Why the Seventh Fleet Was Sent to the Indian Ocean in 1971...
By Ghazala Akbar


In December 1971, forty years ago, as Indian forces encircled Dacca for the kill, the BBC reported that the US Seventh Fleet had entered the Indian Ocean. A demoralised Nation hoped against hope. Could it just be possible that President Nixon was intervening to save Pakistan from impending disaster?

Declassified documents released by the US Government clear the mystery: The Fleet was moving -- not to help the beleaguered Pakistan Eastern Command -- it was in readiness to aid its former foe, the People’s Republic of China, the USA’s new ‘best’ friend.

Hard to believe now, but an internal civil war in East Pakistan, which became a war between India and Pakistan, was on the verge of a wider conflagration involving China, the USA and the USSR! A transcript of a conversation between Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser to President Nixon and the Chinese Premier, Chou en Lai reveals exactly that.

What were the Super- power dynamics that could lead to such an extraordinary situation?

From the early fifties onwards the entire world had been in the grip of the Cold War and the rivalry between the USA and the USSR. However, after the Sino-Soviet border clash in 1969, inter-communist rivalry for spheres of influence was equally intense. If your neighbour is your enemy,then your neighbour’s enemy is yourfriend.

Since India, a firm ally of Moscow was the aggressor in the Bangladesh War the Chinese naturally supported their ally Pakistan. If the Chinese attacked India in a diversionary move to relieve Pakistan, the Soviet Union would be obliged to come to India’s rescue by attacking China. And the USA? Surprise, surprise -- they would join the fray in support of China. Both had a common goal in containing the Soviet Union.

Virulently anti-Soviet, President Nixon was deeply suspicious of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty signed in August 1971, as were the Chinese. Nixon was Vice- President from 1952-60 when Pakistan joined the American camp with membership in CENTO. It was from an air base in Peshawar that U-2 aircraft flew spying missions over the Soviet Union. A plane had been shot down in 1960 causing major embarrassment to the US and Soviet ire for Pakistan.

President, Nixon was now on the brink of a significant policy shift: resumption of ties with the People’s Republic of China. In July 1971, Dr. Kissinger had flown secretly from Islamabad to Peking paving the way for recognition and a State visit to China by the President. General Yahya Khan of Pakistan was instrumental in facilitating contacts and arranging the visit.

As quid pro quo, Nixon was soft on the General and looked the other way during the brutal crackdown in East Pakistan -- much against the tide of public opinion in his own country. On a document setting out US policy options in response to the East Pakistan situation in April 1971, Nixon had chosen the mildest course with a scribble at the end: ‘To all hands: Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time’. As Henry Kissinger observed to the US Ambassador to India, ‘The President has a special feeling for President Yahya Khan. One cannot make policy on that basis but it is a fact of life.’

When war broke out on 22 nd November in East Pakistan and December 3 in West Pakistan, Nixon even ordered secret transfers of aircraft, ammunition and equipment to Pakistan via Iran. His infamous ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan came in for heavy criticism later in the US media after selective documents were ‘leaked’ and published by the columnist Jack Anderson.

As the conversations between Chou and Kissinger reveal, the support came all too late. By mid-December General Yahya was already giving up, abandoning East Pakistan to its fate.

Here is a selective transcript of the conversation between Dr. Henry Kissinger, (HK) and Chou en Lai ( PM) Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China held in the Great Hall of Peking on June 20, 1972. It tells the story of the last days of united Pakistan.

PM: (laughs) so would you like to begin.

HK: Which subject would you like to discuss first? The Soviets?

PM: Yes.

HK: ...As you know, we reacted extremely strongly to the situation in South Asia. And one morning when we received a message that you had a message to deliver to us, which was, we thought that you had sent your troops in, we had decided that if you were attacked by the Soviet Union as a result of it we would support you and the military measures if necessary to prevent that attack. We received that message in early December — I thought it was December 11 our time in the morning. We received word. And when we picked up that message in the afternoon, it had a different context. We also, as you remember threatened to...

PM: By that time, East Pakistan was unable to be saved.

HK: No, No, you made the correct decision. It would have been too late, but I had a talk with your Ambassador.

PM: Because when they were in the UN at that time, they were not clear about the situation because Mr. Bhutto himself was not a military man and Yahya Khan had boasted about the military situation. So I believe Mr. Bhutto on the 11 th thought that the military situation in Pakistan at that time was indeed very well. He didn’t know about the coup at home.

