Fifty years ago, on the morning of October 20, 1962, China’s People’s Liberation Army assaulted Indian military positions along their disputed frontier. The Chinese attack, justified domestically and abroad as self-defense, resulted in the only major armed conflict in modern times between the world’s two most populous countries. The Indian military, poorly prepared and naively led, was routed. A second major Chinese assault the following month forced India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to write to President John F. Kennedy in desperation to request air support from the United States. Having brought India to its knees, Beijing declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, and the PLA withdrew to its pre-war positions.
This short but savage war, which resulted in over 2,000 fatalities, was fought just as the world’s eyes were fixated upon the nuclear stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union over the latter’s deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba. That may partly explain why the war goes largely unnoticed today by strategic experts in the West and across the Asia-Pacific, including many Sinologists. But just as history is often written by the winners, it is rarely forgotten by the losers. The border conflict casts a long shadow over how India has perceived, and continues to perceive, Chinese intentions.
Despite the importance of Sino-Indian ties for the United States and other regional and global powers, that relationship is prone to much misinterpretation. Observers are often content to characterize relations between Beijing and New Delhi either as unbridled competition by two rising powers or sinister cooperation against the U.S.-led international order. The reality is in fact far more complex.
Fifty years after their border war, China and India remain locked in their dispute over territory the size of Greece, populated by well over a million people. It makes the disagreements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea Islands – both recently in the news – pale by comparison. The clash over the Sino-Indian frontier has complex origins, rooted in the non-demarcated boundaries of British India, differing interpretations of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of Chinese claims to Tibet. While border negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi continue periodically behind closed doors, Chinese and Indian maneuvering manifests itself publicly in subtle but deliberate shifts in policy concerning mundane activities such as military interactions, the printing of official maps, and the issuing of visas. While meaningful, such messaging is occasionally exaggerated by irresponsible and ill-informed members of the media in India and nationalist bloggers and commentators in China.