The politico-strategic aim of the war was to ‘teach India a lesson’, and prevent it from challenging the Chinese borders and sovereignty over Tibet.

War is not an act of senseless passion, but is controlled by political objective,” said military theorist Carl von Clausewitz.

Chinese maps had started showing Aksai Chin and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) as part of China in the early 1950s. In 1954, India also issued new maps to show our boundary along the Kunlun Mountains in Ladakh and the McMahon Line in the east. Both sides began to ‘flag’ the frontier region as per their claims, with the Chinese preempting us in Aksai Chin, and India preempting them in NEFA.


Also read: Not China, 1962 war called India’s bluff


In 1959, Zhou Enlai had clearly stated that the entire boundary was under dispute and had never been delimited. He subtly proposed that status quo should be maintained until final resolution. This implied a trade-off between Aksai Chin and acceptance of the McMahon line in the Northeast as the boundary. This proposal was rejected by India, which insisted that the Chinese must withdraw from Aksai Chin before negotiations could begin. Until now, the Chinese had shown no inclination to use force, though given the favourable terrain and their military capability, they were in a position to do so.

What then led to the war? What were the political and military aims of China? To say that the border dispute and India’s aggressive “frontier flagging” policy – “forward movement” of troops after 1959 – was the primary cause of the war would be rewriting the theory of war.

Wars imply severe economic and human cost, and hence are the instrument of last resort. The ultimate political objective of war is to impose peace on one’s own terms. To achieve this, one has to compel the opponent to submit to one’s will. Apart from diplomacy and economic coercion, ultimately, the will of the enemy is broken by imposing a military defeat. Military aims thus flow out from political aims, and are not an end unto themselves.

While the boundary dispute was the immediate casus belli in 1962, the fundamental causes are rooted in the competitive conflict for relative position of preeminence in Asia and the world, and the Indian threat to the Chinese vulnerability in Tibet.

From the very onset, China had let the world know that it is ordained to be a great power. India was seen as a rival power centre and the international personality of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was an anathema to the Chinese leadership. Thus, there was an undeclared aim to cut Nehru down to size and neutralise India as rival.


Also read: 2 persistent myths about 1962 China war are intelligence failure & Nehru’s meddling


Tibet is China’s Achilles heel. Tibet is a civilisation by itself and had never accepted the sovereignty of China. At that time, China believed India was assisting the insurrection in Tibet in conjunction with the CIA to restore status quo ante pre-1950. The asylum to the Dalai Lama in March 1959 confirmed this Chinese belief. The road through Aksai Chin was essential for China to maintain its control over Tibet. Thus, India’s rejection of a reasonable Chinese proposal to exchange Aksai Chin for acceptance of the McMahon Line was seen as part of India’s designs in Tibet.

Over the next three years, India aggressively pursued the forward policy to establish its writ over the territory it considered legitimately belonging to it. China responded in a quid pro quo manner with its policy of “peaceful coexistence”, but continued to exercise restraint to avoid precipitating the situation. India was further emboldened, and its belief that China would not go to war while it secured its legitimate territory was further reinforced.

The Galwan River and Dhola Post incidents convinced the Chinese that war was inevitable.

Chinese leadership was well-versed in the art of war and was intimately involved with the decision-making and had deliberated its strategy over a series of meetings. By early October, it gave formal directions to the PLA to execute the plans for the war.


Also read: This day in 1962, at Rezangla, Ladakh


The politico-strategic aim of the war was to “teach India a lesson”, neutralise it as a rival for position of preeminence in Asia and the world, and prevent it from challenging the Chinese borders and sovereignty over Tibet.

The military objective was to impose an absolute defeat on Indian forces operating in NEFA and Ladakh, and in so doing, completely annihilate the forces in NEFA, seize territory up to the plains (in NEFA) and the 1959 claim line in Ladakh.

The difference in the approach between Ladakh and NEFA was due to the logistics problems faced by the PLA in Ladakh, and the destruction of only one brigade that India deployed was not considered a worthwhile objective. Moreover, China had already secured the territory it had claimed.

The ideal time for the campaign in the high-altitude areas of Ladakh and NEFA is from June to October. Due to the initial policy of restraint followed until the Dhola incident, the decision-making for the war had got delayed and the final decision was taken only in the first week of October. This effectively gave the PLA only one month to achieve its military objectives. This delay also led China to unilaterally withdraw upon completion of the annihilation and achievement of other objectives.

It would have been extremely difficult to maintain the PLA forces via the snowbound passes over very poor motorable tracks. The forces would also have been vulnerable to counter attack in the lower reaches.

China did not want the USA to physically intervene to assist India. Also, the Chinese claims in NEFA were merely a ploy to justify the seizure of Aksai Chin. The compulsion forced by weather conditions was eventually used to enhance China’s prestige in the world.

The politico-strategic aims evolved by a political leadership with an experience of 30 years of continuous war were achieved in totality by an equally experienced and battle-hardened PLA through a clinically-conducted war that lasted one month. A classic example of how a nation must exercise force in pursuit of its national interests.

The author served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC-in-C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal.

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  1. I found this article very balanced especially concerning the political motives of both the Chinese and Indian sides. Since the 1962 War, China has released their records. The author could have mentioned that a full release of the Henderson-Brooks Report by the Indian Government would complete the record. It would certainly provide the Indian military viewpoint at the time and the context for certain actions that were undertaken under the then circumstances.

