This month marks the 50th anniversary of China’s military attack on India, the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won. Yet that war failed to resolve the disputes between the world’s two most populous nations, and its legacy continues to weigh down the bilateral relationship. While their economic heft is drawing increasing international attention, their underlying strategic rivalry over issues ranging from land and water to geopolitical influence in other regions usually attracts less notice.
The international importance of the China-India relationship reflects the fact that together they account for 37 percent of humanity. Although they represent markedly different cultures and competing models of development, they share a historical similarity that helps shape both countries’ diplomacy: Each freed itself from colonial powers around the same time.
Throughout their histories, the Indian and Chinese civilizations were separated by the vast Tibetan Plateau, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts; political relations were absent. It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet between 1950 and 1951 that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s frontiers.
Just over a decade later, China surprised India’s ill-prepared army by launching a multi-pronged attack across the Himalayas on Oct. 20, 1962. Then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.”
Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved. China’s blitzkrieg created a defeatist mindset in India, forcing its army to retreat to defensive positions. India, fearing unknown consequences, even shied away from employing its air power, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover.
After more than a month of fighting, China declared a unilateral ceasefire from a position of strength, having seized Indian territory. The Chinese simultaneously announced that they would begin withdrawing their forces on Dec. 1, 1962, vacating their territorial gains in the eastern sector (where the borders of India, Myanmar, Tibet and Bhutan converge), but retaining the areas seized in the western sector (in the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir). These withdrawal parameters meshed with China’s pre-war aims.
Just as Mao Zedong (毛澤東) started his invasion of Tibet while the world was preoccupied with the Korean War, so he chose a perfect time to invade India.
The attack coincided with a major international crisis that brought the US and the Soviet Union within a whisker of nuclear war over the stealthy deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. China’s unilateral ceasefire coincided with the US’ formal termination of its naval blockade of Cuba, marking the end of the missile crisis.
Mao’s shrewd timing ensured India’s isolation from sources of international support. Throughout the invasion, the international spotlight was on the potential US-Soviet nuclear showdown, not on the bloody war raging in the Himalayan foothills.
India’s humiliation hastened the death of its then-prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; but also set in motion the country’s military modernization and political rise.