China – India 1962 War: Who Started The Fighting? – Analysis


By R. S. Kalha

As we near the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian conflict that broke out in October 1962, the question that has often been asked is: Who started the actual fighting? There is no doubt on the Indian side that it all began with the massive Chinese onslaught that was initiated in the early hours of 20 October 1962 all along the Sino-Indian border. Most Chinese and their apologists insist that it was India that started the conflict by following the so-called ‘forward policy’ and ‘nibbling’ at China’s frontiers. The actual Chinese onslaught on 20 October 1962, it is claimed, was only a ‘counter-attack’ and in ‘self-defence’ to throw out Indian ‘aggressors’ from Chinese territory. In other words, it was an action designed to reclaim Chinese territory wrongly usurped by India. Let us examine the facts as they are, to see if the Chinese contention has any merit or, as India believes believes, it was nothing but a premeditated attack by China. First let us examine what the Chinese leadership itself has said on this issue.

China - India Relations
China – India Relations

On 25 March 1959, sometime after the Tibetan revolt broke out in early March 1959, the then Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General, Deng Xiaoping, insisted that several of Nehru’s speeches about the Tibetan situation, together with the fact that the headquarters of the rebellion was located in Kalimpong, ‘left no doubt that the Indian government was behind the rebellion… and, when the times comes, we certainly will settle accounts with them’ [emphasis added].1

Soon after the hostilities were over, the then Chinese President Liu Shaoqi told the Sri Lankan leader Felix Bandaranaike that the 1962 conflict was ‘to demolish India’s arrogance and illusions of grandeur. China had taught India a lesson [emphasis added] and would do so again and again!’ Liu repeated the same line to the Swedish Ambassador as well. Mao Zedung confirmed this line of thinking when he told a Nepalese delegation in 1964 that the ‘major problem between India and China was not the McMahon Line, but the Tibetan question’ [emphasis added]. And for emphasis he added that ‘in the opinion of the Indian government, Tibet is theirs’. 2 Mao discounted the territorial aspect of the conflict when he told the then Soviet CDA, Antonov, that ‘We never, under any circumstances, will move beyond the Himalayas. That is completely ruled out. This is an argument over inconsequential pieces of territory.’ Recent Chinese commentaries quote Mao’s belief that the ‘real target’ was not Nehru, but the US and the Soviets that had been plotting behind the scenes against China.3 And an official Chinese publication published recently further amplifies the same theme thus: ‘The declaration [of cease-fire] of the Chinese government was a serious blow for anti-China plan of America and Soviet Union and their strategic design in Asia….. Just as soldiers of Chinese Frontier Forces said ‘this time when Jawaharlal Nehru is hit then its pain is seen on the faces of Kennedy and Khrushchev.’ 4

In addition, it was the Chinese belief that this knock-out punch would keep the Sino-Indian frontier quiet for a considerable length of time to their immense advantage, discourage any Indian ‘meddling’ in Tibet and ‘to strike peace with its neighbor.’ 5 It was hoped that Tibet would thus be pacified.

Later, in 1973, Zhou Enlai was to tell Kissinger that the conflict took place because Nehru was getting ‘cocky’. Mao even blamed Nehru for the clashes and said that he [Nehru] was using them for the following reasons: First, he is trying to deliver a blow to the Communist Party of India. Second, to ease for India the conditions for the receipt of economic aid from the Western powers, in particular from the USA. And third, to obstruct the spread of influence of the Socialist camp on the Indian people. Mao wanted to ‘wake-up’ Nehru and try to detach him ‘from the influence of the super-powers.’ 6 So if what Mao told Antonov and the Nepalese and what Liu Shaoqi told Bandaranaike is correct, then the whole issue was not about the boundary question and particularly not about the territorial aspect of it, but something quite else. It had nothing to do with the so-called ‘forward policy.’

Let us also look at the sequence of events just prior to the opening of hostilities. The Chinese leadership was aware that to deliver and sustain a knockout punch to India the two super powers, the US and Soviet Russia, had to be ‘neutralized.’ To ascertain what was in the American mind and to gauge their intentions, the Chinese Ambassador to Warsaw, Wang Bingnan, was recalled from leave and hastily dispatched to Warsaw with instructions to meet his US counterpart forthwith. On 23 June 1962, Wang Bingnan met US Ambassador Cabot at Warsaw. Ambassador Wang claimed that Beijing had noted preparations in Taiwan for a landing on the mainland. Ambassador Cabot, who was unaware of any such preparations, based on his brief from the State Department, conveyed to his Chinese interlocutor that he had been authorized to state that the US government had no intention of supporting any GRC [Taiwan] attack on the mainland under existing circumstances [emphasis added]. Ambassador Wang could not believe his ears and, to make sure he heard it right, requested the US Ambassador to repeat this assurance once again. The US Ambassador duly obliged7 The Chinese could not believe their good fortune. Wang later admitted that this assurance that he obtained from the US played a ‘very big role’ in China’s decision to attack India.8 What Ambassador Cabot told Ambassador Wang was later publicly confirmed by President Kennedy to newsmen on 27 June 1962. The Chinese breathed a huge sigh of relief for they were anticipating trouble on two fronts.