    • General Panag is cheering deaths 3,000 Indian Soldiers as “Nehru being cut to size”! Indian Army does not understand warfare even with 56-year hindsight. The extent of 1962 is too small in terms of geography and numbers. How could a nation of 500 million people be “neutralized as a rival” by killing just 3,000 soldiers (not to mention Mao’s own loss of 1,000 soldiers), unless the nation itself is weak-kneed?? The conflict took place in remote mountains and nothing happened in any Civilian Areas. Take China (which had similar population) for example: Mao/Shek lost 23 million (Civilians!) to WW2, 3 million to their own Civil War – not to mention Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. The West killed half-million Chinese each to Korea and Vietnam. Did that neutralize China as a rival to West or Japan?? Of course not! In fact Mao dared the West to nuke him claiming, even if they kill millions, there will be more to fight West. Indians have no stomach for war. Indian Army is incapable of fighting real wars like China. Nehru completely understood that fact and hence “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”. Indian Army is only good for Police Work. To this day, Indian Army has not taken responsibility nor did introspection. They continue to blame Nehru, Krishna Menon, the “politicians” etc. etc.

  2. Ironically, it was Mao who was cut to size by Nehru! Despite Indian Army abandoning posts and running away, Jawaharlal Nehru stood like a man he was. Despite China’s threat to invade Assam if their possession of NEFA is not recognized, Nehru declined the Ceasefire and vowed to fight. By November 1962, Nehru forced China retreat to pre-war positions and recovered every inch of NEFA lost by the Army. China never claimed victory nor even acknowledges any war ever taking place. When enemy retreats, any other nation would claim victory while only Indians can INSIST of “defeat, debacle and humiliation”.

  3. Neville Maxwell called Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962 the most well documented in history of mankind. Yet even with 56-year hindsight, all that Indians want to do is smear Nehru in the name of “learning lessons” but fail to even get their story straight. One theory goes that Nehru was too naive and trusted Chinese who “betrayed” him unscrupulously. The other theory is that Nehru was abrasive in challenging the borders and hence China came down and taught him a lesson. Both these theories are mutually contradictory. If one is true, the other cannot be! So which is the truth? Was Nehru Naive? or was Nehru Abrasive? Ironically, the objective of both theories is to insult Nehru and laugh at his supposed misfortune! We all know that the objective of any border war is to stop enemy from challenging the sovereignty! That was why we fight Pakistan which we COULD NOT cut to size obviously. We don’t need a 40-year veteran tell us that. How about telling BJP that Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai idea of Nehru was great!? And that Jana Sangh should not have pushed Nehru pick fight with China or meddle in Tibet? Gen Panag’s own colleagues write about greatness of Sardar Patel’s letter which asked Nehru meddle in Tibet. How about telling them that Sardar Patel was wrong?

  4. Bad analysis of a senior military man.

    The 1962 war happened because India gave Dalai Lama refuge. Now unhappy Mao and Chou wanted to cut Nehru to size hence instituted the policy of occupying Akas Chin plateau in Ladakh. That was provaction enough for Nehru and Menon to institute forward policy without adequate preparations. Ladakh was partially defended but NEFA was totally undefended. Chinese calculations were that Indian Army cannot defend Tawang in NEFA hence should be captured as a punishment for letting Dalai Lama in. Incidentally Tawang is the birth place of Dalai Lama and has an ancient monastery which Chinese thought will strengthen their claim over Tibet and end Dalai Lama’s domination of Tibet.

    Moreover Chinese were militarily superior in Tibet Pleateu but had not crossed the real mountains. Indians were fools to vacate SELA Pass and let Chinese get as far as they got to – that was not a political mistake but lack of military thinking and initiative.

  5. Nehru’s first mistake was to accept China taking over Tibet. With Tibet, China gained control of high mountains and important glaciers. Aksai Chin clearly belonged to Hari Singh’s Kingdom. No doubt communist China ditched Nehru. That perhaps provoked Nehru to launch Forward Policy which was mere diplomatic warfare. Considering Nehru’s position in world politics, China was most awkwardly highlighted to the world. China’s guilty conscious mind was thus ready to sacrifice Tawang in order to legitimize her occupation over Aksai China. Giving political asylum to the Dalai Lama was not the only instigating factor to China. Fed up Nehru allowed America to use a military airport in Himachal to monitor China’s atomic site at Lop Nor. That was a very important factor to Mao who was ready to sacrifice half of the Chinese population to undermine America. The final proverbial straw was the ouster of Mao by the a group of Chinese leaders led by Li Shaoqi. Other members of his team were Zhao, Deng, Peng. That happened in 1961 Party Congress of China. 1962 war was an effort to come back to power by Mao. Yet, it was India that started the war. Mao was afraid to fire the first shot, though his battle-hardened men were fully prepared for the war. What happened thereafter is known to everybody. After 1962, Deng was sent to Laogai. Zhao was able to make a neat summersault. Peng was denied treatment and died pennilessly. Remember Peng was the was fought the war in 1962. He was the defense minister at that time. Li was removed from all position of importance. He was most brutally ‘publicly admonished’.

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