Analysis: Fifty years after war China won, relations with India still on knife-edge
THIS month marks the 50th anniversary of China’s military attack on India, the only foreign war Communist China has won. Yet it failed to resolve the disputes between the world’s two most populous countries, and its legacy continues to weigh down the bilateral relationship.
Throughout their histories, the Indian and Chinese civilisations were separated by the Tibetan plateau, limiting their interaction. It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950-51 that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. Just over a decade later, China surprised India’s ill-prepared army by launching a multi-pronged attack across the Himalayas on 20 October, 1962. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stated the war was intended “to teach India a lesson”.
The surprise invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that magnified the initial military advances that China achieved. After more than a month of fighting, China declared a ceasefire, having seized Indian territory and said they would begin withdrawing their forces on 1 December, 1962, vacating their gains in the eastern sector (where India, Burma, Tibet, and Bhutan converge) but retaining the areas seized in the western sector (Jammu state and Kashmir). These withdrawal parameters meshed with China’s pre-war aims.
Mao Zedong chose a perfect time to invade India. The United States and the Soviet Union were within a whisker of nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. China’s ceasefire coincided with America’s formal termination of its naval blockade of Cuba. India’s humiliating rout set in motion India’s military modernisation and political rise. Fifty years later, tensions between India and China are rising again, their 2,500 mile border remains in dispute, without a defined line of control in the Himalayas.
As old wounds fester, new issues have emerged. For example, since 2006 China has initiated a new territorial dispute by claiming the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh state), from which its forces withdrew in 1962, describing it as “Southern Tibet”.
A hardening of China’s stance toward India since then is also reflected in other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and its military presence in the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, where the disputed borders of India, China, and Pakistan converge.
In response, India has been beefing up its military along the border to prevent a Chinese land grab. It has also launched a crash programme to improve its logistical capabilities by constructing new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas.
The larger strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite fast-rising trade. In the past decade, bilateral trade has risen more than 20-fold, to £46 billion, the only area in which bilateral 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 tension. Booming bilateral trade is no guarantee of moderation between countries.
• Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New in New Delhi.
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