Features | Politics | East Asia

1962’s Other Crisis: India and China go to War

While often overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the conflict still colors relations between the two nations to this day.

By Dhruva Jaishankar for

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.

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Yet for a number of reasons, the prospects of history repeating itself are slim. India is far better equipped today along virtually every dimension of military preparedness. In recent years, India has expanded its mountain warfare units, redeployed its most sophisticated fighter aircraft to its northeast, and enhanced its naval capabilities as a deterrent against possible Chinese adventurism. The presence and responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons by both sides has also contributed to stability. Additionally, China and India are increasingly economically interdependent, with China now among India’s largest trade partners and foreign investors, and India an important market and source of raw materials for Chinese manufacturers. And the international environment today is far more conducive for India, which now enjoys cooperative diplomatic, economic, and military relations with most major states in the international system.

Despite China’s rapid military modernization, ongoing leadership transition, and newfound assertiveness, New Delhi is reluctant to become part of any overtly anti-Chinese military alliance. It has cooperated closely with China, and against developed states, on several matters of multilateral diplomacy, notably climate change. Multilateral cooperation has also extended to the BRICS summit, the various ASEAN-centered multilateral groupings, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (of which India is an observer). But it would be a mistake to interpret any such tactical cooperation as the emergence of a Sino-Indian bloc that seeks to undermine the power and influence of the United States and its allies.

As recollections of the 1962 war linger, policymakers and commentators across the Asia-Pacific and in the West would do well to understand that the episode still colors relations between the two rising giants. India continues to pursue fruitful economic and diplomatic relations with China and shares many of Beijing’s concerns about its development trajectory, fragile sovereignty, and representation at various international high tables. But the unresolved territorial dispute and the residual memory of Beijing’s assertiveness will ensure that India hedges its bets on China’s peaceful rise. The rest of the world would do well to take notice.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a Transatlantic Fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington D.C.