The Sino-Indian War: 50 Years Later, Will India and China Clash Again?

Fifty years after China and India last went to war, the conflict's legacy still smolders and haunts relations between these two rising Asian powers.

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Larry Burrows / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Indian troops training for the border war with China.

The only major war in modern history fought between India and China ended almost as abruptly as it began. On Oct. 20, 1962, a multi-pronged Chinese offensive burst the glacial stillness of the Himalayas and overwhelmed India’s unprepared and ill-equipped defenses, scattering its soldiers. Within days, the Chinese had wrested control of Kashmir’s Aksai Chin plateau in the west and, in the east, neared India’s vital tea-growing heartlands in Assam. Then, on Nov. 21, Beijing called a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from India’s northeast, while keeping hold of barren Aksai Chin. TIME’s Nov. 30, 1962 cover story started off with a Pax Americana smirk: “Red China behaved in so inscrutably Oriental a manner last week that even Asians were baffled.”

(PHOTOS: China and India’s Clash on the Roof of the World)

Fifty years later, there are other reasons to be baffled: namely why a territorial spat that ought be consigned to dusty 19th century archives still rankles relations between the 21st century’s two rising Asian powers. Economic ties between India and China are booming: they share over $70 billion in annual bilateral trade, a figure that’s projected to reach as much as $100 billion in the next three years. But, despite rounds of talks, the two countries have yet to resolve their decades-old dispute over the 2,100-mile-long border. It remains one of the most militarized stretches of territory in the world, a remote, mountainous fault-line that still triggers tensions between New Delhi and Beijing.

TIME

At the core of the disagreement is the McMahon Line, an imprecise, meandering boundary drawn in 1914 by British colonial officials and representatives of the then independent Tibetan state. China, of course, refuses to recognize that line, and still refers much of its territorial claims to the maps and atlases of the long-vanished Qing dynasty, whose ethnic Manchu emperors maintained loose suzerainty over the Tibetan plateau. In 1962, flimsy history, confusion over the border’s very location and the imperatives of two relatively young states—Mao’s People’s Republic and newly independent India led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru—led to China humiliating India in a crushing defeat where, by some accounts, both sides lost upwards of 2,000 soldiers. In 1962, TIME described the Chinese offensive as a “human-sea assault,” like a “swarm of red ants” toting burp-guns. Beijing seized and has never relinquished Aksai Chin—”the desert of white stone”—a strategic corridor that links Tibet to the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. “The India-China war took place through a complex series of actions misunderstandings,” says Kishan S. Rana, a former Indian diplomat and honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. “Bilateral relations are, however, moving forward. The border, despite unresolved issues, today is a quiet border.”

(MORE: India’s troubled Northeast—a future global flashpoint?)

Yet, just as China’s economic liberalization hasn’t led to an opening up of its political system, the strength of India and China’s trade ties have yet to unwind the border impasse. The border may be “quiet,” but tensions have spiked in recent years, with China reiterating its claim to almost the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern Indian state that the Chinese overran in 1962 and consider to be “Southern Tibet,” while India has steadily beefed up its military deployments in the long-neglected Northeast. The issue of Tibet casts a long shadow—in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, an accommodation that Beijing still resents. When he went recently to speak at a historic monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese government lodged a formal complaint. “The territorial dispute between India and China is intertwined with the Tibet issue and national dignity, making the whole situation more complicated,” says Zhang Hua, a Sino-Indian relations expert at Peking University. “When the two countries look at each other, they cannot see the counterparty in an objective and rational view.”

(MORE: Tibetans, the orphans of the Sino-Indian war.)

That nationalist ill-will is not just confined to those in the corridors of power. In a survey published last week, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 62% of Chinese hold an “unfavorable” view of India—compared to 48% feeling the same way of the U.S. Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, fears such sentiment driving the political calculus in Beijing. In a more heated climate, the Chinese leadership may not be immune to the calls of its more hardline nationalists to strike out at India, writes Chellaney:

For India, the haunting lesson of 1962 is that to secure peace, it must be ever ready to defend peace. China’s recidivist policies are at the root of the current bilateral tensions and carry the risk that Beijing may be tempted to teach India “a second lesson”, especially because the political gains of the first lesson have been frittered away. Chinese strategic doctrine attaches great value to the elements of surprise and good timing in order to wage “battles with swift outcomes.” If China were to unleash another surprise war, victory or defeat will be determined by one key factor: India’s ability to withstand the initial shock and awe and fight back determinedly.

China’s decision to withdraw from much of the territory it seized in 1962 was spurred by the arrival of significant amounts of aid and weaponry in India from the U.K. and the U.S.—Washington, at the time, was locked in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an imbroglio some historians suggest China exploited to its advantage in launching its assault. TIME’s 1962 cover story on the Sino-Indian war breathes fire on the 73-year-old Nehru—”his hair is snow-white and thinning, his skin greyish and his gaze abstracted”—and his “morally arrogant pose” of “endlessly [lecturing] the West on the need for peaceful coexistence with Communism.”

