17 January 2019
A file photo shows a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India in 2009. The two Asian powers, which fought a brief war in 1962 over a territorial dispute, have seen tensions flare up again recently. Credit: Reuters
A file photo shows a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India in 2009. The two Asian powers, which fought a brief war in 1962 over a territorial dispute, have seen tensions flare up again recently. Credit: Reuters

Why Beijing doesn’t play up its win in the 1962 Sino-Indian war

As the military standoff between China and India in the Doklam area continues, an Indian friend of mine recently raised this question: why didn’t Beijing build hype around its victory over India in the 1962 Sino-Indian border and use it to boost national morale and mobilize public opinion amid the current alleged foreign aggression?

It wass indeed quite an interesting question because the fact remains that even though the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defeated the Indian forces in that war, over the years Communist Party propaganda in the mainland has been downplaying the significance of that conflict.

As a result, the 1962 war has gradually become a “forgotten war” among the mainland public.

And the true reason why for decades Beijing has never bragged about its resounding victory over India in 1962 is, to a large extent, because of the mind-boggling outcome of that conflict: although China won the war, it was India which eventually seized most of the disputed territories.

During the Sino-Indian war that took place between October and November 1962, the Indian troops collapsed and retreated chaotically in face of the full-scale offensives mounted by the PLA in both the eastern and western theaters along the disputed Himalayan border.

However, just as the PLA had driven almost all Indian troops out of the disputed territories (i.e. Chushul in the west and Tawang in the east) and was about to sweep to a complete victory, Beijing suddenly ordered its troops to stop advancing and pull back to the Chinese side of the McMahon Line (i.e. the disputed border), and then unilaterally declared a ceasefire on November 20.

Thanks to the PLA’s sudden retreat, the Indian army which had been driven back was able to regain control of most of the disputed territories in both theaters except the Aksai Chin area in the east.

In other words, even though China had defeated India in the war, it gave up most of its territorial gains and unilaterally pulled its troops back into the initial border, a decision that would turn out to be one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in modern military history.

And the result of that war probably explains why Chinese officialdom has refrained from reminding its people of the country’s past “victory” over India amid the recent military standoff in Doklam.

Most historians contend that the reason why Liu Shaoqi, the then leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), called a sudden halt to the PLA offensive against the Indian army was because he was well aware that his country could not afford to fight a long drawn-out border war in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward movement between 1958 and 1961, which had led to a nationwide famine.

Besides, even though the CPC has been infamously good at playing up external threats and stirring up ultra-nationalist frenzy among its own population in order to distract the public from internal issues, it is quite difficult for Beijing to pull the same trick again this time over the Doklam crisis.

It is because unlike the US, the former Soviet Union and Japan, which have been portrayed for decades by party propaganda as the arch-enemies of the Chinese people, India is rarely regarded by the mainland public as a superpower or an imminent threat to their national security at all.

In fact many mainland people don’t even consider India as a rival on the same footing as China.

Given that, Beijing would have difficulty evoking nationalist emotions among its people even if it did fire on all cylinders to play up the ongoing conflict in Doklam and magnify the “India threat”.

Yet, in stark contrast, even after 55 years, many Indian people today still have a big chip on their shoulder about that war, and very much looking forward to settling old scores with the Chinese someday.

As the mainstream Chinese media don’t take the 1962 war seriously and never regard India as a worthy adversary, it is seen by many Indians as a worse kind of humiliation, as from their perspective, being looked down on by your enemy is even more humiliating than being defeated.

However, unlike China, where nationalist sentiments can barely influence foreign policies directly because the country is ruled by a Communist dictatorship, India’s stance on the Doklam conflict could well be influenced by public opinion because the country is a democracy.

As such, there remain a lot of variables as to how the border conflict between China and India would play out, and nobody can entirely rule out the possibility of the escalation of the crisis especially if politicians in India are able to evoke a nationalist frenzy among its people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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