Indo-China: Himalayan Crossroad

So what were the real causes of the 1962 India-China war? 

Zorawar Daulet Singh  Delhi 

In a recent Global Times article, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences writes: “Mao wanted to wake him [Nehru] up from the superpowers’ influence by giving him a heavy punch, so that he would come to his senses and end the war. War is an extreme means of communication between civilisations.”

This rather blunt quote sums up the war from the Chinese perspective: 1962 was primarily a pre-emptive punitive strike intended to, in Mao Zedong’s words, “guarantee at least 30 years of peace” with India. Liu Shaoqi is reported to have told Colombo conference representatives in January 1963 that the Chinese had to show the Indians that China was a great power and, for this reason, had to “punish” India once.

So what was the structural cause of the political dispute?

Both sides inherited frontiers that were either undefined in parts, such as the western sector or the Aksai Chin region where the British had neither produced a treaty line nor extended permanent administrative control to eastern Ladakh or were delimited but not demarcated, such as the 1914 McMahon Line in the eastern sector. By itself, this was not a situation
that was bound to lead to an irreconcilable conflict. 

What complicated and defined the context of each side’s approach to the inherited borders was China’s entry into Tibet. But even this major geopolitical development was legally accepted by India in the 1954 agreement and that should have settled matters, at least from China’s side, which had attained national unification over all its strategic buffer regions. From India’s perspective, while its cartographic and de facto position remained unacknowledged, there was no reason for further conflict. In fact, the extension of Indian sovereignty over Tawang in 1951 and the reaffirmation of close relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim suggested a reasonable geopolitical position for India in the sub-Himalayan region.

Yet, the 1950s especially after the rebellion in Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama, saw a near-breakdown in bilateral relations, the main factor being Beijing’s failure to ensure stability and integration of Tibet with the People’s Republic of China. The flight of the Dalai Lama in March 1959 became a turning point which, some historians argue, made it extremely difficult thereafter for both sides to arrive at any short-term accommodation.

So, the centrality of Tibet in causing and perpetuating the border dispute is an important factor. Historian John Garver’s comment that “India became the main object of Chinese projection of responsibility” for China’s own misrule in Tibet sums up the phase of the 1950s.


For China, after 1959 the dispute with India was diplomatically costly and impacted not only its ongoing split with the Soviet bloc and ability to maintain its prestige among other communist regimes, but also its standing across Asia and the non-aligned Third World countries. By the first half of 1960, the Soviets had withdrawn all their experts from China and suspended all economic contracts. In such a deteriorating strategic environment, a Standing Committee meeting of the Politburo in January 1960 made a decision to take a more pragmatic line on the dispute with India and other unresolved frontier disputes with neighbouring countries. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to adopt a policy of restraint and avoid armed clashes.

The contrasting assessments of Nehru and Mao were evident from their 1954 encounter: Nehru agued that the nature of force had undergone a radical shift in a nuclear world, and the next war would be truly global in scope and destruction. Mao's response was that, despite nuclear weapons, the basic nature of warfare had not changed, except that the casualties would be henceforth be higher

It was also decided to avoid a public spat with the Soviet Union and attempts were made to prevent a further slide in Sino-Soviet relations. Importantly, the January 1960 Politburo meeting set out a guideline for Sino-American relations that were to be based on more flexibility. The combined effect of this overall adjustment in Chinese foreign policy was that China solved its boundary questions with North Korea, Burma, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan (a State allied with the West against China). The April 1960 Zhou Enlai visit to Delhi was also motivated by Chinese efforts to demonstrate their willingness to defuse tensions with India.

By 1961, the consequences of the Great Leap Forward strategy in terms of economic crises, especially an agrarian crisis of declining production and a drop in industrial activity, were being felt by the Chinese leadership. Between 1959 and 1962, China’s GDP declined by 30 per cent. This prompted a further effort in foreign policy adjustment to prevent a further slide in the economy. Attempts were made to overcome the ideological dispute with the Soviets by focusing on common national interests and restoring elements of the economic relationship. 

