Looking back at India’s only military debacle, 60 years after

20 October 2022 marks sixty years since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China launched a surprise attack on India, leading to a month-long war that left an indelible scar on India’s collective national psyche.

Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously wrote in his masterpiece The Art of War,“Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” Nations that do not know their capabilities and limitations vis-à-vis its perceived adversary are poised to endure losses or repeat the same mistakes again. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 is the only military conflict in independent India’s history wherein she has known defeat. While some analysts call it the “Chinese betrayal”, others call out the failure of India’s political leadership to get along with its top military brass, effectively compromising on combat readiness, as the most consequential factor that determined the outcome of war. While the former view could satisfy hawks, the latter view is closer to reality and is profoundly subjected to political scrutiny within India.

The moment of truth

Just fifteen years after India’s independence from the British, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a surprise two-sector attack on India – in the western (Ladakh) and the eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors. This evolved into a war that exposed India’s external security fault-lines and lethargic civilian-military fusion. Even with failure, the valour of Indian soldiers are respectfully remembered in the much-celebrated Battles of Rezang La and Walong, in which they successfully blocked Chinese advance. In the thirty-one-day war, India lost over 3,000 soldiers and almost 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Ladakh’s strategic Aksai Chin area, which China continues to occupy to this day.

While the Nehru government was busy pursuing the lofty ideas of “Asian solidarity” and internationalism, the Chinese leader-duo, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong had other plans in mind for their country. Even after recognizing Tibet as part of China in a 1954 pact on cross-border trade, India continued to support Tibetans’ quest for autonomy. Nehru granted asylum to the region’s politico-spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in 1959, shortly following the outbreak of a rebellion there, which China accused India of abetting. New Delhi and Beijing rigorously corresponded for negotiations to happen soon, but the two sides couldn’t find a common ground. A summit between Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai in April 1960 broke off.

Recurring mistakes

In November 1961, India adopted a disastrous “Forward Policy”, wherein it set up several new outposts and pushed patrols as close as possible to the borders New Delhi, drawing much upon British era claims. The Chinese interpreted it as a provocation by the Indian side and responded by establishing posts overlooking the Indian ones, at times even encircling them. Various minor conflicts and military incidents occurred throughout the summer of 1962. Then came the fateful day of 20October 1962, when the Chinese captured Indian posts in Galwan, and threatened to capture a strategic airstrip in Ladakh.

Having the experience of winning the Chinese Civil War (1927-49) and under a much more competent and purpose-driven leadership, the PLA continued their advance, taking advantage of their Indian counterpart’s disorganised command structure, which owes a great deal to the bungling political leadership. Logistical snags and the lack of development of border infrastructure also contributed to India’s loss. In a missed opportunity, the Indian leadership never utilised its air power for combat operations, except for dropping supplies to the army. Valiant Indian soldiers who fought the best of their abilities were ultimately bogged down by the lack of reinforcements and essential supplies.

The indelible scar

The war went on for thirty-one days until China declared a unilateral ceasefire, soon after India started receiving U.S. military aid and the winter was already around the corner. Following the end of hostilities, both sides proposed to maintain the pre-war status quo, but anyway India never got back Aksai Chin and the LAC continued to remain disputed with varying perceptions of territoriality. The war left an indelible scar on India’s collective national psyche, leading to a complete overhaul of its defence architecture and gave an impetus for modernizing its armed forces. However, it is often forgotten that five years after the war, India hit back at China and won the Battle of Nathu La in Sikkim in 1967. This unexpected pushback ultimately salvaged India pride and redrew the trajectory of its ties with China for many years that followed.

Today, the threat perception of China in India is higher than the other way around, owing to the capability differences and a serious gap in comprehensive national power between the two countries, with China having a clear upper hand due to its economic, industrial and technological superiority. In the modern age of Artificial Intelligence-backed war machines and sophisticated weapons of mass destruction on both sides, the extent to which conventional notions like ‘battlefield valour’ play out in determining the outcome of future warfare appear limited, as compared to the past.

Persisting tensions

Even six decades after 1962, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two Asian neighbours still remains tense, particularly in the western sector, and is susceptible to unintended conflicts in the future. Recurring stand-offs along the LAC, as in the Depsang Plains (2013), Demchok (2014), Doklam (2017), and Galwan (2020) further underline this looming reality. Two years ago, in June 2020, despite a set of border agreements and protocols put in place since 1993, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a fist fight using primitive weapons, ending up with casualties on both sides.

New Delhi’s intensified push for border infrastructure in the last few years, in pursuit of attaining parity with China, and participation in groupings like the Quad has not only raised eyebrows in Beijing, but is also increasingly shaping the optics within the Chinese public, which President Xi Jinping (the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong) cannot neglect any longer. As the prospect for a negotiated settlement for the boundary question appearing dim day-by-day with China’s persistently bellicose and provocative geopolitical posturing, India’s foreign and defence policy establishments have to be prepared for any grim scenario in the future, by cultivating expertise on its eastern neighbour, boosting combat readiness, and of course, by learning from history to not make the same mistakes again.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.