By Willy | March 23, 2011
The modern states of China and India both came into existence in the years immediately following World War II. From birth, the two states were near polar opposites. After a decades-long nonviolent freedom movement, India gained independence in 1947 as a secular, liberal democracy. Two years later, decades of revolutions and civil wars came to an end in China with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China.
Despite their fundamentally different government systems and underlying philosophies—liberal democracy versus communism—India and China were eager to find common ground during their early years of existence as independent states. As Jawaharlal Nehru argued in his nationalistic epic The Discovery of India, the two nations were linked by a long history of amicable relations and fruitful cultural exchanges. Buddhism had originated in India before spreading to China; the religion lived on in China but had since almost died out in the land of its origin. The same fruitful interchange continued into the early 1950s. During this time, the motto of Sino-Indian relations was the Hindi phrase Hindi-Chini bhai bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers).
In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army overran the effectively independent feudal state of Tibet. Despite reservations about the legality and morality of this move, India signed a treaty with China in 1954, affirming Chinese territorial rights to Tibet. Nevertheless, the Tibetan problem magnified Sino-Indian tensions as the 1950s progressed. Internal agitations by Tibetan resistance forces led to increasingly harsh reprisals by the Chinese army.
The Tibetan situation reached a climax in March 1959. In the midst of another popular uprising, the Dalai Lama—Tibet’s religious and political leader—escaped to India, where he received asylum and set up the Tibetan Government in Exile. After March 1959, Sino-Indian relations deteriorated rapidly. Within months, Indian and Chinese border troops had begun skirmishing on the long frontiers between the two countries.
China claimed two pieces of territory that had formerly belonged to the British Raj and were now nominally under Indian control. The Chinese government argued that both pieces of territory had been historically parts of Tibet, and therefore belonged to China. In the west, China claimed Aksai Chin, the easternmost portion of the contested Kashmir region. In the east, China claimed the majority of the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA)1, a political division of the Indian state of Assam. This section of the Sino-Indian border was known as the McMahon Line, established in a three-way conference between China, Tibet, and Great Britain at Simla in July 1914.2 Forty-five years later, China repudiated the McMahon Line.
The stage was set for independent India’s first crisis. The crisis had been long in the making, but when the People’s Liberation Army rolled through the Himalayan passes into northeast India in October 1962, India was taken completely by surprise.
- Ali, S. Mahmud. Cold War in the High Himalayas: The USA, China and South Asia in the 1950s. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India and Pakistan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
- Varma, Shanti Prasad. Struggle for the Himalayas: A Study in Sino-Indian Relations. Jullundur, India: University Publishers, 1965.
- The territory covered by NEFA consists of the eastern Himalaya, stretching from Bhutan to Burma. NEFA became Indian union territory Arunachal Pradesh in 1972. In 1987, Arunachal Pradesh became a full-fledged state. [↩]
- Shanti Prasad Varma, Struggle for the Himalayas: A Study in Sino-Indian Relations (Jullundur, India: University Publishers, 1965), 15. [↩]