The 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian war has understandably generated an outpouring of writings and talkfests, which reflect the lingering humiliation felt even today over the military and political debacle at the hands of China. Most of these introspections conclude that such a defeat is unlikely to occur in future. In reality, however, several crucial lessons from 1962 have been missed.
For instance, while the Sino-Indian war has been debated ad nauseum, the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis has been almost entirely ignored although there is growing evidence that the latter had a profound impact on India’s relations with the US and its quest for nuclear weapons.
The final days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, overlapped with the start of the China-India war, which exposed not only the abject state of India’s military preparedness but also the total collapse of political and military decision-making. Above all it revealed to India that in its time of need there was no one it could rely upon, including the pro-India John F. Kennedy administration in Washington.
At the height of the Sino-Indian war, New Delhi desperately sought US military assistance and even air support and strikes to protect Indian cities and installations from attacks. It also asked for a carrier task force to be dispatched to the Indian Ocean to show support.
However, Washington still recovering from the eyeball-to-eyeball showdown with the Soviets in its own backyard did not oblige, perhaps fearing another escalation. While the US was willing to provide some limited material support to the Indian armed forces and “moral support to Indian self-defence efforts”, it was unwilling to commit either troops or a carrier task force. Ever since this lukewarm US response in 1962 India has remained suspicious of the US as a trusted ally.
India was further alarmed when two years later China carried out its first nuclear test. Although New Delhi sought nuclear guarantees from the US, among others, it also embarked on its own nuclear weapon programme, fearing that such guarantees might not be reliable.
In 1971, when India was preoccupied with the liberation of Bangladesh, Richard Nixon’s “tilt” towards Pakistan (and China) led to the US carrier Task Force 74 sailing into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate New Delhi in a blatant display of nuclear gunboat diplomacy.
These developments from 1962 onwards have three implications for any future, albeit improbable, Sino-Indian conflict.
First, while the 1962 war was confined to the border areas, and the air force was, controversially, not used, any future conflict is likely to be far more widespread. It might range from land to air as well as sea battles in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The conflict is also likely to play out in other dimensions, including outer space and cyberspace.
Second, unlike 1962 when neither China nor India had nuclear weapons, any future conflict is likely to escalate into a nuclear war despite the no-first-use posture of both countries. Beijing might not be restrained to use nuclear weapons over what it considers its own territory occupied by India. Such use would prompt India to seriously consider nuclear retaliation. In addition, Pakistan, China’s most trusted ally, which does not adhere to a no-first-use policy, might also be tempted to threaten India with a nuclear attack.
Finally, the role of the US, particularly an unpredictable tilt to one side or the other, is another factor that will have a direct impact on the Sino-Indian conflict. Were Washington to incline towards Beijing it would spell disaster for New Delhi.
In any case, it is unlikely that a future Sino-Indian conflict, however limited, will be confined to the region. In all probability it might spark a global conflagration.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org