NEW DELHI — Forty years after China humbled India in a two-front Himalayan war masterminded by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, the lessons of that crushing defeat still reverberate in New Delhi. The war was Mao’s attempt to demolish India as an alternative democratic model and geopolitical rival to communist China by heaping humiliation on it when it was militarily weak and least expected to be attacked.

That aggression changed the fortunes of the two Asian giants. India, respected then as a model pluralistic state in the developing world, never fully recovered from that invasion and is still searching for a role in international affairs commensurate with its size. India has not yet realized that to be recognized as an important international power it has to start behaving and acting like one. So far, it has displayed the pretense of being a great power without having the stomach and spine to be one.

In contrast, China, a backward state racked by economic calamities in 1962, has gone on to successfully assert itself as a major global power through a display of indomitable spirit and political single-mindedness. It has found a cost-effective way to take on India through proxy threats mounted via Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Myanmar. Few recognize India today, contrary to the international view prior to the 1962 war, as a strategic peer to China.

While India remains prone to seduction by praise, China practices realistic, goal-oriented statecraft. Even a bigger difference is that, while India desires to be loved and seeks external affirmation of its policies, China insists on no less than respect. India has distinguished itself by reposing faith in adversaries and then crying foul when they deceive it.

In the style recommended by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tsu, who authored the treatise “The Art of War,” Mao chose an exquisite time for taking on India: The attack, spread over two separate rounds, coincided with a major international crisis that brought the United States and the Soviet Union within a whisper of nuclear war over the stealthy deployment of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.

The timing had been made even more favorable by two other developments — (1) an American promise in July 1962 to keep Taiwan from initiating hostilities across the straits, thus enabling China to single-mindedly mobilize forces against India, and (2) Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s discernible tilt toward Beijing on the Sino-Indian border issue in an apparent effort to buy Chinese support in the looming Soviet confrontation with the U.S.

Extended border negotiations with India had been employed by Mao not only to feign reasonableness but, more importantly, to buy time to improve Chinese military logistics along the mighty Himalayas and to await the right opportunity to strike.

The first wave of Chinese military assaults on Indian positions in the western and eastern sectors began on Oct. 20, five days after the CIA formally determined the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A day before the start of the attacks, Radio Moscow was citing U.S. naval maneuvers in the Caribbean as preparations for an invasion of Cuba. And the day the Chinese forces came pouring across the Himalayas, a U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba was in effect. By the time the Chinese halted their weeklong incursions, the world was on the edge of a nuclear Armageddon due to the Cuban missile crisis.

Not content with the easy battlefield victories against the outnumbered and outgunned Indian forces, Mao launched a second wave of military assaults on India three weeks later before the Cuban missile crisis wound up. The threat of a nuclear holocaust had eased after Khrushchev gave in on Oct. 28 and agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. But Cuba was still refusing U.N. on-site inspections and the withdrawal of Soviet Il-28 bombers.

On Nov. 21, coinciding with Washington’s formal termination of Cuba’s quarantine after Fidel Castro fell in line, Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire and its intent to withdraw from India’s northeast while keeping the military gains in the Ladakh region of Kashmir.

The aims of Mao’s India war were mainly political. The military objectives had largely been achieved in the earlier years through furtive Chinese encroachments on Indian territories after China’s 1950 occupation of Tibet brought Chinese forces to India’s frontiers for the first time in history. By quietly seizing Indian territory on the basis of Tibet’s putative historical links, China had built a land corridor to close ally Pakistan.

Mao was determined to cut India to size and undermine what it represented — a pluralistic, democratic model for the developing world that seemingly threatened China’s totalitarian political system.”

In one stroke, Mao also wrecked the international stature of Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, the key architect of the nonaligned movement. Defeat transformed Nehru from a statesman into a beaten, exhausted politician, hastening his death.

The swiftness and brute power with which Mao managed to teach India a lesson not only boosted China’s image, but also helped him to politically consolidate at home at a time when famines and other economic problems following his disastrous “Great Leap Forward” had created grassroots turmoil. Success, after all, has a thousand fathers, while defeat leaves an orphan.

Four decades later, India has not forgotten the central lesson it was taught by Mao. India’s rise as a military power with independent nuclear and missile capabilities is the consequence of a lesson learned. And, more than before, India’s stable democratic model poses a challenge to a China traversing the contradictory paths of market capitalism and political autocracy.

However, the scars of that war still remain. India has yet to recover from its “battered victim” syndrome, especially in its China policy. At the root of the feckless China policy is India’s failure to build and exploit leverage. Since the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations following Mao’s death, New Delhi has been the initiator of all the peace moves with China, even as Beijing continues to contain India without incurring any punitive costs.

Many Indians continue to look at India’s options in one-dimensional terms: Either national policy propitiates China, or risks open confrontation with a rising world power. Caution with prudence is understandable. But what Indian policymakers still display is caution bordering on fear. Therein lies the enduring success of Mao’s India war.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.