For China, ’64 n-test was meant as a ‘head-on blow’ to India

Beijing believed that it had delivered a “head-on blow” and sent shock waves through India after its first-ever nuclear test conducted on October 16, 1964 — two years after the border war fought by the two countries.

A cable sent from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to Beijing at the end of October 1964 said the “success” of its nuclear test had led Prime Minister Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to get various countries to “censure” China, but they refused to go along with him.

India, the cable said, was engaged in an internal debate on how to respond to China’s nuclear test.

“The current issue for India is not whether it should produce nuclear weapons but whether it can do so,” the communication said, concluding that Delhi would actively strive to do this to enhance its international status. The cable is available at the Wilson Centre’s Digital Archive.

Countering U.S. presence

The Chinese also believed that the United States was engaged in exerting its influence on a weak India after the 1962 war.

“But now the United States wants to control India and manage its relationship with Pakistan at the same time, thus it is unwilling to help India manufacture atomic bombs.”

The Embassy also believed that China’s newly acquired nuclear status would also enhance the chances of regaining its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council from Taiwan, clearly linking the two. “As we [China] now had a bigger chance of regaining our place in the United Nations, India is hoping to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with Soviet support,” the cable added.

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In the Indian assessment, the Chinese nuclear explosion would “alter the political balance in Asia and disturb profoundly the status quo in the world”.

As Director of the China Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, K.R. Narayanan, who went on to become President of India, linked the Chinese nuclear test with India’s options relating to the border dispute.

“But even in the immediate future India cannot ignore the bomb…as one of the factors affecting the power balance between China and India and the rest of Asia. Peking’s bomb is not a tactical weapon, but a strategic instrument,” Mr. Narayanan’s secret memo, circulated after internal discussions in the Ministry, said.

“If the recovery of Aksai Chin and the settlement of the border question through resort to arms was inconceivable hitherto it would be more so in the future,” Mr. Narayanan believed, adding that India would also have fewer military and diplomatic options after the Chinese nuclear test.

Arguing that China had now secured the breakthrough to “big power” status, the memo felt the real question for India was a long-term one —how India and China would be in 25-50 years if they followed different policies with regard to the use of nuclear energy.

Mr. Narayanan felt the Chinese had attacked in 1962 because they wanted to damage India’s influence in the Asian-African world and “expedite the process of polarisation” in India’s domestic politics. “The ideological bitterness which the Chinese evinced against Jawaharlal Nehru sprang from a realisation that it was his policies of non-alignment and socialism which stood as a border against the Communist dream of a violent revolution in India.”

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Build the bomb

In Mr. Narayanan’s view, diplomacy could only embroider on the fact of power but not act as a substitute for it. “Therefore, whatever policy we may choose to follow, it seems that without a nuclear bomb of our own, India cannot answer the challenge posed by China.”

He argued that India acquiring the bomb might make Chinese leaders sit up and reconcile with Delhi just like the U.S. and other nuclear powers were coming to grips with the reality of China. According to the memo, China’s ultimate aim was to drive the U.S. out of Asia and “establish herself” as a nuclear power equal to the U.S. and the USSR. A second nuclear test conducted by the Chinese in May 1965 drew great praise from over 100 Pakistani officials gathered for a reception hosted by the Chinese embassy in Karachi.

 

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