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Fiftieth Anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War

An Interview with Arun Sahgal

By Naomi McMillen
October 30, 2012


On October 20, 1962, Chinese forces launched offensives into the disputed border regions flanking the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Line of Actual Control, igniting what became known as the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War. Although the conflict ended nearly 50 years ago, the border war still has a significant impact on the geopolitical strategies of both India and China.

In this NBR Expert Q&A, Strategic Asia author Arun Sahgal (Institute of National Security Studies) discusses the lessons learned from the conflict and explains how the dispute still shapes relations between the two rising powers 50 years later.


This October marks the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian Border War. What were the causes of the conflict, and what lessons did India learn?

The genesis of the 1962 war can be traced to two broad factors: British India’s frontier legacy and developments in Tibet. The borders between India and Tibet were largely undefined and not demarcated. China’s forcible occupation of Tibet in 1950–51 exacerbated regional tensions and deprived India of a buffer. Although India accepted this new reality, reflected in the signing of the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement for peaceful coexistence, the Lhasa rebellion and flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 were the proverbial tipping point, leading to the souring of relations and beginning of border tensions.

These developments came at a time when China found itself geopolitically vulnerable for a number of reasons, including the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of all of its experts and advisers from China in 1960, perceived threats from Taiwan in 1961–62, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and tensions on the Sino-Soviet border. Other factors were the failure of the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in millions of deaths, and Mao’s compromised political position.

During this period Prime Minister Nehru launched his ill-fated “forward policy” to secure India’s borders with China. Indian intelligence believed that China could not sustain a major drive across the “great Himalayan land barrier,” reducing the incentive for India to make any territorial concessions.

From the conflict, India first and foremost realized that it had completely misread China’s strategic perspective and the geopolitical scenario. The Indian political and intelligence hierarchy had underestimated Chinese threat perceptions and failed to pick up the hardening Chinese stance and preparations for war.

This was largely a result of the lack of institutionalized decision-making at the national level. Well-established and well-respected agencies providing politico-military linkages did not exist. Unfortunately, despite the 1999 Kargil incident and subsequent committees on defense reforms, there is little improvement today.

A second lesson concerns the preemptive use of force. Indian political thinking had been largely shaped by the Cold War world order and the belief that wars were not possible for fear of wider global nuclear conflagration. The Chinese leadership had no such illusions.

Lastly, India learned important lessons from its intelligence shortcomings in terms of the capability to assess the mindset, perceptions, intentions, and medium- and long-term plans of the Chinese leadership.


How has the border conflict shaped current Indian and Chinese policies, especially regarding the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Line of Actual Control?

TAR remains central to China’s security strategy, which looks on this minority-dominated region as a buffer between the Han heartland and China’s turbulent periphery. Beijing’s Western development strategy in the Tibet Autonomous Region determines how China handles its security and economic relations with South Asia. Beijing is keen to project Tibet as a major trade hub between China and South Asia. However, the recent series of self-immolation by dozens of Tibetan monks and youth has heightened tensions within the region, resulting in a steep rise in armed Chinese paramilitary presence. In addition, links between Tibet and Tibetan emigre in India after 1959 continue to be a source of tension in relations between China and India.

Despite 15 rounds of bilateral negotiations between special representatives, no solution to the dispute surrounding the Line of Actual Control is in sight. India and China have taken tangible steps to maintain peace and tranquility and put in place mechanisms to avoid untoward incidents. Nonetheless, in addition to mutually agreed disputes acknowledged by both sides, border intrusions are on the rise with new pockets of discord characterized as “emerging disputed areas.” The Indian perception is that conflict over the Line of Actual Control is being raked up by China as leverage for future negotiations.


In your chapter in Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challenge, you lay out in detail what policies India must enact to “ensure that asymmetry with China remains manageable.” What challenges will India face in implementing these policies?

India faces a security scenario involving threats from two closely allied nuclear neighbors. Dealing with threats from two fronts not only is a major military challenge for India but entails huge economic costs accentuated by a poor indigenous military industrial base and suboptimal defense management infrastructure.

Whereas India has adopted a policy of political management for these challenges, there is growing understanding within the national security establishment that the country must develop credible dissuasive capabilities against China and punitive capabilities against Pakistan, while also not allowing asymmetry with China to become unmanageable.

