Ahead of the 60th anniversary of the 1962 India-China war which falls in October this year, official Chinese military researchers have compiled a new history of the war reassessing its significance and legacy, bringing the spotlight back to the war amid the current tensions in relations.
Previous anniversaries of the war received only modest attention in China — far less than in India — and some Chinese military scholars have in the past viewed the war with India as one of China’s forgotten wars. Unlike the Korean War or war with Japan, the India-China war hasn’t been covered as extensively in Chinese films, television dramas or in the media.
That is now changing. There has been renewed attention on 1962 following the Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis which began in April 2020 and particularly after the June 15, 2020 clash in Galwan Valley. If the normalisation of ties with India was one reason for downplaying 1962 in the past, the recent plunge in relations has coincided with greater interest both in 1962 and on the boundary dispute.
To mark the 60th anniversary, Zhang Xiaokang, daughter of the former PLA General Zhang Guohua who headed the Tibet military region and planned the Chinese offensive in the eastern sector in October 1962, brought together Chinese military researchers to compile a new history of the war, titled One Hundred Questions on the China-India Border Self-Defence Counterattack . Extracts of the book were published this month in the popular Chinese website Guancha . The book is based on interviews with PLA veterans and focuses on Chinese military strategy as well as on the legacy of the war.
In China, high-profile books on military history, a sensitive topic, cannot be published without a green light from the PLA’s Central Military Commission, which is headed by President Xi Jinping. The extract said although it had been many years since the war “it has not been forgotten with the passage of time, and generations of soldiers and military fans have always been interested in this counterattack.”
One reason why the 1962 war hasn’t received wide attention is that unlike the war against Japanese occupation, China was the aggressor, despite the often repeated claim by the Communist Party that China had never invaded or occupied any country.
Officially, China still calls its massive attack on India as a “self-defence counterattack”. The book reveals that the CPC under Mao, very shortly after the offensive, decreed that all references to the war in China could only describe it as a “counterattack”, reflective of how the leadership looked to immediately turn on its head China’s act of aggression.
The extract notes that on December 3, 1962, less than two weeks after the unilateral ceasefire declared by China, the PLA’s General Staff department issued a telegram to all troops on “The Question of Naming the Operation Against the Invading Indian Army,” which stipulated that the war would only be referred to as the “China-India Border Self-Defence Counterattack”, a description that is still used today.
The book also looks at Mao’s decision to go to war and says he believed the offensive would, somewhat counterintuitively, “create conditions for a peaceful settlement of the Sino-Indian border issue” by bringing India to the negotiating table after Nehru’s “refusal” to acknowledge a dispute. That both sides subsequently began negotiating, the book argues, proved him right.
It also says Mao was initially concerned about the capabilities of the Indian Army but was reassured by his generals, including General Zhang. It quotes Mao as saying “if we don’t win, we won’t blame heaven and earth but our own incompetence”. He also told General Zhang that if China lost “sacred territory in Tibet” in the war that it would “take it back one day”.
The book focuses on the Eastern Sector, which General Zhang headed, and discusses the significance of the capture of Tawang in 1962, which it said was aimed to “demonstrate that China would not accept the McMahon Line” as well as its sovereignty over Tibet.
It attributes China’s military success in 1962 to the fighting experience gained by the military first in the war against Japan and subsequently in the war in Korea fighting U.S. troops. Those wars have occupied the spotlight in official Chinese military histories. But with the resurgence of tensions along the India-China border and ahead of the upcoming anniversary, the India-China war is now back in the spotlight.