Foreign Affairs and International Relations

Sardar Patel’s Tibet Letter was Short on Facts

Atul Bhardwaj


An Analysis of the early years of Sino-India Relations.

Sardar Patel’s famous, 7 November 1950 letter to Nehru on the situation in Tibet has been relied on to shift part of the blame of the ongoing India-China conflict onto Nehru. In this post, I will look at the credentials of the letter itself.

The letter was the first frontal attack on the foreign policy Nehru was pursuing in the beginning of 1950s. The letter has had a huge impact in shaping India’s attitude towards China and in convincing many Indians that China cannot be trusted. The letter is frequently used to show how cunning the Chinese are and how naive Nehru was in trusting them. But the question is how accurate are the facts presented in Patel’s letter? For example, at one place in the letter Patel wrote:

“During the last several months, outside the Russian camp, we have practically been alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into the UNO, and in securing from the Americans assurances on the question of Formosa?”

The scrutiny of historical facts suggest that Patel’s assessment of international debates on recognition of communist China were inaccurate. Nehru was not alone in recognizing China and he was not the only leader in the non-communist camp who was keen that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) replace the Republic of China (ROC) in the United Nations Security Council. Such myths continue to proliferate because very little effort goes into examining the international context in which Patel’s letter was written and the factors that influenced Nehru’s decision.

On 2 October 1949, Mao Tse-tung, formally proclaimed at the Tiananmen Square that the “war of the people’s liberation” was “fundamentally won” and declared that his Government was the sole legal representative of all the people of China. This was one of the biggest geopolitical developments of 1949. The Anglo-Americans got into a huddle to discuss the implications of communist takeover of mainland China. The British and the American views on how to deal with communist China differed.

The US Secretary of State Dean Acheson and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin met to sort out the differences. Finally, the two agreed to pursue independent China policies. The Anglo-American views on how to deal with communist China differed mainly because London had more to lose by distancing itself from Beijing than Washington. According to discussion in the British cabinet in late 1940s:

The Americans had smaller commercial interests in China than the United Kingdom, and there were signs that they wish to cut their losses there at an earlier stage than we should and to proceed at once to a policy of economic warfare against the Communists…. We should discourage other governments, particularly the Americans, from doing anything to wage economic warfare.”

The US State Department held a China Round Table from 6 to 8 October 1949 in which the British Foreign Secretary Bevin presented his case for abandoning Chiang-Kai-Sheik in favour of Mao-Se-tung. The sentiment that emerged from the meeting in favoured giving recognition to China and seating it the UN. However, America differed with Britain on the timing of building diplomatic ties with Red China.

Britain was in a hurry, its business community was putting pressure on the government to negotiate with Mao and secure its commercial interests in Hong Kong. The British understanding was that there was no option but to recognize China because Mao’s communist party controlled maximum Chinese territory. As a part of its policy to remain in Mao’s good books on 7th January 1950 the British Consul General in Beijing handed over the note to the Chinese premier Chou En-lai regarding the British government’s decision to withdraw recognition from the Nationalists led by Chiang-Kai-Sheik.

In order to make a deal with Mao on Hong Kong, Britain also coaxed other Commonwealth members to give diplomatic legitimacy to the new regime. India recognised China on 1 January 1950. Pakistan did it on 4 January and Sri Lanka approved PRC on 7 January.  By the end of January, almost the entire set of commonwealth countries had legitimized the PRC’s new communist government.

Nehru recognized China a week prior to Britain not because he was a true-blue socialist eager to hug the panda. It was mainly because he did not want to appear to be guided by Britain. According to archival records, commenting on the right timing to announce the grant of recognition, Nehru wrote,  “Our decision will be our own, though of course we shall consult others. For us to take any action in the wake of (Commonwealth) Foreign Ministers’ Conference, apart from the delay involved, would also mean that we could not act independently. This might well affect our position in China.”

American Strategy on China

America was neither opposed to British overtures towards Red China nor was it opposed to the idea of courting China to wean it away from the Soviet Union. However, the US was in no hurry because it was engaged in the Korean War and it wanted more time to evaluate Mao’s Tito like traits.

According to the Congressional Records the American strategy was: “If we can’t talk to them (China) we can never hope to make a Tito out of China’s communist leader Mao Se-tung- and that’s what we want to do. “So Mr. Acheson intends to recognise China’s reds -and let them in the UN. But not right now. He wants to let them stew awhile. He thinks we’ll get along better with them if we are a little reluctant. And he wants to wait till the Korean War is over, so no Russian Red or any other Red, will think we gave Red China recognition under pressure as a bribe to stay out of the Korean War.”

Joseph B. Tito, Yugoslavia was the communist leader to come out of the Soviet Camp and openly opposed Stalin. Many expected Mao – a nationalist more than a communist – to eject out of the Soviet bloc. Causing the Sino-Soviet split became an important part of the Anglo-American grand strategy to contain the spread of communism.

It is important to understand that in the early 1950s Britain’s influence on Indian strategic outlook was intact.  It would is naive to imagine that the MI5, the British intelligence arm vanished into thin air after the unfurling of Indian flag at the Red Fort on 15 August 1947, and Nehru had full agency under his command to shape India’s foreign policy. At the time of independence along with MI5 the CIA American intelligence arm, was also well entrenched in India. The American intelligence came to India along with 200,000 US soldiers during the second war at the invitation of a declining British empire. From 1942-46, the CIA used the opportunity to develop links with the Indian business, bureaucratic, and political elite.

As early as June 1949, the first Indian director of  the Intelligence Bureau (IB), TG Sanjevi was on a three-week tour of America, where he received a warm welcome at the insistence of George Kennan, the father of Soviet containment strategy. According to Paul Michael McGarr’s historical work, Sanjevi informed his American counterparts “he frequently had to take independent action without the knowledge of his government,” and, “regardless of the official attitude of his government, he would welcome the continuance of . . . unofficial contacts.”

From 1947 to 1971 the American Embassy in New Delhi enjoyed the exclusive privilege having two military planes positioned permanently at the Delhi Airport, which could be flown at will within and outside India. Till about 1956, the US relied on old British structures to ensure that India remained within the Anglo-American orbit and not drift away towards the communist bloc. However, they launched their soft-power – Ford and Rockefeller Foundations – to get directly involved in India’s nation-building processes from the early 1950s. Although India claimed non-alignment, structurally and strategically it was aligned to the liberal international order, led by America. The approach Nehru followed on China, in the early 1950s, was largely the British line, which had the tacit approval of America. Post-Suez crisis, after the final demise of the European empire, Americans became more active in influencing India’s China policy, the seeds for which had been sown in the early 1950s through pro-American right-wingers and centrists in Indian politics, like Patel and Ram Manohar Lohia, Minoo Masani and many others.

From 1957 onwards India did change its China policy;  cooperated with America in internationalizing the Tibet issue and adopted a more confrontationist stance against China, which led to a futile war that only helped America to drive a wedge in the Communist bloc.

Dr Atul Bhardwaj, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London. He is the author of India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order (Routledge, 2019)