The fifty year crisis: India and China since 1962


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October-November 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. That war had formally ended on 21 November 1962 with the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by China. But the short, sharp border conflict had far-reaching and ramified implications for India’s relationship with China. In many ways, for statesmen, diplomats and soldiers, the crisis has never ended. Not least because the issues underlying the war – the boundary dispute and Tibet – remain unsettled and problematic. This fifty year crisis has made it extraordinarily difficult for popular opinion in India to view the war as a historical event. This, in turn, impedes the development of a measured understanding of the state and prospects of India-China relations.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the outpouring of opinion in all forms of the media during the fiftieth anniversary. In a recent essay, Ramachandra Guha points out that in the wake of the conflict there were three distinct sets of views among Jawaharlal Nehru’s contemporaries. The first, and perhaps dominant view, was that Nehru was betrayed by the perfidious Chinese. Set against this was the second view that held Nehru to be ‘a foolish and vain man who betrayed the nation by encouraging China in its aggressive designs on the sacred soils of India.’ The third view expressed not contempt but pity: it held that Nehru was misled by his own idealism and misguided by his advisors.1 It is striking that five decades on these three sets of views continue to loom large in our reading of the war. The passage of time appears only to have shifted the balance between them. The dominant understanding now seems to be an amalgam of the second and third views identified by Guha.

The historian Reinhart Koselleck once observed that, ‘In the short run history may be made by the victors. But in the long run the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.’ Unfortunately, this is untrue for much of the Indian scholarship on 1962. A number of explanations can be adduced for this state of affairs: the psychological humiliation of the defeat; the persistence of the core disputes; the dogged refusal of the government to declassify the official record, and so on. Vacuity of historical judgement is by no means the exclusive preserve of Indians. Perry Anderson’s recent polemic parrots old assertions about Nehru’s expansionism and intransigence being the prime cause of the war, while conveniently and disingenuously suppressing the evidence that demolishes these claims.2

This essay does not seek to join this debate or rehearse arguments that I have advanced at length elsewhere. Rather I wish to turn the spotlight on an aspect of the fifty year crisis that has mostly remained in the shadows: its wider international dimension. Recovering this angle of approach is important not just from a historical standpoint, but also to get the measure of the challenges that lie ahead of India in its relationship with China. For Sino-Indian relations have never been driven solely by bilateral considerations. This was the case five decades ago and it remains so today.


For most of the Cold War years, Sino-Indian relations were conditioned by the state of the relationship of both the countries with the superpowers, particularly the Soviet Union. Although India was among the earliest non-socialist countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, New Delhi’s ability to forge a working relationship with Beijing was sharply curtailed by Moscow’s stance towards India. The Soviet Union held – very like the Communist Party of India – that India’s independence was nothing but a transfer of power to the bourgeois elite of the nationalist movement and that Indian foreign policy was servile to the interests of the erstwhile imperial power. The fact that China toed this line was not surprising.

During this period Mao Zedong was anxious to conclude an alliance with the Soviet Union and could hardly afford to deviate from the line spelt out by Joseph Stalin. Even after the Sino-Soviet alliance was formally cemented, Beijing deferred to the international outlook of Moscow. In retrospect, this too seems unsurprising given the extent to which the new China was shaped by Stalinist Russia. In every sphere from education to industry and urbanization to treatment of minorities, the Soviet model left a deep imprint on Mao’s China – not just as a beacon of inspiration but by massive participation of the Soviet state and advisors in the transformation of China in the 1950s.3 


