The Buzz

How the Last War Between China and India Haunts Asia (And the World)

In 1962, the world’s two most populous countries went to war against one another in a pair of remote, mountainous border regions. In less than a month, China dealt India a devastating defeat, driving Indian forces back on all fronts. Along with breaking hopes of political solidarity in the developing world, the war helped structure the politics of East and Southeast Asia for generations. Even today, as Indian and Chinese forces square off on the Doklam Plateau, the legacy of the 1962 resonates in both countries.

Who Fought?

While both the Chinese and Indian governments were relatively new (the People’s Republic of China was declared in Beijing in 1949, two years after the India won its independence), the armed forces that would fight the war could not have been more different.

The Indian Army developed firmly in light of India’s imperial heritage. Large Indian formations had fought in several theaters of World War II, including North Africa and Burma. These forces would, in many ways, form the core of the new Indian military. The post-independence Indian armed forces were structured along lines broadly similar to that of India’s colonial antecedent, the United Kingdom, and in the early years operated mostly with Western equipment. This incarnation of the Indian Army saw its first action in the 1947, in the first Kashmir War, fighting against its erstwhile associates in the Pakistani Army.

The Chinese experience could not have been more different. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) emerged as the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a revolutionary organization with both urban and rural roots. The PLA experienced nearly twenty years of uninterrupted major combat operations after its creation, fighting bitter conflicts against the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek, then against the Imperial Japanese Army, and finally against the American-led UN coalition in Korea.

The war did not involve air or naval forces from either India or China. This worked in China’s favor; the Indian Navy was considerably superior to the People’s Liberation Army Navy at the time, and the Indian Air Force (equipped mostly with British and French fighters) had an advantage in modern equipment. Moreover, the PLA did not develop a competence in combined air-ground operations for another generation. However, poor coordination on the Indian part, combined with the forbidding terrain, prevented the extensive use of combat aircraft. A disinterest in escalation meant that the navy would play no role in the conflict.

Why It Was Fought

The immediate cause of the war was a territorial dispute between India and China along two sections of the border. The colonial-era demarcations between China and Tibet had left the disposition of certain sectors unclear, a development that would recur not only in modern Chinese history, but across the developing world, as newly independent countries began to flex their muscles. Numerous incidents occurred in the years before the war, usually resulting in light casualties on either side.

India deployed forces forward into territory claimed by China, and largely ignored both Chinese warnings about this deployment, and the massive Chinese troop buildup along the border. The causes of India’s poor preparation were a combination of political indifference and poor intelligence collection; the Indian government did not expect an attack (and was generally more focused on Pakistan), and the Indian Army and Air Force had little in the way of reconnaissance assets to detect and analyze the Chinese buildup. Most Indian units became aware of their Chinese counterparts only after coming under fire (sometimes from behind their own positions).

A related issue was China’s long-term concern over Indian subversion in Tibet. The Indian government maintained good relations with Tibetan exiles, and had provided a safe space for Tibetan insurgents. Some evidence suggests that Nehru expected to retain a degree of influence over political developments in Tibet, which was obviously a problem for China.

China may also have wanted to establish itself as the preeminent power in the region by giving India a bloody nose. The Cuban Missile Crisis provided a convenient (and completely unexpected) distraction, as both superpowers were more worried about each other than what the Chinese and Indians were doing at the moment. Finally, China also faced domestic discontent associated with the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward. Mao Zedong lost some control over domestic policy, but retained substantial control over foreign and military policy; a quick victory increased his prestige and power within the CCP.

How It Was Fought

On October 20, PLA forces launched coordinated offensives in both the eastern and western disputed territories. The Chinese offensives were coordinated but widely separated; the eastern theater was along the Namka Chu River (near Bhutan), and the western theater at Aksai Chin (near Kashmir). The locations were forbidding. The entirety of the war was fought in rugged terrain, at elevations exceeding ten thousand feet. This complicated logistics on both sides, and prevented the deployment of heavy equipment or quick reinforcements. This favored the Chinese, who had prepared their offensive carefully, and who had considerable experience with light-infantry operations.