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Why Did China and India Go to War?

China and India were great neighbors for thousands of years and have traditionally had a good relationship. They are two great nations with a long history of European colonization in the 19th century. As soon as the Republic of India gained independence and the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949, maintaining the relationship with China was one of the Indian government’s priorities.

Despite their long peaceful history, the brief 1962 border war and subsequent disagreements over territory have chilled relations between China and India.

China and India

China and India border disputes

It all started when China decided it would occupy Tibet – an area the country considers to be Chinese. This didn’t sit well with India, so it reached out to China proposing negotiations over Tibet. China and India discussed border issues for some time as neither nation could agree on this issue. The main border concerns were Aksai Chin in Kashmir – the Western front (Johnson line) and Arunachal Pradesh in north east India – the Eastern front (McMahon line).

Aksai Chin is strategically important to China since it is the major connection between its western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. This virtually uninhabited high desert provides essential north-south transportation and the logistics link between China and the two provinces.

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This link is officially known as the Chinese National Highway 219 and runs more than 1,000 miles from Xingjian and Lhasa in Tibet and passes through Aksai Chin. The construction of this road infrastructure in the mid-1950s initially sparked India’s wrath and prepared the stage for the Sino-Indian war in 1962.

India had claimed this territory since the mid-1800s when a civil servant at the Survey of India put this region in Kashmir, even though neither the terrain nor its history had any connection with India. China and Britain later agreed to put this region in China. The former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wasn’t giving up on it yet.

Prime Minister Nehru and diplomacy

This was ironic since in the 1950s, Nehru had gone out of his way to assist Maoist China, and even as late as 1954 he was promoting the slogan ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ which means ‘China and India are brothers’. In April that year, China and India formed an an agreement of mutual non-aggression.

Nehru then presented China with a frontier map which had Aksai Chin as part of India. This didn’t sit well with China, although former Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, told Nehru that China had no designs on the mountainous enclave, or on any other Indian territory for that matter. But in 1956 China started secretly constructing the strategic road across Aksai Chin. In 1958, the China and India war ball started rolling when China marked Aksai Chin on official maps as part of its territory.

China had always had sticky relations with the  world’s superpowers, the US and the USSR, and people believe Nehru was riding on this fact. He could easily claim Aksai Chin and China wouldn’t dare fight back. The relations between China and India became tense. India failed to attend a conference which was meant to conclude the peace treaty with Japan. The reason India gave was that China was uninvited. China had salty relations with the world and was greatly isolated, but India wanted to become China’s representative in world matters.

China and India

Mao Zedong and aggression

After China presented its maps, which indicated around 120,000 square kilometers of India’s territory was part of China, Zhou Enlai blamed it on errors. China and India relations were heading to a worse place. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India and was warmly received by the Prime Minister, Nehru, at the border. This left Mao Zedong humiliated and offended. Mao would then suggest that the Lhasa rebellion in Tibet was perpetuated by India. The main reason for the Sino-Indian War in 1962 was China’s perception that India was a threat to its rule in Tibet.

In the summer of 1962, various military incidences and conflicts ensued between China and India. On July 10, 1962, there was around 350 Chinese troops surrounding an Indian post at Chuschul. They used loudspeakers to convince the Gurkhas not to fight for India. After a clash between the Chinese and Indian armies at Kongka Pass, India realized it wasn’t prepared for war. On July 10, 1962 India had suffered nine police casualties. The country assumed responsibility for the disputed border and removed its patrols from the area.

1962 Sino-Indian War

The official Sino-Indian war began on 20 October, 1962 after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Ladakh and the McMahon line. This took India by surprise. China had everything planned and it even cut Indian telephone lines to prevent the defenders from communicating with headquarters. On day one of the Sino-Indian war, the Chinese troops attacked from the rear which forced the Indian troops escape to Bhutan.

On October 22, the third day, the Chinese troops started a bushfire that caused so much commotion and confused Indians so the 400 Chinese troops could attack their position. But Indian troops were ready to counter. When they discovered the Chinese army was gathered in a particular pass, they used their mortars and machine guns to open fire and kill almost 200 Chinese soldiers. This went on for days and India suffered a humiliating defeat.

China believes this war helped it achieve its policy objectives of securing borders in its western territory. Analysts believe India failed due to its political leadership. Nehru and his defense Minister believed they would solve the crisis through negotiations and China wouldn’t dare attack them. Clearly India underestimated China’s capabilities.

There was a second territorial dispute between China and India related to Arunachial Pradesh (a state held by India) which is known as Southern Tibet by the Chinese. Fifty years after the 1962 war, Chinese troops periodically made incursions into this area despite the geographical evidence being in favor of India. India has always considered the Himalayas as a natural boundary between China and India. But China is in control of Tibet and has considerable control over India’s water supply.

This delicate scenario can easily trigger war between China and India if it is not carefully handled. But experts think it’s unlikely China and India will enter a war over water, Tibet or anything else. Although both China and India are well-equipped with nuclear weaponry they are unlikely to use it.

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