On Nov. 21, 1962, as the Indian Army continued a chaotic retreat from its high altitude positions in the Himalayan Mountains, Communist China’s victorious forces halted their advance and implemented a unilateral ceasefire.
That ceasefire stopped combat operations in what we now call the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War.
That mid-20th century war, however, isn’t ancient history. In fact, as East Asian and Southeast Asian maritime border quarrels escalate from rhetorical sparring to naval confrontations, the war has a frightening contemporary resonance. China is involved in the most contentious maritime border disagreements. China claims roughly 80 percent of the South China Sea and its seabed’s potentially enormous mineral wealth. China’s southern neighbors, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, deny China’s broad assertion of sovereignty. In September 2012, a hot-blooded, and quite senior, Chinese general said his country should prepare for war with Japan over a string of islets China calls the Diaoyus and Japan the Senkakus.
China’s naval buildup and its maritime claims have drawn American media attention, but it is in the high Himalayas, in some of the world’s most forbidding mountainous terrain, where Asia’s nuclear-armed giants collide. Indeed, in the edgy Asia of 2012, China and India, two competitive military and economic powers with global influence, remain locked in a frozen war over a disputed border.
Optimists argue that, except for an alleged skirmish or two in the late 1960s, the fact that the Sino-Indian ceasefire has remained in effect for 50 years indicates stability. However, a ceasefire is not a negotiated, signed and ratified peace treaty. Hardline nationalists in Beijing and New Delhi continue to use different names for the disputed territory. The Chinese refer to the region as Southern Tibet. Indians call it the northern frontier of what is now Arunachal Pradesh state.
“Frozen conflict” is diplomatic slang for an unsettled but relatively localized conflict where the antagonists remain “frozen” in their political positions and neither side has the military resources or diplomatic influence to resolve the conflict on its terms. Divided Cyprus is one example. The Korean War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are frozen conflicts with regional and international dimensions.
Frozen conflicts may have the veneer of stability, but they are, in reality, slow wars waged by diplomatic, economic and cultural means, or hot wars on simmer, awaiting re-ignition.
Frozen war applies to the Sino-Indian conflict at a literal level. With the Himalayas as the 1962 battlefield and the still-disputed border winding over glacier and snowfields, Cold War-era gallows humorists described the Sino-Indian conflict as “the coldest war.” China prepared for its 1962 attack by acclimating its assault troops to the high altitudes (14,000 feet) and training them for mountain infantry operations. China also timed its offensive to take advantage of the looming Himalayan winter. Launching the surprise attack in October meant any Indian counter-stroke would have to wait for the spring thaws.
In 1962 the war didn’t quite fit the East Bloc-West Bloc paradigm. China was a nominal Soviet Russian ally. India, however, was no Western ally. India’s leaders resented Great Britain and suspected the U.S. favored its rival, Pakistan. However, a Cold War echo followed the conflict: a nuclear arms race. In 1964, China detonated a nuclear device. Geo-strategists knew India would respond. India went nuclear in 1974.
The 1962 defeat still troubles the Indian military. Indian veterans of the war call it a humiliation that still stings. Several recent articles written by Indian defense analysts and a retired general or two have debated the Indian government’s failure to use the Indian Air Force to stop the Chinese attack and strike Chinese support installations inside Tibet. After reading them, I was left with the distinct impression that any future Himalayan war won’t be confined to border passes and garrison outposts.
Given China’s and India’s technological prowess, air could turn to space. In April 2012, India test-fired its new Agni intercontinental ballistic missile. If you think Pakistan was the primary audience, think again. Indian Air Force fighter-bombers already have Karachi within range. The Agni puts Beijing in the bull’s-eye.