HK: I think it was the December 11. Bhutto arrived in New York on Friday the 10 th our time, 11 th your time. I met Huang Ha (Chinese Ambassador) on the 10 th, I first met Huang Ha on the evening of Friday the 10th and then I met Huang Ha on the morning of the 11 th...and then you sent a message, which we received. You called us in the morning of the 12 th and we were going to the meeting with Pompidou so we sent General Haig. But between the time, we got the phone call and picked up the message we didn’t know what it was. And since Huang Ha had taken a very tough line, not knowing the situation I thought your message to us was that you were taking military measures. And since we were going to the Azores before we met with you we had to give instructions. If your message was, you were taking military measures, our instructions were that if the Soviet Union moved against you we would move against the Soviet Union.

PM ...Why did the newspapers publish what had been discussed step by step in the Washington Special Actions group with respect to the East Pakistan situation?

HK: Well first, the PM has to understand that the Washington Special group implements decisions, it does not make decisions. The reason I had to take such a strong stand in this group was because the vast majority of our bureaucracy was pro- India and pro-Soviet.

PM: Pro-Soviet?

HK: More Pro-Soviet than Pro-Chinese. I came under the most violent attack. I threatened to cancel the Moscow Summit...but what happened is that a disloyal member of our bureaucracy gave these documents to newspapers and they printed them in order to destroy us and they came very close. They will not be given a second opportunity.

PM: But after reading the records that were published, it seemed to me that the members of that group came from quite a lot of quarters.

HK: Yes, they were almost unanimously against our policy.

PM: Especially toward India?

HK: They didn’t understand our overall strategy. If they had understood we were getting ready to take on the Soviet Union then what happened was mild compared to what would have happened. The reason we moved our Fleet into the Indian Ocean was not because of India primarily – it was as pressure on the Soviet Union if the Soviets did what I mentioned before.

PM: And they also closely followed you down into the Indian Ocean.

HK: Yes but what they had we could have taken care of very easily.

PM: What they were trying to do was to create more noise in East Bengal. They openly passed through the Tsushima straits and then through the Malacca Straits.

HK: Yes but not with a force that could fight ours.

PM: Yes, but you know they could surface in such a way their support to East Bengal.

HK: Oh yes, it was used for that purpose. Actually, the Pakistan Army in the East surrendered 5 days later, so it would have been too late for you to do anything.

PM: Also Yahya Khan had sent his order in preparation for such a measure on the 11 th or the 12 th.

Vice Foreign Minister Ch’iao: I would like to add a word. On the morning of Friday the 10 th, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. U. Thant had already informed us that East Pakistan had informed their secretariat through their personnel in East Pakistan...

HK: Oh yes, the Vice Foreign Minister is absolutely correct. Speaking very confidentially, we urged them not to do so until we had an opportunity to talk to you and to assess the situation and I believe your advice was the same.

Vice Foreign Minister Ch’ iao: This happened the day Mr. Bhutto arrived in New York and on his arrival, I told him this news. He had originally prepared to meet U Thant but we had a luncheon engagement with U Thant so we went but Mr. Bhutto upon going to the Hotel immediately called Yahya Khan and advised him not to do so. That happened on the day of his arrival to New York.

PM: But we must say Yahya Khan made his efforts and contributions towards our countries and we still mention this when we see him. But he was a General who did not know how to fight a war. He was not only useless in war but he did things that worsened the situation. This was something we had not expected. We had expected that he would not be able to improve the situation but we didn’t know he could have done things so badly. Because he had four divisions that had not been thrown into battle, but before any fighting they began to crumble. Actually according to our knowledge, the Armed Forces were able to fight in a battle.

HK: But he scattered them around the frontier – he put too many forces in East Pakistan. They would have done him more good if he had used them in West Pakistan in an offensive. Secondly, he should have ignored the Indians and concentrated on one place and tried to defeat them somewhere.

PM: On such things, Ayub Khan was more capable than Yahya Khan.

HK: Yahya Khan was a decent man but not very intelligent and as it turned out not a very good general. And we are grateful to him on our side for having arranged our contacts. I think it was the last joy on his public career – he loved secret missions. He worked on it with great passion. When I visited him before I came here, he was beside himself with conspiratorial manoeuvres. He also gave me great advice on how to deal with the Prime Minister, all of which turned to be wrong. (Prime Minister laughs)

On 16 th December 1971, General Niazi surrendered the Eastern Command. General Yahya relinquished power four days later to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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