Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2015

The Politics of History: India and China, 1949-1962

Nirupama Rao

September 2014

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


A sense of proportion is required about the history of the relationship between India and China in the period before the border conflict of 1962 between these two nations. The lessons learnt from that history can be instructional for the future of their relationship. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister was a devoted friend of China but he was also not blind to the “threat” from China. The first stress test in the relationship between the two countries came with the Chinese entry into Tibet in 1950. China was deeply suspicious of India’s relations with Tibet although India felt it could not influence the course of events in Tibet or wrest the territory from Chinese control. Nehru withstood opposition from his Cabinet colleagues like Sardar Patel in this regard. The 1954 Agreement between China and India on Tibet saw India giving up all rights that savored of extra-territoriality there. However, the non-affirmation by China of the boundary between the two countries, particularly the McMahon Line, came at a significant future cost for India. By 1959, with the revolt in Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, the high noon of friendship in the nineteen fifties between India and China had been consigned to history. Nehru’s strategy of bringing the People’s Republic of China into the international arena was not destined to succeed. Chinese leaders, particularly the Premier, Zhou Enlai avoided speaking with sufficient transparency about Chinese border claims and misread India’s approach to events in Tibet. Once the fact of contested territorial claims became evident, the national mood in India hardened against China reducing the scope for action by the Government to negotiate a settlement with China that would have involved a degree of compromise. India’s so-called “forward policy” was aimed to defensively block “lines of further Chinese advance” into territory regarded by India as sovereign, but had consequences that were unforeseen. The border war was engineered by China as a “warning and a punishment” to India. On the Indian side, the Chinese were seen as having deceived India. It is the clear and rational reading of the history of the period between 1949 and 1962 that provides pointers to the understanding of even the current relationship between India and China and will enable the charting of new paths.