(MORE: Is war between India and China inevitable?)

An inveterate Cold Warrior, Henry Luce’s TIME reckoned the chief lesson of the war ought to be the demise of Nehru’s policy of Nonalignment, his principled Socialist stand with a number of other recently independent states to chart a third path on the world stage, away from the influence of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (I’ve written about nonalignment at length here, here and here.) “Nehru has never been able to rid himself of that disastrous cliche that holds Communism to be somehow progressive and less of a threat to emergent nations than ‘imperialism,’” TIME declared. His dreamy belief in Asian solidarity and unwillingness to see who really were “India’s friends”—namely, the U.S.—led to India’s humiliation. Tellingly, the TIME 1962 story hopes for the Indian army to “emerge as something of a political force” in its own right: for many Americans during the Cold War, the grand struggle against Communism outranked any concern for the future of fledgling democracies.

The shock of the war with China is believed to have worsened Nehru’s health; he died less than two years later. But his gift to India—its democracy—has endured and its military—unlike that of neighboring Pakistan, which would be drawn much more firmly into the American camp—has avoided meddling in its politics.

(MORE: India, China and the new world order.)

The war’s real legacy lies less in the folly of Nehru’s ideals and more in the frozen landscape where the battles were fought: India and China’s restive borderlands remain the victim of the two countries’ longstanding dispute, locked down by vast military presences. In Tibet and Xinjiang, any trace of dissent or separatist ethnic nationalism is ruthlessly suppressed. In Indian Kashmir and in its northeastern states, emergency laws are still in effect—that small bonus of being able to vote somewhat dampened by decades of army occupation, woeful governance and inadequate investment in basic things like infrastructure. TIME, in 1962, described the journey down a “Jeep path” in Assam where it took 18 hours to cover 70 miles. Fifty years on, the conditions haven’t improved much in many parts of the Indian northeast; New Delhi’s belated efforts to transform the region into an economic hub with Southeast Asia have yet to take hold.

Long gone are the days when caravans would regularly depart from Ladakh, in what’s now Indian Kashmir, and wind their way around the mountains toward the Silk Road cities of Yarkhand and Khotan, now in Xinjiang. Tibetan monks in Lhasa can’t visit some of the most sacred sites of their faith that lie in the Indian northeast. The myriad connections that bound the communities living along the Indian-Chinese border, the veritable “roof of the world,” have been lost amid New Delhi and Beijing’s icy standoff. As one Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh told me earlier this year, “There’s a lot we shared in common, but that’s now all a thing of the past.”

with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick/New Delhi and Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

57 comments
Mehtasaab
Mehtasaab

We can not trust China. China wants to take over super power title. China wants all lands whatever it can grabe from powerless nations.  If US wants to control China, US has left two options, help India, Japan and Taiwan militarily, then it will be difficult for China to grabe other country's land. 2nd option for US to reduce trade with China. China will be in the same position like Iran. China needs US/India/Japan market. Final option is to fuel democracy movement in China.

Good luck USA.

LEEFUCHEN
LEEFUCHEN

no one knows there could be a war between China and India, but everyone know that China will beat India again. I am sure~

Chandra
Chandra

China is manufacturing conventional and nuclear weapons in such a large number that even U.S can not keep up with that. India is in no position to match China in military hardware.  However that does not mean war with China is inevitable. India does have a strong defense forces and although they are still much small compare to China they do have nuclear weapons. If India's political leadership stands firm, China will have tough time holding on to any territory gained in a surprise attack. In addition China is not irrational player to risk nuclear war with India. 

So far China's policy is to help fuel the fight between Pakistan and India. This forces India to focus large parts of its army on Pakistan border away from Chinese border. This policy is paying rich dividends to China because India is bogged down in a very costly proxy war with Pakistan which drains its resources significantly. It is very likely that instead of attacking India first, China will wait until a real war between India and Pakistan. In fact during a  1999 kargil conflict  between Indian and Pakistan, China posted large number of troops on India's border and constantly challenged Indian positions on it border. They clearly had the intention to keep Indian army divided on two fronts and help Pakistan.

There is also a very long term side to this conflict which is International politics. After the cold war U.S.A is sole surviving super power and China is trying to catch-up to them. If U.S becomes weaker economically and militarily or its resolve to challenge China's domination in Asia weakens then China could see that as a green light to assert itself militarily by attacking India.

MPA
MPA

What a pathetic excuse for an article. 

venky9999
venky9999

Blunders of moslem Nehru !

