Jeff M. Smith: A Forgotten War in the Himalayas

Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of a forthcoming book on Sino-Indian relations. 

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The event will be met with little fanfare in India, where China’s surprise invasion still evokes feelings of outrage and betrayal. But the episode may be worth remembering for another reason, as the first occasion when India shed its nonaligned scruples and formed a tactical military alliance with the United States. 
For a decade after Indian independence in 1947, New Delhi enjoyed cordial relations with Beijing. In the spirit of Asian comity, the two agreed early on to sideline a border dispute India inherited from the British Raj . But the honeymoon was shortlived: By the late 1950s an ethnic insurgency in Tibet had put Beijing on the defensive. Suspecting Indian involvement, either directly or as an intermediary for the CIA, Beijing abandoned conciliatory language on the territorial dispute. Indian patrolling in disputed areas became more adventurous, and by 1959 a game of brinksmanship at the border devolved into armed clashes.
Three contentious years later, Chinese forces launched a surprise invasion on October 20; the same day the Kennedy administration decided to enact a blockade of Cuba to keep Soviet missiles out of the Western Hemisphere.
Even under the threat of the Cuban missile crisis, Washington found it impossible to remain aloof. Indeed a week before the Chinese invasion, Washington was expediting Indian requests for two Caribou transport planes, spare parts for C-119 aircraft and long-range radios. The US had tasted Mao’s revolutionary zeal in the Korean War and was alarmed by China’s support for insurgencies across Asia. Only days after Chinese forces crossed the Himalayas, President John Kennedy wrote to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asking “what [America] can do to translate our support into terms that are practically most useful to you as soon as possible.”
The constraints of India’s nonalignment policy and Washington’s special relationship with Pakistan made the US an unlikely ally. But New Delhi’s preferred patrons in Moscow could ill afford to alienate China during the Cuban missile crisis, despite the onset of the Sino-Soviet split....

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