In October of 1962, the Chinese army invaded India in a long-standing territorial dispute. Though it lasted only four weeks before the Chinese army pulled back, the skirmish left few in any doubt about the strength and power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Their swift and efficient actions reignited debates around the world- both in India and beyond- over the country’s territorial control in the Himalayas.
A quick look at the history behind the conflict reveals it has a long, complex story. Both countries had territorial disputes in the region dating back to the British Raj, thousands of square kilometres of land on the borders the two held competing claims over. In the months leading up to the Chinese incursion, both sides had come close to a military confrontation- with India frequently accusing China of ‘claiming, crossing of and occupying’ its land.
In order to understand why the Chinese Army invaded, we need to look at the volatile political landscape at the time. Experts agree that, in 1962, China was in a stronger position than India and felt it was best to assert its control. Another view is that China was looking for a way to test India’s military readiness, as Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had recently been stridently asserting his country’s claims over the disputed territory.
It is believed that the Indian military was caught off guard by the attack. The PLA had been training and preparing for months before the incursion, while most of India’s army had not been on active duty since World War II. To make matters worse, it was common knowledge that the Indian Army was simply not equipped to deal with the kind of post-conflict aid the PLA brought to bear. As a result, India was quickly driven back and lost ground in the fight.
Although no official casualties have been reported for either side, it is estimated that hundreds of Indian soldiers were killed in the skirmish. The exact number of Chinese deaths remains unknown, although estimates suggest that the total figure is around 600.
China’s Military Advantage
Experts believe that there are several factors that gave the Chinese military an edge in this conflict. Firstly, they had the advantage of the terrain: they had learned the parameters of the Himalayas and the surrounding area, while their Indian counterparts had not.
Coupled with that was the fact that Chinese weaponry was more up to date at the time. While India’s troops had access to some modern arms, the PLA had access to more accurate weapons and better communication infrastructure. India also had more troops in the Himalayas, but the Chinese had more experience in the region and on the ground, which gave them a significant advantage.
As well, the Chinese Army was organized in a much tighter, more tactical formation. This made them more difficult to track, giving them an effective and often overlooked way of engaging the Indian troops.
China’s Supposed Motivation
The reasons for China’s attack remain subject to debate. From the militarily-minded, the action was seen as a means to establish and show control. In other words, it was a means for China to flex its military muscle and make a show of its strength.
In the days leading up to the invasion, Indian Prime Minister Nehru had been making a strong case for India’s position on the borders. This could have been a factor in China’s decision to launch the incursion, allowing the PLA to prove its tactical and technological superiority.
The Results of the Invasion
The result of the four-week incursion was relative stalemate. The fighting ceased and though both sides later signed agreements over the area, neither party had made significant gains.
In the end, the Chinese incursion had done little to change Chinese or Indian control over the border region. The Indian military remained largely in tact,and the region has not returned to any form of conflict in the 50 years since the attack.
Though it was a largely inconclusive skirmish, the battle set a precedent for future conflicts between the two countries and foreign powers. It showed the world what China was capable of, and that the PLA was a force to be reckoned with.
The immediate aftermath of the invasion can largely be seen as positive for China. At the time, India was seen as the weaker power and the PLA had proven their capability as a military force. The Chinese government was also able to show off their skills in diplomacy and negotiation, since they were able to halt the incursion and eventually sign a peace agreement with India.
For India, the effects of the conflict may have been less welcome. The country was seen as having been taken by surprise, and was largely portrayed as having acted irresponsibly in the months leading up to the attack. India’s global image was dampened somewhat, and the incident hurt the country’s already strained relationship with China.
Patrolling The Borders
Relations between the two countries over the border region remain tense. India has consistently accused China of occupying its land, in direct contravention of the peace agreement signed following the incursion. China maintains that it has always respected the 1937 Treaty of Sino-Indian boundaries, and that the region is well within its territorial rights.
In recent years, both sides have set up a number of patrols and military outposts to protect the border region. India has invested heavily in defence spending and has increased the number of troops on the ground. China too has bolstered its presence in the area, with regular patrols.
Though it appears that neither side want to resort to armed conflict, both countries have made it clear that they will protect their respective borders.
The Borders Today
The disputed region between India and China remains a sensitive area. Despite these tensions, however, both countries seem to be taking a policy of tentative cooperation. Recent official visits by representatives of both countries, as well as a number of agreements over infrastructure in the region, have gone some way to allay fears of war.
India and China have also made attempts to settle their border disputes by diplomatic means, with both sides emphasizing the importance of dialogue and engagement. Even while they are still displaying a degree of mistrust, both countries are actively looking for ways to resolve their disagreement without the use of force.
It is clear that there is still some progress to be made before the countries trust each other fully. As long as both sides remain committed to a peaceful resolution, however, it is possible that their differences can be healed and the two countries can move past the hostilities of 1962.