Miracles of Non alignment policy !

gnmath
gnmath

The PLA is not going to risk a land war with India while at the same time trying to provoke smaller counties in its disputes of territorial waters in the south china sea.  THE PLA navy is being provacative in the south china sea disputes because they do not anticipate land war dispute.  This is true primarily because china has large conventional military advantage over India and both sides know it.  The Chinese main objective is to needle India via the border dispute and its alliance with pakistan in purely realpolitik balance of power dynamic.  

rorywong654
rorywong654

You need more effort and article in the West to sir up a war and hatred between the Chinese and Indian.We all know the West left and undermined the region with conflict when they flee the region after the colonial rule all over the world.

RishavSharma
RishavSharma

What a biased article! Continuation of the anti-communist propaganda of big american mediahouses. here are a few facts coming from a nepali who shares borders with both these countries:

FACT 1: Long vanished Qing dynasty? Qing dysnasty was overthrown in 1912 by Sun Yat Sen's nationalist party. now, it'd be a stupidity to assume Tibet was independent in 1914 since Tibet was under Chinese authority during the 4 century long Qing dynasty and it had only been 2 years since Qing dynasty was overthrown. By Chinese NATIONALISTS.

FACT 2:  In 1958, India backed by the US, gave the Dalai Lama a safe heaven to transform his medieval Tibetan religious leadership into a Tibetan God-king kind of political image. An offensive thing to do to your neighbour?

FACT 3: Look at India's relationship with all its neighbours, including Nepal; its hardly difficult to figure out who's the wanna-be regional bully.

Nimraa
Nimraa

India controls the rivers flowing Himalayan water runoff upon which downstream Pakistan depends. India is  diverting the water by making illegal dams and using it as tool to choke Pakistan, A conflict on water is very immanent which may end up in fusion. India has problems with every single of its neighbors.

jdyer2
jdyer2

Not a very well researched or thought out article.  If these two countries go to war some day, it will not be over some territorial issue or old treaty, but over water.  China controls the Himalayan water runoff upon which downstream India depends upon.  China is trying to divert the water for its own needs at the expense of India.

r.arulrajan
r.arulrajan

blah..blah..blah..talk some reality..how about war between USA and China..

aa50404
aa50404

Long live the Indian Army!  It saw us through numerous political blunders and poor governance.  Read 'The Himalayan Blunder', written by a soldier from the Sino-Indian war.  We owe our present geographical map to political leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel & Lal Bahadur Shastri.

SuhailShafi
SuhailShafi

I am very surprised at the poll which shows a majority of Chinese having a negative opinion of India. In my opinion, the Chinese people have no reason at all to resent India, and the fact that there is lingering hostility from the tragic 1962 war proves that in spite of the $ 70 billion trade between the two countries, much remains to be done to bridge the divide between these two Asian giants.

sucorazon2010
sucorazon2010

Four things are certain in the future:

1)Akshai Chin will be wrested from China by India;

2)Either China will become a democracy and chaos will engulf China;

3)Or India will become a semi-democratic state with more Chinese type of governance, meaning less rights for individuals;

4)Point 1 is certain, points 2 is more probable, point 3 is less probable, but a war between India and China is inevitable. China attacked India in 1962, when it did not even have it's army posted on the India-China border, as Nehru thought China as a friend. But today, if a war ever breaks out, China will be routed. And since point 1 is inevitable, that is the return of Akshai Chin to India, the war is inevitable.

dgupta
dgupta

One has to read this article with strong Indian accent.. To rest of the world outside India, people have a very different view. You better read Neville Maxwell's "India's China War" to have an objective view.

breindrein
breindrein

"territorial spat that ought be consigned to dusty 19th century archives" - isnt it supposed to be 20th century archives? I might be wrong.

rakeshdhamija
rakeshdhamija

@ishaantharoor Indian govt.has not much to improve th infrastructure in NE region even after th humiliating defeat in 1962 Chinese invasion

igitty
igitty

.@TIME @TIMEWorld YES-sino-china war is a possibility.

Ivan
Ivan

Nobody likes CHina...especially in Asia. China has done nothing to earn respect from fellow Asians. China today symbolises everything that is wrong with Asia. I wont be surprised if India, South Korea, Japan and the Phillipines join hands in the near future to teach china  a lesson..it will never forget

raniharipriya
raniharipriya

@time @timeworld Igniting???how can u just remember the heroes

AngryRedHead86
AngryRedHead86

@TIME @TIMEWorld This time around both have nukes. Yeah a war between them would go over REAL well....

jiehyunglo
jiehyunglo

@TIME @TIMEWorld The recent history, competitiveness on the regional stage and the difference in political positions has caused some issues.

jiehyunglo
jiehyunglo

@TIME @TIMEWorld For a more prosperous Asia region, China & India need to develop a more active bi-lateral political & economic relationship

PankajMahajan
PankajMahajan

@TIME @timeworld Lets just talk about #Peace, #Wars have killed thousands of people but have not solved any problem permanently #BRICS

iamkaranverma
iamkaranverma

@TIME: what rubbish! Why shd we talk abt such things? Talk abt harmony, coexistence, one world & stuff!

