The Lessons of the China-India War

NEW DELHI – This month marks the 50th anniversary of China’s military attack on India, the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won. Yet that war failed to resolve the disputes between the world’s two most populous countries, and its legacy continues to weigh down the bilateral relationship. While their economic heft is drawing increasing international attention, their underlying strategic rivalry over issues ranging from land and water to geopolitical influence in other regions usually attracts less notice.

The international importance of the China-India relationship reflects the fact that together they account for 37% of humanity. Although they represent markedly different cultures and competing models of development, they share a historical similarity that helps shape both countries’ diplomacy: each freed itself from colonial powers around the same time.

Throughout their histories, the Indian and Chinese civilizations were separated by the vast Tibetan plateau, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts; political relations were absent. It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950-1951 that Han Chinese troops appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers.

Just over a decade later, China surprised India’s ill-prepared army by launching a multi-pronged attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.”