Small Wars Journal

Was the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 Inevitable?

Sun, 07/23/2017 - 7:56pm

Was the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 Inevitable?

Gopika Shinghal


Two ancient nations emerged victorious from the shackles of dominance and established new states almost the same time: India in 1947 and People’s Republic of China in 1949. Despite their opposite political characters- Democratic and Communist respectively, the two rising Asian giants embarked on a journey of amicable relations and drove to reinvigorate their economies. Solidifying the ‘Hindi Chini bhai-bhai’ euphoria, they signed the ‘Panchsheel Agreement’ based on mutual-liking and harmonious co-existence. However, they were soon engulfed in the prism of mistrust and suspicion due to the problem of ‘unresolved border’ issues and the Tibetan Equation.

History falls under the realms of highly contested narratives and the Sino-Indian border war is no exception. This essay argues that the 1962 war amid India and China was inevitable due to diplomatic breakdown between the two countries owing to the perceptions formed by the political and intelligence leadership of India and China on the territorial dispute, the Tibetan uprising and India’s Forward Policy. Diplomacy plays a crucial role where conflict is foreseen. The ties dwindled from cooperation to conflict, intensifying into war because negotiations couldn’t deter the escalation of the conflict. Both the nations failed to use a peacekeeping tool, i.e. skillful dialogue to build confidence measures, thereby worsening the gravity of the predicament.

Escalation of Territorial Dispute into Border Conflict: 1947-1962

The boundary shared by the two nations is divided into three sectors: western, middle and eastern, amongst which dispute in the middle sector is negligible. At the western end lies the disputed land of Aksai-Chin among the well-defined boundaries of Pangong lake and Karakoram Pass, while on the eastern front the tensions rest along the North-East Frontier province (NEFA), aptly described by the McMahon line. Post-Independence Indian maps illustrated western and middle sectors as “undefined” while the eastern belt as a confirmed boundary, referring to the 1914 Tripartite Simla Conference among China, Tibet and India.[i]

British had ordered Henry McMahon in 1914 to seize a deal with China to establish Tibet as a “buffer zone” between India and China. While recognizing Chinese “suzerainty” over Tibet, Britain wanted autonomous rule in “Outer-Tibet”; when Chinese failed to accept the proposal, McMahon, the British-Indian representative went on to sign a “secret declaration” with Tibet on the India-Tibet frontier in NEFA that came to be known as the McMahon line.[ii] Nehru the pioneer of Indian foreign policy, tried to invest in Sino-Indian brotherhood from the beginning of Independence. He acknowledged issues that could ruin the budding relations, i.e.(a) Tibet and (b) boundary tensions, hence in the early 1950’s India took the initiative to negotiate with China. At the same time, Nehru addressed the Parliament in 1950 saying, “Our maps show that McMahon Line is our boundary- map or no map”, and cleared his stance on the boundary alignment.[iii] In 1950, when the Chinese subjugated Tibet, India was given assurance of preserving the Tibetan autonomy which Nehru received in good faith. Nehru told Vallabhai Patel that India should work to preserve Indian cultural and aesthetic interests in Tibet, recognizing Chinese control. Accordingly, he aimed at less Chinese military in Tibet, convincing the Chinese government of Indo-Sino friendship.[iv] Nehru’s early vision suggested that diplomacy will be an indispensable tool when dealing with the Chinese government.

Engaging diplomatically, Indian Ambassador Pannikar was pressed by International Bureau Director Mullick and Nehru in 1952 to engage in negotiations with the Chinese delegation. However, after his interaction with Chinese Leader Zhou Enlai, he stated that the latter was disinterested in discussing Indian rights in Tibet as their presence in the region has been short and the problems haven’t been fathomed yet.[v] Also, shunning tactful diplomatic move, Pannikar failed to clarify to Zhou the Indian claims in NEFA and the India-Tibet frontier, deriving from his personal opinion that China should press boundary talks whereas India must stand firm on its claims, because if India raises the border question, China in all probability might reject the McMahon Line and offer a deal of negotiated settlement, unfavorable to India.[vi]