By late 1961 and early 1962, however, China again perceived threats on its border regions, especially on its Southeastern coast vis-à-vis Taiwan, in South East Asia where there was increasing American involvement in Vietnam, on the Sino-Soviet border in Central Asia/Xinjiang where 60,000 refugees to Soviet Central Asia. The threat from India’s forward probing was probably the least potent of these threats.

In January and February, 1962 there was a struggle within the Party concerning the assessment of the Great Leap Forward. A faction led by Liu Shaoqi, with the support of Deng Xiaoping, criticised Mao’s policies and sought to acknowledge the failure of the Great Leap Forward and thereby undertake a fundamental strategic adjustment in both economic and foreign policy. Mao absorbed the criticism and retreated to the second line of leadership only to make a political counterstrike in August 1962 when he felt that criticism of the Great Leap Forward within the party had crossed the line. In an August 6 Central Committee meeting, Mao took on the ‘revisionists’, renewed his class struggle principles, and rejected the pragmatic foreign policy adjustment of January 1960.

This marked an important inflexion point in the chronology of the Sino-Indian conflict. It was possible that the domestic ideological and power struggle within China spilled over into the international realm and, with the October war as a sort of outlet, Mao demonstrated a reassertion of authority and turned toward a more radical direction for China.


The primary strategic objective of the Jawaharlal Nehru regime, even as the dispute deteriorated after 1959, was to avoid a frontal collision with China. The more interesting and perhaps central question, therefore, is: why did India find itself on the Himalayan battlefield in October 1962?

An assessment of the operational performance is also an important theme for military historians, since it would reveal how the Indian Army held up in the conduct of war. The operational history has been covered extensively in the Henderson-Brooks Report, the essence of which has been documented by Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War (1971), given his access to a significant portion of the report. The government of India has also published its official History of the Conflict with China by the Ministry of Defence in 1992. This report is probably an abridged and redacted version of the Henderson-Brooks Report.

In January and February 1962, there was a struggle within the Party concerning the assessment of the Great Leap Forward, A faction led by Liu Shaogi, with the support of Deng Xiapong, criticised Mao's policies and sought to acknowledge the failure of the Great Leap forward

The principal question relates to exploring the assumptions and perceptions held by the Indian side leading up to 1962. What explains India’s posture after differences with China are out in the open in 1959? Specifically, how can we contextualise India’s posture of ‘no negotiations’?

I can discern five factors that shaped Indian behaviour.

First, it is important to appreciate the context that framed India’s geopolitical worldview since this directly influenced the type of China policy adopted. The entry of Pakistan into the western alliance system in 1954 led to an ideological model of threat assessment where Pakistan, backed by Western military aid, was deemed as the primary threat. India’s engagement with China and the 1954 agreement emanated from Nehru’s unwillingness to open a second front.

After 1959, there appears to be one group, led by Nehru, favouring non-alignment, resisting Pakistan and avoiding conflict with China and another group from the ‘Congress Right’ calling for an entente with the West, a common defence pact with Pakistan and a more robust policy vis-à-vis China. This was not simply a question of ideological threat assessments but a real military dilemma since, given fixed force levels, the challenge was finding an appropriate deployment mix for the Pakistani and Chinese frontiers. If the idea of a domestic struggle for India’s worldview is plausible, it might explain the erratic pattern of Nehru’s policies and posture subsequently. Nehru, in trying to keep the ‘Congress Right’ at bay, was compelled to make a shift in policy and adopt an unyielding posture of ‘no negotiations’; he thus demonstrated resolve through the 1961 ‘forward policy’ that, though it did not intend conflict with China, inevitably led to it.

Second, after 1959, the Indian government began to perceive both the superpowers’ tilt in favour of India on the dispute as some sort of restraint on Chinese behaviour. One could view it as ‘soft’ external balancing. In 1959, India made requests to the Soviets to rein in the Chinese. Soviet support via its neutrality, which was expressed in the famous Tass statement of September 9, 1959, while in retrospect rather perfunctory and insufficient to overcome the asymmetry with China, could have shaped India’s false sense of confidence in its dealings with China. Though we also know that the Soviet Union had told India that they “had done as much as they were able to… in cautioning the Chinese to exercise restraint… the Russians were clearly not in a position to dictate to Beijing”.

