The short but fierce border war between India and China in October 1962 had a long buildup. The main reason was their contested border. Fifty years later, the issue is still unresolved.
India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the scapegoat after the lost war with China. He was too starry-eyed, too naïve, people said, and he misinterpreted the signals. India's press was full of ridicule.
"Nehru never got over his misjudgment," says Joachim Betz, a political scientist and Asia expert with the GIGA Institute in Hamburg. The Indian army had repeatedly warned that it was underequipped and poorly armed. "And it was also at a disadvantage because of the terrain, which was in China's favor. Strategically, India was on the slopes of the mountains, so its troops had to climb, while China could operate from the heights," explains Betz.
This memorial is for a soldier who held off the Chinese on his own for 72 hours after his comrades were killed
According to estimates, Chinese troops were five to ten times stronger than the Indian forces as they attacked on October 20, 1962 at two locations at the eastern and western sectors of the border. They penetrated deep into territory which today is part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The war lasted a month and some 2,000 troops were killed.
The war caught India unprepared, even though the whole affair had a long and complicated history going back several hundred years. In the second half of the 18th century, the Indian subcontinent became a British colony, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar. Then, the so-called 'Great Game' began between Britain and Russia began around 1835, a power struggle fro control of Central Asia.
Russia tried to extend its sphere of influence southward. Tibet ended up between the frontlines of the two powers and became a British protectorate in the early 20th century. However, in 1912, China renewed its claim to Tibet, but the high Himalayan region declared its independence in 1913. In 1914, at the Conference of Shimla with China and Tibet, Britain gave up its claim to the territory. Henry McMahon, the foreign secretary of British India, negotiated a border with China that became known as the McMahon Line. China, unlike India, declared that this 3,000-kilometer-long frontier was only preliminary. "China viewed the McMahon Line as a colonial border that became obsolete with the end of the colonial power," said Betz.
From 'brothers' to 'enemies'
In 1947, India and Pakistan gained their independence from Britain, and in 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded. China expert, Anuradha Chenoy, from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, points out that actually china and India wanted to overcome their colonial pasts and early on maintained very friendly relations. "Nehru had a vision that India and China should be friends," she says. His reasoning: both countries had many things in common; both had suffered and could form an Asian axis. "Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai" – India and China are brothers – was a common slogan at the time.
In 1954, the two countries signed an agreement on the "Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence." China was even prepared to accept the McMahon Line as the border and in return India should relinquish its claims to the Aksai Chin region which china had marched into and controlled during its annexation of Tibet.
India rejected this proposal and its response was extremely sharp. "This was not about territorial gains. Aksai Chin, even today, is economically completely uninteresting," says Asia expert Betz. China only wanted the region to have better overland access to areas of the country to the west. "The fact is that nationalism was on the rise in both countries," summarizes China expert Chenoy. Later, there were repeated smaller skirmishes along the frontier. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and India offered him asylum – a new thorn in the flesh of bilateral ties.
Interestingly, neither China nor India ever officially declared war. Both sides tried to limit the extent of the conflict. The confrontation was watched with great concern around the world, since it was unfolding at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War, with its confrontation between the communist and democratic world order, as in the case of India and China, had taken on a new quality. On November 20, 1962, China unilaterally announced a ceasefire and pulled its troops 20 kilometers behind the McMahon Line on its own," stresses china expert Chenoy.
Before that, India had asked the United States for military assistance. Was it fear of an escalating conflict, worries about the difficult weather conditions on the world's highest battlefield,, or was it enough for China to have shown India its weaknesses, so that it could extend a hand? Historians have not been able to clearly determine what the reason was.