Alex
Alex

You call that an assault, deliberately omitting the details what devil deeds India had done to China? Put up so much words depicting India's condition and judging China? Come on, man, you could be better than that.

Chandra
Chandra

@LEEFUCHEN If China wants to attack India, they have to do it pretty soon because time is running out for them. In less than decade China will have to become democratic. If not there will be chaos in China and it will be in serious economic trouble. It can not afford war with India when it is in state of economic decline. If China becomes democratic, it doesn't have any reason to go to war with India because India and China have lot in common. Chinese will realize that only when they become democratic country. At present Chinese government is fueling anti India sentiment like any dictator or totalitarian government system does.

JONASN24
JONASN24

@paytriat You even don't know that tons of millions of people think U.S is doomed because of its arrogance.

WholisticDesi
WholisticDesi

FYI for all, this guy is least representative of Indians or what is good for India. 

It is widely recognized in India that US is our long term strategic ally - as the article pointed out while the idiotic Nehru was chanting 'cheeni-hindustani bhai-bhai' (Chinese-Indians brothers), China's daggar from behind clearly showed who India should be partnering with.

dgupta
dgupta

Yes... sigh.. India

Kajua
Kajua

@aa50404 Indian army lost big time and India has to give up whole Tibet region from where the life giving water comes to the Indian rivers, is now in the control of an enemy. Indian army is good only making porno's of army wives.

sucorazon2010
sucorazon2010

@SuhailShafi , that's because they have been fed mis-information by the state controlled Chinese media that India started the 1962 war, and also India was responsible for the Indo-Pak wars...which is completely untrue!!

99.99 Chinese youth do not even know about the Tienanmen Square Massacre...thus it is no surprise that Chinese have negative idea.

According to the Chinese media, America was not discovered by Columbus but by the Chinese, go figure !!!

sucorazon2010
sucorazon2010

@dgupta , you mean that Chinese agent and a confirmed communist?

dgupta, pls take your_head_out_of_arse......and stop faking Indian id;s my Chinese friend.

RishavSharma
RishavSharma

@Ivan dont make your propaganda fuelled statements here ivan, india has worse relationships with its Asian neighbours. Quite frankly, its a poor, insecured, interventionist local bully in the region.

Mehtasaab
Mehtasaab

I aggree with you. Remember chaina says once that we have no friends in the world (including America). India-chiana war was a good lesson for India. Now India is better prepared for chinesse war. Next war will be with all neighbours will teach a lesson to china.

mojjo25
mojjo25

@Alex for instance? "what devil deeds India had done to China?"

dgupta
dgupta

India never owned Tibet how come it lost whole Tibet? Indians are good at lies. It took Kirshmir against people's will there. It bullies Nepal and Buttan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, all its neighbours. Only it got bleedy nose when it tried to encroach China. Nobody likes India in its own neighbour. Its time the neightbours come up together to bring up this monster in the subcontinent.

Maaq
Maaq

@Kajua @aa50404  Indian army is good only in practicing war on its innocent minorities like in Kashmir and Khalistan

DrCat
DrCat

@sucorazon2010 @SuhailShafi  Please be careful with the words 99.99%, I do not believe I am living with people in 0.01% from I was young. We all know what happened in 1989 especially for university students. We know much more than you could imagine. The only people 'do not know it' are chinese journalist and editors.

dgupta
dgupta

You have to admit that Nehru was a Chinese agent, as he intentionally led India to a shameful defeat. And most Indians are foreign agents too as they are governed by an Italian lady.

dgupta
dgupta

Indian's notorious "Forward Policy", which encroached Chinese territories by slowly setting up behind chinese borders, is the direct cause of the war. Indians thought if they fought a few shots, the chinese would be scared away. Indians overvalued itself, they didn't realize they were facing(and are still facing) a militarily much stronger China, thus they got a bloody nose. India(or Nehru) has itself to blame. Why blame China???

indiangal
indiangal

@dgupta Gawd. can you read that again? indians are foreign agents? against whom some small num ber of indians. Also let me teach you one word at a time. It is Kashmir. No Indian named dgupta would ever type what you type. So learn the art of feigning. ur a mockery of a chinese agent. most other ppll i have met from china r more intelligent than u. nt sute why chinese govt. picked the dumbest chinese to write comments

dgupta
dgupta

Indians in most forums can't think rationally. They usually turn to personal attack as last resort -- this proves that they are weak.

indiangal
indiangal

@dgupta if you are chinese, child please be proud of your heritage and have the guts to type under your chinese identity. even for a name you need to hide behind an indian one? is it that pathetic in china?