Nevertheless, after 1960, India was receiving generous material support from both the superpowers even as China was growing increasingly isolated, which probably emboldened Delhi to overestimate India’s importance in superpower grand strategies. The overall effect was that it created a perception that Chinese behaviour would be restrained and simultaneously might perhaps have reduced incentives for India to make any concessions.

There’s another anecdote that exemplifies this: On October 13, 1962, a week before the war, in an exchange between the then foreign secretary, MJ Desai and US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, Desai remarked that there “would be no extensive Chinese reaction because of their fear of the US — ‘It is you they really fear’.” Of course, the Chinese had received assurances from both the US regarding the Taiwan Straits Crisis (June 23 and June 27) and the Soviets (October 13-14), thereby freeing them to focus on the Indian front.          

Third, assumptions about China’s non-use of force: Nehru and his advisers continued to believe that the ‘China threat’ was a long-range one that could be dealt with by India’s industrial revival and that the “Chinese could not sustain any major drive across the ‘great land barrier’”. According to the 1992 Ministry of Defence’s official history, the Military Intelligence’s assessment in 1959 was that a “major incursion” by the Chinese was unlikely. Even on the frontier, most standoffs from 1959 to the autumn of 1962 were local and in most cases the Chinese backed off without attacking Indian posts. These experiences shaped intelligence and military perceptions that the Chinese were not interested in a serious onflagration.

Such a conviction was reinforced by a broader strategic belief that a limited high intensity war had become structurally impossible in a nuclearised bipolar system and India’s calculus was shaped by a one-step escalation scenario: any Chinese use of force would involve an automatic escalation to the global nuclear level, and, such a spectre of a global conflagration would deter a conflict on the Himalayan border.

The contrasting assessments of Nehru and Mao were evident from their 1954 encounter: Nehru argued that the nature of force had undergone a radical shift in a nuclear world, and the next war would be truly global in both scope and destruction. Mao’s response was that, despite the introduction of nuclear weapons, the basic nature of warfare had not changed except that casualties would henceforth be higher. The role of force still mattered and could not be
ruled out.

Clearly, there was a difference in strategic culture and how each side viewed the relationship of military power to politics. In a Lok Sabha speech in December 1961, Nehru remarked that “one must not go by all the brave words that are said in these communications to us by the Chinese government. But other factors work also.” This miscalculation is captured in Nehru’s view as late as October 2, 1962: “He had good reasons to believe the Chinese would not take any strong action against us.”

In retrospect, that India’s assessment of the role of force in the dawn of the nuclear age was internalised without any serious debate suggests both institutional and strategic culture issues.

By late 1961 and early 1962, China perceived threats on its Southeastern coast vis-a-vis taiwan, in South East Asia over American involvement in Vietnam, on the Sino- Soviet border in Central Asia, Xinjiang where 60,000 refuges fled to Soviet Central Asia

Fourth, both the economic and ideological crises after the debacle of the Great Leap Forward strategy led India to overestimate Chinese threat perceptions. The assumption was that, given China’s deteriorating strategic environment after 1959, it would bark but not resort to overwhelming force. Chinese signals, both via limited skirmishes and diplomatic channels, to dispel this presumption on Delhi’s part, were either ignored or misread. The 1961 forward policy of probing disputed pockets and showing the flag up to India’s perception of the border in the western sector probably emanated from this overall geopolitical assessment that was deemed to be advantageous to India.


Another local reason perhaps why Indian intelligence inferred that the Chinese were not looking for a serious fight was that, since September 1959, China had reduced the intensity of its patrolling and this only resumed in the summer of 1962. Mao took this decision at a September 1959 meeting where the PLA was instructed to cease patrolling in the forward zone within 20 kilometres of China’s line of actual control. Using this limited time period as their reference, the Intelligence Bureau estimated that the Chinese were unlikely to use force against any Indian post even if they were in a position to do so. It was during this phase that the forward policy
found expression.