Among the Indian elects, Chinese behavior was examined with much scrutiny, for they were to set road for further deliberations keeping in mind the Chinese view-points. Foreign Secretory K.P.S. Menon articulated Chinese behavior as calculating while Bajpai perceived China’s comment on Tibet as a “scar” left by the colonial legacy as a problem, considering that China treated McMahon line as a scar too and may thus try to alter the alignment unfavorable to India.[vii] International Bureau had informed the Indian Government of Chinese activities in Ladakh in 1951, but the elites had chosen to abstain  from protesting for two reasons (a) Aksai-Chin was a barren area and the terrain made it difficult to access (b) India wanted to deepen ties with China before claiming territory.[viii]

Nevertheless, they recognized the importance to preserve Indian frontiers especially the NEFA, as Indian population in the region had “ethnic, religious and cultural ties with Tibet” and could be lured by Chinese ideology, thereby launching check-posts and integrating people herein within Indian domain and  further clarifying Indian standing, reprinted its geographical maps in 1953, now illustrating Indian boundary as “unambiguously delimited”, placing Aksai-Chin in India.[ix] The signing of Panchsheel agreement was an occasion for the Chinese to raise doubts on the Indian-Tibetan frontier, but considering there were no talks, India thought the matter was settled.[x]

Further interactions between Zhou and Nehru from 1954 to1956 were vague in regard to the contested border issues. Nehru in a meeting with Zhou in late 1954 had indirectly brought up the matter of boundary, to which the latter stated that China was yet to conduct surveys and was thus reprinting old maps. Neither delegation mentioned the new Indian maps in print thus forgoing another opportunity of border discussions. In Jan 1957, on his trip to India, Zhou mentioned the McMahon line in reference to Sino-Burmese boundary acknowledging it as an “accomplished fact”. Accordingly, Nehru assumed this as a strong recognition of the McMahon Line failing to affirm it from his counterpart. Also, they did not discuss India’s claim of Aksai-Chin, wherein the Chinese were constructing a road through Aksai-Chin, to access Tibet via Xinjiang, leading to misinterpretation of the situation by both sides. More importantly with the Chinese newspapers publishing the near completion of the highway, it suggested that the Chinese could now openly claim Indian territory, leading to the built up of domestic pressure on Nehru and his counterparts to take stern actions against Chinese moves.[xi]

Throughout the course of interactions till 1957, Nehru, Zhou and their delegations failed to clarify their standpoint on boundary alignment, with each side being aware in the hindsight about the claims of the other. In May 1958 dialogues on the disputed area, Bara Hoti commenced and Indians formed a clear view of the Chinese stance, who they felt were rigid and unclear to settle border, illustrating unnecessary confusion about boundary alignments.[xii] Putting it in John Garver’s words, “The Sino-Indian conflict had begun”.[xiii]

Meanwhile, India had sent two patrol teams to survey the alignment of Aksai-Chin Highway with only one returning back on estimated time. Further, ‘China Pictorial’ in July 1958 printed a map illustrating a vast area of NEFA, Ladakh and a small area of UP as Chinese Region. Indian leaders were shocked and sent out a note to Beijing demanding explanation for the map and seeking information on the patrol. China retorted back saying that the highway lay on their side of terrain, thus the patrol was held and re-routed through the Karakoram Pass. Also, explaining their standpoint on the new map, the note said that as per Zhou’s words in 1954, surveys were yet to be conducted.[xiv]

Nehru was perplexed by Zhou’s reply as according to his belief Zhou had accepted the McMahon line earlier in January 1957. To collaborate further, he wrote to Zhou mentioning about the “large parts of India” attributing only to Indian territory. He was aghast at Chinese claims to the south of McMahon line. Zhou replied in late January,1959 stating that, “the boundary had never been formally delimited”, laying greater emphasis on Chinese claim of Aksai-Chin and linked McMahon Line to British imperialism. He also agreed that not every claim may be righteous but till surveys were carried out, both sides should maintain status-quo.[xv] Herein we cannot fail but notice how Bajpai had linked Chinese comment on Tibet as a ‘scar’ by imperialist forces to McMahon line, yet negotiations failed to cater to the issue; wherein India read the Chinese note as “assertive, stubborn and aggressive attitude”;[xvi] change in Chinese stance can be traced back to misunderstanding the Indian approach to Tibet since Khampa uprising of 1956 owing to activities of the Tibetan émigrés located in north east India and the India-CIA involvement in the crisis.[xvii] Hereon, dialogue between the two nations started collapsing with both sides forming misperceptions about each other’s activities and actions.

The Tibet Factor

Geopolitically, the region of Tibet is of extreme strategic value to both India and China. Chinese control of Tibet was viewed differently by the two countries. While China saw Tibet as an important part of the Chinese administered area and did not like the Indian interference in the region, India saw Chinese takeover of Tibet as the gradual dooming of Tibetan autonomy as well as a threat to Indian security because the Chinese military was stationed all along it’s frontiers.[xviii] Within the Tibetan plateau there was a great opposition to the Chinese tyranny and this was reflected time and again through rebellious acts, which the Chinese read as Indian instigation against the Chinese control and this ideological calling “ is the center of the China-India dispute”.[xix] Situations turned grim in March,1959 when the summer palace in Lhasa was bombarded, resulting in Dalai Lama’s flight to India.[xx]

Mao was furious at the Indian asylum grant to Dalai Lama and such an act strengthened their opinion on India’s role in provoking the Tibetan uprising, leading them to publically denounce Nehru and the “Indian expansionists” who he believed, wanted to smash Chinese control on Tibet. The People’s Daily, ‘Renmin Ribao’ published, “Nehru’s policy, deriving from his class-nature, is to make Tibet a “buffer” state”. To counter the Tibetan uprising, Chinese forces moved closer to the Indian frontiers, thus enraging Indian military, followed by clashes at Longju, wherein each side accused the other of provocation.[xxi]

“The Tibetan revolt and India’s sympathetic response to the plight of the Tibetans acted as a catalyst for the rapid deterioration of the Sino-Indian relations.”[xxii] Chinese owing to their ideological perspectives of the Indian policies, fraught the situation further when they failed to recognize the Indian elites’ directives in restraining propaganda against China.[xxiii] At the same time, due to Chinese open criticism of Nehru and his policies, domestic pressure on the Indian elites mounted up. For the public, Indian honor, pride and integrity was at stake and they were growing restless. In the parliamentary session of 1959, Aug. 13th Nehru was questioned on the Chinese acceptance of McMahon line and the other frontiers and was asked to release white papers, furthering probe regarding negotiations. [xxiv] Here, Nehru understood that he’ll have to adhere to policies, sellable to public. From now on we’ll notice how the negotiation strategies of both sides further altered due to their perceptions of each-other.

The two nations underwent further deliberations in 1959 when Zhou on 8th September replied to Nehru’s letter of 22nd March which questioned the unacceptance of the boundary and probed clarification on Chinese maps. Chinese reply made it clear to the Indian leaders that the entire boundary was negotiable, subject to settlement only via a process of formal negotiation. Nehru was shocked at this absurdness and in his next note of 26th September, demanded Chinese evacuation of recently occupied area i.e. Bara Hoti, not mentioning withdrawal from Aksai-Chin for further negotiations. His main concern was the large band of NEFA claimed by China. India had lost trust in China and this act was seen as the wave of Chinese expansion, contesting Indian security and nationalism.[xxv] Circumstances turned grey and India adopted a ‘reactive policy’ owing to the causalities of Indian soldiers at Kongka Clash on Oct. 21st 1959, wherein the Indian Army for the first time was given control of the entire Sino-Indian border. [xxvi]

The next Chinese note to India subtly read ‘Barter-Exchange’ meaning if Indian forces occupied western terrain claimed by the Chinese, they would come South of McMahon Line. Zhou on 7th Nov, 1959 mentioned to maintain status-quo till the boundary between the two countries was settled and suggested a 20 Km withdrawal from McMahon Line in east and the line of actual control in west by both countries. “Nehru was greatly shaken by their duplicity”, because India had no easy access to these regions whereas it was easily approachable from the Chinese terrain, implying Chinese expansion and superiority.[xxvii]

In the interim, this was also the period when the Cold War was intensifying in South Asia with the US and the USSR growing strong against each other, with each trying to win the nascent developing nations. The strategies adopted by the two blocks also had a slight role in shaping the conflict. In 1959, looking at the prevailing scenario, Chinese thought that international support extended to India was to deliberately keep the Chinese weak. There was no doubt that CIA was assisting the Tibetan rebels and USSR was playing a diplomatic move, keeping both India and China in confidence; hence according to Mao, “Forceful blows were necessary to foil this anti-China conspiracy”.[xxviii] On the other hand, Nehru and his advisers were of the opinion that India was an important player in the world, especially during the Kennedy-Khrushchev era.

Also, to further adjust the Indian dialogue stance, two important developments happened in early 1960, before the Delhi Summit between India and China. (1) Feb. 1960 Sarvepalli Gopal returned from London and ran Nehru through the historical claims of Aksai-Chin, convincing him of “stronger claims” than his earlier expectation.[xxix] (2) In March, Supreme Court of India announced that the ruling government had no authority to give up its claims or accept claims on any territory without constitutional amendment.[xxx] Thus, the negotiation round between Nehru and Zhou reached no conclusion with each declining the other’s proposal owing to their perceptions about the other and critical domestic situations. Hence, “By the summer of 1960 meaningful diplomacy juddered to a halt”.[xxxi]

Diplomatic Dialogues During the Period of India’s ‘Forward Policy’

India adopted the ‘Forward Policy’ in 1961 to engage the unoccupied ‘Indian’ areas on the eastern and the western front, aiming to deter Chinese expansion by establishing posts and ensuing patrols. The advent of Forward Policy lay on the assumption that since it’s a ‘border-dispute’ Chinese would not react aggressively. Initially, the Chinese forces withdrew when Indian troops surrounded them, causing Indians to move forward towards the frontier. To this, Chinese adopted a ‘zigzag arrangement’ of “armed coexistence” to deal with India’s policy and raised an alarm in ‘Renmin Ribao’, about taking a “tit-for-tat” action.[xxxii]

On one hand, where the Chinese read increment of the Indian military along the borders as a sign of Indian assertiveness to claim the territory unilaterally; mistaking China’s patience as a sign of weakness[xxxiii], Indian leaders waived off all signs of war, owing to their erroneous nature of misunderstanding the Chinese intentions and power. They felt that the jeopardized Chinese economy and the gradual fallout with the USSR would serve as a detriment for war, and hence did not pay much attention to the military leadership who constantly told them of the weak state of the army and their inability to face an invasion.[xxxiv] At the same time, Nehru’s opinion was that the USSR was now viewing India as a counter force in Asia in context to China. and thus, he thought that a war with India would start a third world war; therefore, nulling any chance of war or aggressiveness, Krishna Menon said, “We expected negotiation and diplomacy to play their part”.[xxxv] Hence, this Indian policy, “sowed the seeds of conflict” [xxxvi] and “triggered the border war”.[xxxvii]

Diplomatic exchanges began again in early 1962. Considering Indian populace's wrath towards Chinese claim of Indian terrain, the government had no option but to let Chinese show some move of reconciliation with India.[xxxviii] At the same time, Beijing was reconsidering its foreign policy after the failure of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and tensions with the US, the USSR and India’s Forward Policy soaring high. Chinese leadership met in Beidaihe in the summer months of 1962 to discuss further actions. With Mao returning to daily policy-making, he attacked all criticism by pointing to ‘revisionists’ and ‘imperialists’, thus adopting stringent attitude of decision-making. Diplomatic moves were increased to counter prevailing tensions and frequent clashes along the border. In May, India suggested a ‘token’ withdrawal in Ladakh to accommodate Chinese use of the Highway but Chinese declined the proposal, suggesting diplomatic breakdown.[xxxix]

Delhi also initiated dialogue at Geneva in July end during the Laos Accord. Menon and Chen-Yi met on 23rd July,1962 and discussed at length that, clashes should be avoided. Menon said that Chinese stance in Ladakh will be accommodated while Yi clarified that thus McMahon line will not be altered. Yi also suggested Joint Press Conference to propose further talks but since the Indian delegation couldn’t get Nehru on board, there was a delay, following which Chinese counterparts left unaware, leading Beijing to believe India was not interested in deliberations.[xl] Also by now, China had enough motivation to consider no intervention from great-power countries if it goes on a war with India due to assurances from the US of not invading the Chinese mainland,[xli] and the Soviet tilt towards the Chinese owing to ideological reasons, if not for the extended support in Cuba.[xlii]

After Menon’s homecoming from Geneva, Indian elites decided to negotiate with China, ignorant that the delay had led to Chinese disbelief on them. They laid a 2-way diplomatic chart suggesting, (a) diplomatic delegation to China for discussion of all disputes, without pre-conditions (b) asked China to abstain its military from going beyond their 1956 claim line.[xliii] India thus failed to negotiate on substantial grounds, at one point it said ‘no preconditions’ while on the other hand it attached a condition. Having lost faith in Delhi already, this furthered Chinese stance on Indian dubious nature. Hence, “the gridlock was complete”[xliv], henceforth Indians would assert Chinese evacuation to be primary for negotiations whereas the Chinese would retort with a duplicitous rationality- by calling for talks without pre conditions. However, the exchange of dialogue continued.

On 13th September, 1962 China told India to halt the strategy of “Sham negotiations and real fighting”, while suggesting a token withdrawal of twenty kilometers by both sides in NEFA without any pre-conditions, discussions to be followed in Beijing from 15th Oct onwards.[xlv] Delhi agreed to hold these talks but attached preconditions with regards to Chinese withdrawal in Ladakh to reduce prevailing tensions. Diplomacy had reached a standstill owing to the hard stance of both governments. From 20 Sept, 1962 onwards irregular firing begun at Dhola and continued for a few days, though dialogue ensued but on 3rd Oct Beijing announced that India had once again rejected talks without pre-conditions mentioning, “wherever India attacks, China is sure to strike back”.[xlvi]

On 13th October, 1962 Nehru on his way to Colombo told the media that, “our instructions are to free the territory. I cannot fix the date, that is entirely for our army”.[xlvii] Also mentioning the bracing conditions and superiority of Chinese forces, he indicated no present action but the press publicized his comments. To Nehru that comment was vital looking at the domestic opinion. He thought that the Chinese leadership will read between the lines, however this was bound to fail. Beijing saw an Indian attack coming and before Nehru could use diplomatic tools, Chinese had built up troops to attack India. On the fateful night of 20th Oct, 1962 Chinese troops launched simultaneous offensives on both the eastern and the western fronts of India, leading to a 32-day war between the two nations, closing in Indian defeat after the unilateral ceasefire by the Chinese troops, now occupying Aksai-Chin.


Diplomacy is a tactful tool to gain strategic importance and find mutually acceptable solutions to a common challenge in a peaceful setting wherein conflict is foreseen. War and Peace are the ultimate responsibility of the government of a nation. In retrospection, the Sino-Indian Border war demonstrates that the government should strike a balance between the ground actions and robust diplomacy when undertaking strategies such as the adoption of Forward Policy. Sino-Indian border war was inevitable due to diplomatic meltdown in the already chaotic environment of disbelief over innumerable issues. The political leaders and diplomats of both countries could not suffice each other of their motives and actions, thus resulting in war.

