Visual of the first Chinese nuclear test conducted on October 16, 1964 (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
On October 16, 1964, China conducted its first successful nuclear test at the Lop Nur test site. Internationally, the test was met with mixed reactions with many countries expressing surprise, alarm or both. The US and Japan expressed displeasure but a number of Asian countries also welcomed the rise of a great power from the world's largest continent. China withstood external pressure to curb its nuclear activity and went on to become a globally accepted nuclear power.
During the immediate aftermath of the events at Lop Nur, Chinese embassies from around the world dispatched their understanding of reactions in their host countries to Beijing. Chinese embassies in India and Pakistan were no different. Both embassies dutifully dispatched cables to Beijing detailing their assessments of Indian and Pakistani reactions to the first Chinese nuclear test.
Notable examples of documents dispatched to Beijing from New Delhi in this regard include cables written on October 18, 22 and 31 in the year 1964. The context of the cables is worth mentioning. Both India and China had enjoyed cordial relations well before the two modern nation-states based on two ancient civilizations were declared independent by their respective leaderships. However, relations deteriorated as the People's Republic of China incorporated Tibet into its fold and the Tibetan leadership fled to India. The two Asian giants now shared a vast, demarcated border for the first time in centuries and skirmishes broke out in the latter half of 1962, leading to a brief but bloody border war in which the People's Liberation Army defeated an ill-prepared Indian Army along the vaguely defined Sino-Indian boundary.
In a cable titled India's Reactions to China's Nuclear Test — written on October 18, 1964 — officials from the Chinese embassy to India wrote that 'Government leaders such as [Lal Bahadur] Shastri, [Yashwantrao] Chavan, Chagla and Sen had all slandered us for conducting the nuclear test. Shastri took the lead in stirring up anti China feelings among the various countries.' The cable further details the sense of awe, confusion and alarm felt in the Indian political and intellectual sphere.
Another cable titled India's Reactions to Khrushchev's Removal and China's Nuclear Test was written to Beijing from the Chinese Embassy in India on October 22, 1964. It details Indian reactions to the first Chinese nuclear test as witnessed by 'Prasad, the Indian interpreter in our embassy'. This cable is noteworthy because it involves Indian reactions, which range from confusion to alarm, at a more ordinary level.
An additional cable titled India's Reactions to China's Nuclear Test — written to Beijing by Chinese officials in New Delhi on October 31, 1964 — is significant in terms of detail. The cable highlights the opposition that the Indian political and public sphere offered to the first Chinese nuclear explosion, and the debate on whether or not the country should choose to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Interestingly, the Chinese cable also mentions that 'The American Ambassador in India hastily said that India needs to conduct nuclear tests in the wake of our nuclear testing'.
The cable further mentions that 'the Indian newspapers revealed that India’s vigorous push on nuclear research and development were aimed at manufacturing atomic bombs.' The document ends with an observation on the chaotic nature of Indian democracy. Rift within the government, and demands of the opposition on the issue of a credible Indian nuclear weapons program are also noted.
Whether India harbored ambitions to weaponize its nuclear program until the Chinese nuclear explosion is unclear given differing accounts. However, after the Chinese nuclear explosion, an alarmed Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri clearly gave sufficient autonomy to the country's powerful nuclear administrator Dr. Homi J. Bhabha to proceed in the direction. India would go on and conduct its own nuclear test in the Pokhran Test Range in less than a decade after the first Chinese nuclear test.
Chinese assessment of the reaction from Pakistan is recorded in a cable from the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, titled Pakistan's Reaction to China's Nuclear Explosion, which was written to Beijing on October 20, 1964. The context of this cable is also worth mentioning. According to Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri's Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider's Account of Pakistan's Foreign Policy, China and Pakistan conducted negotiations for a boundary agreement between October 1962-63, and made efforts to demarcate the China-Pakistan border.
The diplomatic effort from the Pakistani side was made under the regime of military dictator Ayub Khan. Kasuri notes that 'China ceded nearly 750 square miles of grazing lands which had been under the use of shepherds in Hunza. Pakistan also recognized approximately 2,000 square miles of territory adjoining the Northern Areas as belonging to China.' The 1963 Sino-Pakistan boundary agreement paved the way for greater cooperation between the two Asian rivals of India.
The Chinese cable from Pakistan to Beijing observes the euphoric sentiment in Pakistan's press and political circles on China's first nuclear weapons test. Segments of the Pakistani press felt that it was in Asia's interest to have a nuclear power that could rival the west. The cable also notes that 'Some papers hoped that we would not be like the Western countries in keeping the secret about atomic bombs and that we would reveal it especially to friends like Pakistan'. These would be prophetic words as China would subsequently lend crucial support to the Pakistani nuclear program.
After conducting its first nuclear test in 1964, China would go on to aid the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, fundamentally shifting the balance of power in South Asia. A wary India would go on to build credible minimum deterrence of its own, steadily developing its own nuclear weapons and missile capabilities — often in face of international sanctions that gradually faded away as the country emerged as a major economy. In East Asia, the North Korean nuclear weapons program would benefit from both the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear programs.
Pakistani public opinion in favor of China, in spite of Beijing's non-interference in wars which the South Asian country conclusively lost to India, would endure. During the recent decade, Sino-Pakistan relationship has been characterized as higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey by the highest levels of leadership in Pakistan.
New Delhi — understandably — has its misgivings about the Sino-Pakistan relationship, especially in the light of the recently evolving China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through areas claimed by India. The issue of China ignoring Pakistan's aid to global terrorist groups has also not been well-received by decision makers in New Delhi. Wary of being encircled by nuclear rivals China and Pakistan, India has forged close strategic ties with the US and Japan.
The alliance between China and Pakistan is likely to endure given the massive amounts of civilian and military aid that Beijing has supplied to Islamabad. India's strategic engagement with US and Japan is also likely to continue. The aftermath of the Chinese nuclear test of 1964, nevertheless, gives us an insight into how great powers evolve — and how emerging powers adapt in order to maintain a favorable balance of power according to their national interests.
This article was revised on January 10, 2018.
Manoj Saxena is the Editor of South Asia News Review.