The reality was that the Chinese had already accomplished most of their objectives by their own forward policies of 1956-1959, and, by 1960, had established a ‘line of actual control’ in the western sector/Aksai Chin. They would henceforth adopt a holding pattern until the second half of 1962. From March 1962 onward, the Chinese policy began a process of gradually responding to India’s forward policy. As John Garver writes, these measures included, “…ceasing withdrawal when confronted by Indian advances and adoption of a policy of “armed coexistence”, acceleration of China’s own advance, building positions surrounding, threatening, and cutting off Indian outposts, steady improvement of PLA logistic and other capabilities in the frontier region, increasingly strong and direct verbal warnings, and by September 1962, outright but small-scale PLA assaults on key Indian outposts — did not cause India to abandon its illusion of Chinese weakness.”

To be sure, there was a renewed attempt by the government of India to explore a diplomatic settlement in the summer of 1962. These initiatives were, however, again half-hearted and did not explicitly abandon India’s pre-conditions for a negotiation process: namely, Chinese evacuation of Aksai Chin.

Fifth, the inability of the Indian side to equate the dispute in the eastern and western sectors. In April 1960, on his last visit to Delhi, Zhou had stated, “As China was prepared to accommodate the Indian point of view in the eastern sector, India should accommodate China in the western sector…We hope that the Indian government will take towards the western sector an attitude similar to that which the Chinese Government had taken towards the eastern sector…an attitude of mutual accommodation.” As late as March 1962, the Chinese were open to a swap arrangement.

From India’s perspective, the eastern sector was a done deal — “a settled frontier” — via the 1914 McMahon Line. India’s claim to ownership of the western sector — mainly eastern Ladakh — was far more ambiguous. The government of India maps of 1954, by publicly committing India to a cartographic position, might have made later adjustments difficult.

It is true that the Chinese had no legal or administrative provenance on the Aksai Chin and backed their claims on the basis of their recent control. So, India’s entrenched position not only until 1962 erupted but well into the 1980s the position was that the dispute in the east can in no way be equated to the dispute over the Aksai Chin. For India, there was a legitimacy in the eastern sector that could not be matched by China’s claims in the western sector. In Nehru’s words, “There can be no question of horse trading in this matter — that you take this and we take that.”

Steven Hoffmann, who has studied the perceptions of the Indian side, says, “The Indian government was determined not to grant legitimacy to the concept of a Chinese ‘line of control’ in Ladakh.” Again, this perception is captured in Nehru’s response to Zhou’s suggestion (on his April 1960 visit) of both sides renouncing all territorial claims: “Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there; that we are unable to do.”

The official report published in 1961 gave the Indian position an element of righteousness and legal superiority with Nehru calling it “almost foolproof” and hoping that the pressure of facts might persuade the Chinese to recognise their mistake. This perception made negotiations even less probable. 

India’s ‘no negotiation’ stance with China, however irrational in retrospect, was exacerbated by the careless conception and reckless implementation of the forward policy. It was this latter development that converted what would probably have remained confined to a political argument into a military confrontation.

Should India be held accountable for the structural cause of the overall dispute?

The fundamental flaw in the Neville Maxwell thesis is that it erroneously conflates India’s mistakes and unyielding posture prior to the war with the structural cause of the entire dispute itself. As alluded to earlier, the structural cause was in essence a failure by both countries to formalise their inherited frontiers. After 1959, Tibet’s role is important, especially in creating an over-reaction from the Chinese side.

Mao’s ideological struggle with moderate factions in the party, and the possibility that he may have used the war of 1962 to mark his return to the helm, re-initiate a radical direction for China after the debacle of the Great Leap Forward strategy, and, finally, as a signal to the superpowers. This remains under-researched. 


The writer is Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, and author of Himalayan Stalemate: Understanding the India-China Dispute, Straight Forward Publishers, Delhi, 2012.

The article is derived from a presentation made at the IIC-Subbu Forum-SPS Round Table on ‘50 Years after 1962: Recall and Review’on  September 6, 2012, in New Delhi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012