The war of 1962 was the apex of a larger falling-out between China and India which put an end to the honeymoon of the Chini-Hindi Bhai Bhai, the Sino-Indian brotherhood. The ugly conclusion to the Sino-Indian brotherhood crystallized and enshrined the suspicions and stereotypes that each side held of the other. To this day, Beijing suspects that India, with the help of the U.S., strives to undermine its rule in Tibet in order to balance against China’s growing power. These suspicions have only been heightened by India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and the recent improvement in U.S.-Indian relations.
For its part, India still sees China as a nationalist, aggressive power which seeks to dominate Asia and one that might once again strike unexpectedly, just as it did in 1962. Naturally, China’s recent assertiveness on the border issue and the People’s Liberation Army’s huge military buildup bolster such fears. These stereotypes, often propagated by jingoistic media, have proved a major obstacle to building a strong and stable Sino-Indian relationship.
The war of 1962 has also charged Sino-Indian relations with a strong sense of rivalry which has shaped the foreign policies of both countries. Seeking to balance the other side, each country has forged relationships that act as a counterpoint to the other; most notably, Beijing’s “all weather friendship” with Islamabad and Delhi’s partnership with Moscow. The rivalry has also led both sides to compete for influence in their peripheries, especially in Burma and Nepal, and to resent the spread of the other’s influence close to their borders. Hence, Delhi has often obsessed over Chinese penetration in South Asia and its purported “string of pearls” around India’s maritime borders, while Beijing has resented India’s growing involvement in Southeast Asia and especially in the South China Sea.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Fortunately, however, the legacy of 1962 does not mean that China and India are destined to remain adversaries, as both have a lot to lose from a confrontation. An overt armed struggle between the two will undercut bilateral trade, strengthen China’s alliance with Pakistan, stir unrest in Tibet, reduce the security of both sides, and potentially push Delhi to formally align itself with Washington, forgoing the strategic autonomy that it prizes. Nor does the war’s legacy mean that issues like Tibet and the disputed border will forever define the overall Sino-Indian relationship. After all, the expanding cooperation between the two sides and their increasing economic ties are essential parts of the Sino-Indian relationship.
However, the legacy of 1962 will probably limit the extent of the bilateral relationship between India and China in the short to medium term for a number of reasons. For example, China and India cannot build a new relationship until they resolve some of their most intractable historical disputes such as the Tibet issue and the border dispute. Additionally, the inability to control these destabilizing factors ensures the relationship will remain unstable. Moreover, the memory of 1962 — the nationalist feelings it stirs and the suspicions it breeds — means that reaching a compromise on many key bilateral issues will be very difficult. Because of the mutual suspicion that exists, each government fears that making concessions will be unpopular domestically. Thus deadlock is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future. Finally, the legacy of the war enhances the inherent competition between China and India. While growing trade and cooperation mitigate this competition, a long list of factors, such as the security dilemma engendered by the militarization of disputed Sino-Indian border, keep it alive.
In sum, nearly a half a century since the brief war occurred, it continues to cast a long shadow over Sino-Indian relations. Expect it to continue to do so in the future.
Ivan Lidarev is a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest.