Sino-Indian Border Confrontations (1959-1988)

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A painful remembrance: 1962 Sino-India war and lessons India learnt

Protracted border dispute, culminating in a war in 1962 between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India that compromised India’s standing among nonaligned nations and has not yet been settled. While the dispute between the PRC and India, a nonaligned nation, became an issue in the context of the Cold War, the origins of the Sino-Indian conflict date back to the nineteenth century. Both the British, who ruled India until 1947, and the imperial Chinese government had made claims to regions on India’s northeastern frontier. Neither side, however, committed troops or exerted significant political pressure to settle claims over the contested area.

By the 1950s, this situation changed dramatically because of a variety of factors. Greater mobility and instant communications made it easier for the now-independent Indians and Chinese to attempt to exert control over the border areas. In addition, the incorporation of Tibet into China in 1950 substantially lengthened the Sino-Indian border, thereby increasing the likelihood of a conflict. The possibilities for a border clash increased dramatically in 1956 when the Chinese began to construct a military highway in the disputed territory. This led to a series of diplomatic protests and exchanges, followed in 1959 by an Indian military buildup along the border. Although there were no major military operations in the area, frequent military patrol missions and occasional small-scale skirmishes did occur.

In the summer of 1962, however, the border conflict escalated, with heavier than usual clashes. Heavy fighting then occurred in October and November, ending with a cease-fire on 21 November 1962. At the conclusion of this brief war, the PRC had taken all the contested area over which it had made claims, although it stopped short of advancing into Indian territory proper.

With the cease-fire, the Chinese withdrew to the positions they had held before the beginning of the war. The following month, a conference opened in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with representatives of Egypt, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Ghana, and Indonesia. These representatives, negotiating with the Indian and PRC governments, formulated what became known as the Colombo Proposals. The proposals called for PRC forces to withdraw 20 kilometers (12 miles) from their positions before the war and India not to advance its own troops. Although never formally ratified, the proposals were accepted by both sides.

Thus ended the actual conflict between India and the PRC, although for the next twenty-six years relations between the two major powers remained frigid. The movement of Chinese troops near the border in 1963, alleged Indian movements across the border, and the incorporation of northern areas as part of India all produced hostile rhetoric. PRC support of Pakistan during the latter’s conflicts with India and Chinese opposition to the creation of Bangladesh, championed by India, were other manifestations of the poor relations between the two nations.

There were sporadic attempts on both sides to improve relations. Informal talks between Indian and Chinese diplomats occurred in the early 1970s, and in 1976, fourteen years after the conclusion of the war, full diplomatic relations were restored. In 1988, the two nations agreed to the establishment of a bipartite commission to resolve the border question. Not until 2005 did the leaders of both India and the PRC announce a settlement of the dispute, although details remained to be arranged.

The conflict had especially pronounced effects in India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s final months as prime minister were clouded by both his miscalculations that had led to the war and the loss of standing that the war had brought India within the Non-Aligned Movement.

References Hoffman, Steven A. India and the China Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Jetly, Nancy. India-China Relations, 1947-1977: A Study of Parliament’s Role in the Making of Foreign Policy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1970. Palit, D. K. War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990. Vertzberger, Yaacov. Misperceptions in Foreign Policymaking: The Sino-Indian Conflict, 1959-1962. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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