Moscow’s attitude towards New Delhi showed some signs of thaw following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. During this crisis, India demonstrated that non-alignment was not empty rhetoric and that it would seek to form independent judgements on major international developments.4 Equally striking was the stance Nehru adopted on the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 that formally ended the war with Japan. The treaty was signed by 48 (mostly western) countries. The Soviet Union opposed the treaty and the PRC was not even invited for the conference. Nehru, for his part, decided to keep away from the treaty and, much to the annoyance of the Americans, signed a separate bilateral peace treaty with Japan. Nehru, as Sunil Khilnani observes, ‘judged India’s interests to coincide in part with the US, in part with China and Russia – a difficult position to keep in a polarized inter national order.’5 In the wake of these events, Stalin had his first meeting with India’s ambassador in Moscow, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. More significantly, the Soviet Union dropped its opposition to India’s stance in the Kashmir dispute in the UN Security Council.6 


Around this time, China’s policy towards India also began to take shape. Chinese troops had entered Tibet in late 1950 – a development that shrank the strategic distance between India and China, and forced both countries to think harder about engaging each other. Yet, without the marginal improvement in Soviet-India relations, it is unlikely that the two countries would have been able to make positive opening gestures towards one another: the small shipment of food aid to India by China, and the use of Calcutta port for transporting food grain to Tibet. Substantial progress in Sino-Indian relations did not occur until the death of Stalin in 1953.

The advent of Nikita Khrushchev with his emphasis on peaceful coexistence as a way wooing the new postcolonial states in the struggle against the West, led to corresponding changes in Chinese foreign policy. In 1954 China and India signed the treaty on trade and transit in Tibet, the preamble of which was the Panchsheel or the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Critics of Nehru’s policies argue that China signed up to this agreement merely as a cover for its expansionism and that the Indian prime minister was gulled by their stance. This is to take a parochial view of Chinese policy, which was in fact responding to wider changes in the international system. Indeed, the high-water mark of India-China cooperation symbolized by Nehru and Zhou Enlai’s participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955 was followed by Khrushchev’s visit to India later that year.

If the rise of Sino-Indian relations in the first half of the 1950s was shaped by China’s reading of the wider international context, so was its decline in the latter part of the decade. Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, wherein he denounced the cult of Stalinism and its crimes, deeply shocked Mao who not only admired Stalin but apprehended a similar denunciation of the cult of China’s chairman. The Soviet military intervention in Hungary later that year further stoked Beijing’s concerns about Moscow. The fracture that opened in 1956 would widen into a chasm by 1960 when the Soviet Union withdrew all its advisors from China.7 


By this time the Sino-Indian boundary dispute had come to the fore and the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet for India. To China’s consternation, the Soviet Union took an even-handed position on both these issues. The Soviet refusal to follow China in criticizing Nehru for abetting the rebellion in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s flight led to a rather ill-tempered meeting between Khrushchev and Mao in October 1959. ‘If you allow him [the Dalai Lama] an opportunity to flee to India,’ asked Khrushchev, ‘then what had Nehru to do with it?’ To which Mao retorted, ‘The Hindus [Indians] acted in Tibet as if it belonged to them.’8 In light of Khrushchev’s stance, the Chinese decided to modify their own approach to the dispute with India. In January 1960, the standing committee of the politburo decided to open negotiations with India and arrive at a compromise through ‘mutual understanding and mutual concessions’. In an assessment prepared for the politburo, Zhou Enlai envisioned a limited agreement of some kind and suggested that China should be prepared for a delayed resolution of the boundary dispute.9 


Nehru and Zhou met in April 1960 and could agree on nothing more than a detailed examination of their respective claims by teams of officials. Even as diplomacy ground to a halt, events on the ground picked up momentum. Over the next two years, both sides sought to preserve their claims by posting troops all along the border. Despite their military superiority vis-à-vis India, the Chinese took a cautious tack until the summer of 1962. Following the calamitous failure of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese leaders sought to avoid crises with the US, the USSR and India. Influential voices in Beijing even called for a revival of the ‘Bandung Line’ towards India. Mao ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to adopt a policy of ‘armed coexistence’. Yet he was mindful of the dangers of escalating the crisis towards war. The PLA, he observed, could not take on Indian forces ‘blindly’. Failure to elicit Soviet support apart, the Chinese were feeling considerably threatened by the increasing American presence in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Accordingly the Chinese Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, was instructed to meet Krishna Menon in Geneva to hammer out a standstill agreement. Menon and Chen negotiated seriously and agreed to issue a joint communique announcing further talks. Owing to a delay in obtaining Nehru’s concurrence (he was travelling), the communique could not be issued before Chen left Geneva. It was at this point that the Chinese decided that further negotiations would not be useful. Then too, they had to be sure that military action against India would not draw in the superpowers.