The Indian security establishment has begun to address the above challenges through infrastructural development, forsaking the earlier scorched earth policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region and focusing capacity enhancement in all three domains, details of which I outline in my Strategic Asia chapter. These policies are backed by efforts to enhance both continental awareness (in the Tibet Autonomous Region and along India’s periphery) and maritime domain awareness.

However, efforts at capability development are dependent on direct imports and transfers of military technology, given India’s relatively underdeveloped defense industrial base. The perils of a poor indigenous defense industrial infrastructure are increasingly realized by Indian strategists. As a consequence, a number of steps have been taken to address this issue. The Indian National Security Council recently convened a committee to review post-Kargil defense reforms and a separate defense modernization committee to suggest improvements in the overall defense industrial base to include procurement procedures, norms of transfer of technology, and foreign direct investments in the defense sector.


Your Strategic Asia chapter also examines the impact of Chinese military modernization on India’s strategic posture. What are the implications of PLA modernization for the border dispute? How can India counter growing Chinese influence without provoking another conflict or destabilizing the region?

Until 2025, India will experience a window of strategic vulnerability in regard to its ability to develop joint and integrated warfighting platforms and systems. During this window, India can leverage its relationship with both the United States and the European Union not only for weapons acquisitions but also for filling the fast-expanding technological gap.

A second way in which India can counter Chinese influence is to re-examine its conventional attritional warfare strategy. India should develop its own anti-access and area-denial strategy in response to the PLA presence in its maritime and continental sphere of influence. This should include space-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities to detect Chinese intrusions, as well as credible interdiction capabilities.

In addition, India needs to work out concomitant external balancing strategies. The options for India are as follows: develop a close political and strategic relationship with the United States to help build comprehensive national power, assume the role of a swing state to balance relations with China and the United States, or accommodate China to buy time to build India’s own dissuasive power. The Indian leadership will need to walk a fine line, however, to build an economic and military relationship with the United States that serves the common aim of maintaining strategic stability in Asia, while at the same time ensuring good cooperative relations with China.


You state in your Strategic Asia chapter that India needs to “foster maritime cooperation among the Asian littorals” in order to secure the Indian Ocean region. What has India done to develop closer relationships with its maritime neighbors? How has China reacted to these efforts?

The pace of India-China naval exchanges and bilateral cooperation has also been enhanced. Recently, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to undertake joint operations against pirates and share technical know-how on mining seabed resources. In a major initiative toward bilateral cooperation, four frontline Indian naval ships visited Shanghai in June 2012, the first time in six years. The highlight of the visit was the announcement of the Indo-Chinese maritime dialogue.

Indian deployments in the South China Sea—in particular, marine surveys in areas that China claims as its EEZ (extended economic zone)—remain a major point of friction between the two countries. India is still concerned about Chinese attempts to create naval facilities in the Indian Ocean region, fearing that the facilities will later turn to bases. Indian fears are exacerbated by growing Chinese naval capabilities, as well as by Chinese maritime strategies such as far-sea defense that require deployments across and into the Indian Ocean. Chinese attempts to develop carrier-based task forces, nuclear attack submarines, and amphibious capabilities further concern India.


What can China and India do to avoid a military buildup along their border similar to what took place in the 1950s and early 1960s?

Although both sides have taken a number of steps to normalize border relations through confidence-building measures such as the agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility and mechanisms for crisis management, these have not resolved the underlying boundary dispute. There remain several hurdles to the successful resolution of this issue. China has expanded its claims to Arunachal Pradesh while reducing the length of the boundary it considers under dispute. Chinese measurements discount the entire sector of the border buttressing Jammu and Kashmir, thus reducing the length of the disputed border from 4056 km to 1978 km.

To buttress non-recognition along the Line of Actual Control, China has been carrying out territorial intrusions. 228 such cases were reported in 2010, 213 cases in 2011, and 64 through April 2012. Chinese sources claim that India has conducted similar transgressions. The Indian security establishment believes these to be Chinese “pinpricks to keep India on the tenterhooks.”

Finally, Beijing has sought to strike a deal with Bhutan—essentially a territorial exchange—that would result in China securing the area surrounding the Siliguri Corridor, deemed a “chicken’s neck” with regard to India’s lines of communication to the northeast.


Arun Sahgal is the Joint Director of Net Assessment, Technology, and Simulation at the Institute of National Security Studies in New Delhi.

Naomi McMillen is an intern at NBR.


Arun Sahgal is the author of “China’s Military Modernization: Responses from India,” which appears in Strategic Asia 2012-13: China’s Military Challenge.