This month marks the 50th anniversary of China’s attack on India, the only war Communist China has won despite involvement in multiple military conflicts since 1950. Its decisive victory over India, however, failed to end bilateral disputes, with the war’s legacy continuing to weigh down the relationship. In fact, as military tensions rise and border incidents increase, the relationship risks coming full circle.
The vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts, with political relations absent. It was only after Tibet’s 1950-51 annexation that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers.
Just over a decade later, China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on 20 October 1962. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said the war was intended “to teach India a lesson”.
The invasion inflicted such immense psychological-political shock on India as to greatly magnify the initial military advances by the Chinese. Taking an enemy by surprise does confer a major tactical advantage in war. The shock value of China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to very defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces.
After 32 days of fighting, China triumphantly declared a unilateral ceasefire from 21 November, even as its forces continued to fire upon the outflanked Indian troops in the eastern sector. It simultaneously announced that its forces would begin withdrawing from 1 December, vacating their territorial gains in the eastern sector but retaining the area seized in the western sector. These withdrawal parameters meshed with China’s pre-war claims.
Just as Mao Zedong had started his invasion of Tibet while the world was preoccupied with the Korean War, he chose a perfect time for invading India, in the style recommended by the ancient strategist Sun Tzu. 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, significantly, coincided with the US’s formal termination of Cuba’s quarantine, marking an end to the Cuban missile crisis. The good timing ensured the isolation of India from sources of international support. Right through the Chinese invasion of India, the international spotlight was on the potential US-Soviet nuclear showdown, not on the bloody war raging in the Himalayan foothills.
Half a century later, tensions between India and China are rising again. Little progress has been made on settling the territorial disputes despite regular border-related talks since 1981. These talks constitute the longest and most-futile negotiating process between any two nations in modern world history. During a 2010 New Delhi visit, Premier Wen Jiabao bluntly stated that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time”. If so, what does China (or India) gain by carrying on with the negotiations?
As old rifts fester, new issues have started roiling bilateral relations. For example, since 2006 China has raised a new territorial dispute by claiming the eastern sector from where its forces withdrew in 1962. The Chinese practice of describing the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh (which constitutes the eastern sector) as “Southern Tibet” started only in 2006. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance towards India since then is also manifest from other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and democracy has also sharpened despite their fast-rising trade. Between 2000 and 2010, bilateral trade rose 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. Far from helping to turn the page on old disputes, this commerce has been accompanied by greater Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry and military tensions. This shows that booming trade is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between countries.
Although in 1962 China set out to teach India a “lesson”, the real lesson that can be drawn today is that the war failed to achieve any lasting political objectives for Beijing and only fuelled enduring enmity with India. The same lesson for Beijing is applicable vis-à-vis Hanoi: In 1979, China replicated the 1962 model by launching a surprise blitzkrieg against Vietnam that Deng Xiaoping admitted was designed to “teach a lesson”. After 29 days, China ended its invasion and withdrew, claiming Vietnam had been sufficiently chastised, although the war-hardened Vietnamese gave the invaders a bloody nose.
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” (sujue zhan). 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.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
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