Coincidentally, the Kennedy Administration conveyed to Beijing that it was not inclined to support any aggressive move by Taiwan against the mainland. Days before the war against India was launched, the Chinese were given a nod-and-a-wink by Khrushchev as part of a last ditch attempt to mend fences with Mao. In short, China’s reading of a favourable international context was crucial to the decision to attack in India in October 1962. Nehru’s central failing in managing the crisis was his inability to read these shifts in international currents and to keep up with the evolving situation.


For most of the 1960s, Sino-Indian relations stayed at their nadir owing both to India’s sense of humiliation and to the onset of the Cultural Revolution in China. When things began to change, it was yet again owing to China’s wider concerns about its international position. In March 1969, Chinese and Soviet forces clashed along the Ussuri River. For a few years past, the erstwhile socialist allies had minor stand-offs along their disputed border. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the proclamation of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ asserting Moscow’s prerogative to intervene in any fraternal country deviating from the socialist track rattled the Chinese. In order to deter the Russians from entertaining any such ideas vis-à-vis China, the Chinese leadership authorized an attack on Soviet troops on the Ussuri. Although the Russians suffered initial losses, they regrouped and launched a mauling counter-attack on the Chinese forces. Such was the ferocity of the Soviet response that Mao spent the rest of the year worrying about a major surprise attack on China.


In this context, the chairman decided to respond positively to Richard Nixon’s overtures for a rapprochement with China. At the same time, Beijing also reached out to India, hoping to preclude the possibility of an Indo-Soviet alliance aimed at China. Some months back, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had publicly expressed her willingness to normalize relations with China. During the May Day celebrations in 1970, Mao Zedong met the Indian charge d’affaires, Brajesh Mishra, and said: ‘We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again. India is a great country. Indian people are good people. We will be friends again some day.’ Mishra promptly replied, ‘We are ready to do it today.’ To which Mao said, ‘Please convey my message of best wishes and greetings to your President and your Prime Minister.’10 

The Indian response was slow and cautious. P.N. Haksar advised Indira Gandhi that ‘whereas the words used by Chairman Mao are certainly of some significance, we must not rush to any conclusions.’ Mishra was asked to convey to the Chinese foreign ministry that India was open any ‘concrete’ proposals. Mishra’s Chinese interlocutor was Yang Kungsu, a senior official closely involved in the boundary negotiations in 1960. Yang said that Mao’s personal message was ‘the greatest concrete action on our side’ and that it was up to India to suggest the next step. The next move was evident to both sides: resumption of the exchange of ambassadors which had been ceased in 1961. Mishra and Yang continued desultory talks until the end of 1970. A few months later the Bangladesh crisis erupted.


The crisis once again placed India and China at odds. This time there was an additional twist. The Nixon Administration’s famous opening to China occurred during the crisis. Concerns about a US-China-Pakistan axis led India to conclude a treaty with the Soviet Union. In the event, Beijing took a cautious stance throughout the crisis. China refused to go along with the US suggestion for making military moves along the border with India at the height of the war in December 1971. The Chinese were, of course, mindful of the danger in drawing in the Soviet Union. But they were also desirous of avoiding another major rupture in their relationship with India. Four years later India and China formally exchanged ambassadors, so taking the first step towards normalization of ties.