The persistent problem that emerged was of ‘denied negotiation’ with each side being stuck at its ideological calling, refuting to give in. By 1962 both India and China had developed two different notions of negotiations, with each misunderstanding the other. Such erroneous conclusions and recommendations gave further weight to the stringent diplomatic stance. Patient and skillful diplomacy makes living with realistic situations more comfortable even if they aren’t as per our vision, as dialogues provide sufficient assurances to suffice the other party. India and China failed to produce successful negotiations thus constantly engulfing in suspicion and restlessness, culminating in a war between them.


Athale, Dr. P. B. Sinha and Col. A. A. 1992. History of the Conflict with China, 1962. Edited by S N Prasad. New Delhi: History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India.

Garver, John. 2006. ""China's Decision for War with India in 1962" ." New study in the Study of China's Foreign Policy.

—. 2011. Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hoffmann, Steven. A. 1990. India and the China Crisis. Vol. 6. University of California Press Books.

Maxwell, Neville George Anthony. 1970. India's China War. Jonathan Cape Limited.

Palit, D.K. 1992. War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis. Palgrave Macmillan.

Raghavan, Srinath. 2010. War and Peace in Modern India. Palgrave Macmillan.

End Notes

[i] Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 227-229.

[ii] Neville Maxwell, India’s China War (Jonathan Cape Limited, 1970), 48-50

[iii] Dr. P.B. Sinha and Col. A.A. Athale, History of the Conflict with China, 1962 (New Delhi: History Division, Ministry of Defence, 1992), 21-23

[iv] John Garver, “China’s decision for war with India in 1962”, New Directions in the study of China’s Foreign Policy, ed. Alastair Iain Johnston and Robert S. Ross, (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 21-24

[v] Raghavan, War and Peace, 235-237

[vi] Steven. A. Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis (University of California Press Books, 1990), 33

[vii] Maxwell, India’s China War, 76

[viii] John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 89

[ix] Raghavan, War and Peace, 234-240

[x] Sinha and Athale, Conflict with China, 25

[xi] Ragavan, War and Peace, 243-245

[xii] Hoffmann, India and the China crisis, 35

[xiii] Garver, Protracted Contest, 89

[xiv] Raghavan, War and Peace, 247

[xv] Raghavan, War and Peace, 249

[xvi] Sinha and Athale, Conflict with China, 28

[xvii] Garver, China’s decision for war, 11-12

[xviii] Garver, Protracted Contest, 32

[xix] ibid, 66

[xx] D.K. Palit, War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, (Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), 44

[xxi] Raghavan, War and Peace, 250

[xxii] Sinha and Athale, Conflict with China, 31

[xxiii] Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, 65

[xxiv] Raghavan, War and Peace, 253

[xxv] Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, 39

[xxvi] ibid, 77-78

[xxvii] Raghavan, War and Peace, 257-261

[xxviii] Garver, Protracted Contest, 57

[xxix] Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, 82-83

[xxx] Raghavan, War and Peace, 262

[xxxi] ibid, 266

[xxxii] Garver, China’s Decision for War, 43-44

[xxxiii] Maxwell, India’s China War, 286-287

[xxxiv] Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, 96-98

[xxxv] Raghavan, War and Peace, 276-283

[xxxvi] Garver, China’s Decision for War, 34

[xxxvii] Maxwell, India’s China War, 291

[xxxviii] Sinha and Athale, Conflict with China, 71

[xxxix] Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, 104

[xl] Raghavan, War and Peace, 288

[xli] Garver, China’s decision for war, 41

[xlii] Raghavan, War and Peace, 302

[xliii] Raghavan, War and Peace, 290

[xliv] ibid, 291-293

[xlv] ibid, 296

[xlvi] Raghavan, War and Peace, 299

[xlvii] ibid, 301


About the Author(s)

Gopika Shinghal is currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Relations at the War Studies Department, King’s College, London.