On 8 October 1962, Chinese leaders informed the Soviet Ambassador in Beijing that ‘China knows that Indian forces are planning to launch a large scale attack in Sino-Indian frontier regions and if India launches an attack than we will resolutely carry out self-defence.’ On 13 and 14 October 1962, Ambassador Liu Xiao met Khrushchev who told him that the ‘information received by the Soviet Union regarding India preparing to launch an attack on China is same as conveyed by China.’ 9 Further, Ambassador Liu secured from Khrushchev ‘guarantees’ that if China was attacked and a China-India War ensued, the Soviets would ‘stand together with China’ [emphasis added]. 10 In a 20 October 1962 letter, Khrushchev rebuked Nehru for failing to show ‘due urge for reconciliation’ and urged him ‘to agree to Chinese proposals’. 11 This new tough line was confirmed when MJ Desai [then Secretary General, MEA] told US Ambassador Galbraith in a meeting on 23 October 1962 that ‘in the past few days the Soviets have taken a tough line with the Indians—including advice to settle on Chinese terms.’ 12 The Soviets had no option as they were engrossed in a serious confrontation with the US over Cuba and badly needed Chinese support. Support for India was expendable.

With both the super powers effectively ‘neutralized’, the Chinese now systematically set the stage. All communications to the Indian Mission at Lhasa were cut on 9 October 1962. No one was allowed to enter the Mission. All Tibetan staff members were withdrawn. Similarly, communications from the Indian Embassy in Beijing were also withheld. Indian POWs reported, on return to India, that the PLA had stationed interpreters in Tibet who spoke every major Indian language! They also saw at first- hand how well stocked and prepared the Chinese were. The Chinese attack began simultaneously in all sectors of the border, both in the west and in the east, at the same time [5 a.m. IST on 20 October 1962] completely synchronized as per Beijing time! [emphasis added]

Three Chinese Regiments, 154, 155 and 157 [equivalent to Indian Brigades], all battle-hardened veterans of the Korean War transferred from across the Taiwan Straits since June 1962, attacked Indian positions across the Namka Chu defended by a single brigade and overran them. Similar attacks were launched simultaneously on all Indian positions both in the Western and Eastern sectors with overwhelming force.

What was the position on the Indian side? Krishna Menon left for New York on 17 September 1962 to attend the UN General Assembly and returned to India only on 30 September 1962. Nehru left Delhi on 8 September 1962 to attend the Commonwealth PM’s conference and after visiting Paris, Lagos and Accra returned only on 2 October 1962, but left again on 12 October 1962 for Colombo and returned to Delhi only on 16 October 1962. Two of the most important officials at Army Headquarters were also away from Delhi: Lt. Gen. Kaul, the Chief of General Staff, was on holiday in Kashmir till 2 October 1962, while the Director of Military Operations [DMO] was on a cruise on the aircraft carrier Vikrant.

These are the facts. It is for the reader to make a judgement whether India was the aggressor that initiated hostilities on 20 October 1962.

The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. New Delhi.

1. Wu, Yi Mao zuxi (With Chairman Mao), p. 121.
2. Mao Zedung sixiang [1949-1968], Joint Publication Research Service (IRPS) No.61269, 20 February 1974, p. 573.
3. Hong Yuan, Global Times, 28 June 2012.
4. A History of the Counter Attack War in Self Defence along Sino-Indian Border , Chapter 6, Section (1) B, (published 1994), p. 348.
5. Global Times , 28 June 2012.
6. Hong Yuan, Global Times, 28 June 2012.
7. Department of State , File No.611.93/6-2362.
8. Wang Bingnan, Zhong- Mei huitan jiu nian huigu (Recollections of Nine years of Sino-US talks) Beijing, pp. 85-90.
9. A History of the Counter Attack War in Self- Defence Along the Sino-Indian Border , Chapter 4, Section 2, p. 165.
10. Liu Xiao, Chu Shi Sulian Banian (Eight years as Ambassador to Soviet Union), Beijing: Zhonggang Dangshi Ziliao Chubanshi, 1986, p. 121.
11. S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 222.
12. John K. Galbraith, Ambassador’s Journal (Hamish Hamilton, 1969), p. 431.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

One thought on “China – India 1962 War: Who Started The Fighting? – Analysis

  • October 19, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    The writer supported his thesis with selective references, some of which are of doubtful relevance, leaving out the most important non-Indian, non-Chinese source, Neville Maxwell: India’s China War, which put the blame squarely on India. Over the years, Maxwell maintained that Tibet was never an issue. The reader can take note of RS Kalha’s article but should consider the objectivity or lack of it of Maxwell’s scholarly work. And ask if Maxwell was a paid PRC agent. If that were the case (and no evidence has surfaced over the past 40 years), CIA would be the first to denounce him. One can continue to rationalize and wallow in self-pity of a perceived and perhaps a politically-motivated ‘aggrieved’ party, but it’s not going to serve any useful purpose and would not help towards a badly needed reconciliation of one-third of humanity. vjie, singapore


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