By the time Deng Xiaoping was firmly at the helm in 1977, the strategic situation confronting China had changed dramatically. The US had pulled out of Vietnam two years earlier. In the ensuing vacuum, the Soviet Union and Vietnam had stepped up their cooperation. Deng believed that Vietnam sought to be the premier power in South East Asia while the Soviet Union sought nothing less than global hegemony. To counteract this, he concluded, China should form a ‘single line’ uniting with US and other like-minded countries against the Soviet Union. And China should also try to pull countries like India away from the Soviet embrace.11 

In pursuit of this objective, Deng conveyed in 1979 to the visiting Indian foreign minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, that China was ready for a comprehensive settlement of the disputed boundary.12 Notwithstanding differing views on both the procedural and substantive aspects of the negotiations, the two sides continued the talks. More importantly, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in 1988, the first prime ministerial visit in 34 years.


The early 1990s were a period of strategic disorientation for India and China. The collapse of the Soviet Union capsized much of the official wisdom in both countries on the nature of the international system and the challenges and opportunities it presented. From Beijing’s standpoint, the deflation and eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was naturally welcome. Unfortunately, the crumbling of the Russian threat coincided with the Tiananmen Square crisis. Beijing’s ruthless suppression of the protesters tore a gaping hole in the fabric of US-China relations. It called into question all the assumptions about China being a different kind of communist power that had underpinned American congressional and public support for the close strategic relationship since 1971. Thereafter, China gradually moved from being seen as the ‘card’ against the Soviet Union to being regarded as ‘threat’ to the US.13 


As China sought to reposition itself in a world where it had lost both its most dangerous enemy and its most important partner, India began to show signs of strategic activism. India’s nuclear tests of 1998 and its subsequent turn towards the US, led Beijing to take a more hands-on approach in reviving its ties with India. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003 led to the agreement on appointing special representatives to negotiate the boundary dispute. For the first time since April 1960, India and China began political negotiations to resolve the dispute. As a first step, China quietly dropped its stance on not recognizing Sikkim as part of India.

In April 2005, the two sides signed an agreement on the political parameters and principles that would underpin the special representatives’ negotiations. It was agreed that the two sides would aim at a comprehensive solution encompassing all three sectors of the Sino-Indian border. The agreed boundary would follow well-defined geographical features and respect the interests of the settled populations. This was a major step forward in resolving the thorniest issue between India and China. The two countries also announced a bilateral Strategic and Cooperative Partnership. Chinese leaders also conveyed, in private, to their Indian counterparts that they were not opposed to India’s bid for a seat in the United Nations Security Council.14 


It is no coincidence that these developments took place against the backdrop of a budding strategic relationship between India and the US symbolized by the civilian nuclear deal. In Beijing’s reading, India was emerging as a ‘swing’ state whose strategic inclinations could tip the scales against China. In the years since, the negotiations on the boundary haven’t made as much progress as expected. This is due to at least three reasons. First, both sides have been unwilling to show their hand too soon and seem unclear on what compromises they could sell to the domestic constituencies. Second, the unrest in Tibet since early 2008 has yet again cast a shadow on the boundary issue. Third, and perhaps most important, Beijing appears to have assessed that India’s ability to play the role of a ‘swing’ state has diminished owing to the global economic downturn and to the apparent willingness of the Obama Administration to craft a strategic ‘G2’ relationship with China. Indeed, on his first trip to China, President Obama seemed to downplay the importance of countries like India even as he elevated China to a near-equal status.

If things have changed since then, it is largely because of Beijing’s strategic assertiveness in its neighbourhood following the global economic crisis and the Obama Administration’s efforts to reach out to it. China’s hardened stance on the maritime disputes with countries in the East and South China seas has unnerved its smaller neighbours. More importantly, this has enabled the US to reassert its own primacy in the Asia-Pacific region by announcing a ‘pivot’ to Asia. This decision has resulted in a series of moves by the US to create a new architecture for Asia in both the economic and security domains. This will be crucial to ensuring that the US remains the premier power even as it undergoes a relative decline owing to the rise of China.


