the strain of fighting a three-front war and the 1971 war turned out to be a walkover for the Indian forces.