On the economic side, the US is promoting a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Signed in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, the TPP has drawn the interest of five other countries: Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Japan and Vietnam. The TPP has an ambitious tripartite agenda. It aims at a regular FTA with provisions for protecting intellectual property; at the creation of investor-friendly regulatory frameworks and policies; and at emerging issues, including measures to ensure that state-owned companies ‘compete fairly’ with private companies and do not put the latter at a disadvantage.

China regards the TPP as an economic grouping directed at it. This is not surprising given that the TPP is being promoted when American leaders are also rebuking China for practising unfair trade. The US evidently hopes that a successful TPP will eventually compel China to come to terms with it – just as China did with Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the World Trade Organization.

The security side of the architecture is more explicitly aimed at balancing the rise of China. The US has concluded an agreement to station 2500 troops in Australia. It is looking to reinforce ties with its other formal allies in the region: Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand. Most importantly, after keeping away for years, the US has formally joined the East Asia Summit. Washington intends to recast the EAS as the main forum for regional security and political issues. It has already shown its willingness to intervene in regional disputes such as the South China Sea. American leaders have also spoken about the importance of partnership with India in their engagement with the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region.

Meantime, India has also invigorated its strategic ties with a range of countries in the region: Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Australia. These developments coupled with the backlash from its maritime neighbours have led China yet again to take India more seriously. Even as the decadal change of leadership took place in Beijing recently, China sought to assure India that it was committed to resolving outstanding problems and strengthening the economic and strategic dimensions of the bilateral relationship.

In this unfolding scenario, India has to make its moves deliberately. The prime minister has stated more than once that India stands for ‘an open, inclusive and transparent architecture of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.’ India’s security interests will be served neither by a regional architecture that is dominated by China, nor by one that is aimed explicitly at China. So long as China perceives that India has not committed itself irrevocably to a countervailing coalition led by the US and that India has a diversified set of regional relationships, it is likely that China will look to improve ties with India.

The challenge for New Delhi today is not just to ensure this room for strategic manoeuvre. Nor is it merely to keep a tab on the state of the bilateral relationship. Rather it is to grasp China’s construction of the evolving global order and of India’s place therein. Only by so doing will India be able to anticipate shifts in Chinese policy and position itself most advantageously. This is the central ‘lesson’ of the fifty year crisis with China.



1. ‘An Asian Clash of Civilizations? The Sino-Indian Conflict Revisited’ in Ramachandra Guha, Patriots and Partisans. Allen Lane, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 161-66.

2. Perry Anderson, Indian Ideology. Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2012.

3. Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750. Bodley Head, London, 2012, pp. 304-21; Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine, Mao: The Real Story. Simon Schuster, New York, 2012, pp. 363-423.

4. Rudra Chaudhuri, Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947. Hurst, London, forthcoming 2013.

5. Sunil Khilnani, ‘Making Asia: India, China and the Struggle for an Idea.’ Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, November 2012, p. 8.

6. Sarvepalli Gopal, Radhakrishnan: A Biography. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989, pp. 242-48.

7. For contrasting interpretations of the Sino-Soviet split see, Lorenz Luthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008; Sergey Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009.

8. Cited in Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010, p. 255.

9. Niu Jun, ‘1962: The Eve of the Left Turn in China’s Foreign Policy.’ Cold War International History Project Working Paper 48, October 2005, p. 11.

10. Embassy in Peking to Foreign New Delhi, 1 May 1970, P.N. Haksar Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

11. Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2011, p. 269, 278.

12. Zorawar Daulet Singh, Himalayan Stalemate: Understanding the India-China Dispute. Straight Forward Publishers, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 21-22.

13. James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton. Vintage, New York, 1998; Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China. Public Affairs, New York, 2000.

14. Shyam Saran, ‘China in the Twenty-First Century: What India Needs to Know about China’s World View.’ K. Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture, August 2012, pp. 17-18.