ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Asian Clash of Civilisations? Revisiting the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962

Nearly 50 years ago, India and China met in a brief, bloody border clash. This essay analyses that conflict in terms of its impact on the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. It explains the roots of Nehru's interest in China, his hopes for relations between the two new nations, the origins of the border dispute, and its escalation into a full-fledged war. Nehru's policies are assessed from the viewpoint of his critics and admirers. The deeper structural reasons for the conflict between India and China are analysed. Finally, the essay also speaks to the shadow cast by the war of 1962 on the geopolitics of the present day.

This essay is based on the Ingalls Lecture delivered at the Harvard-Yengching Institute on 29 March 2011. I am grateful to Shiv Shankar Menon, Madhavan Palat and Srinath Raghavan for their advice, to Sharan Madanapudi for assistance with research, and to Anil Nauriya for directing me to a crucial source. A shorter version was published in the National Interest, September-October 2011.

In the late autumn of 1962, there was a short, intense border war between India and China. It resulted in the rout of an underprepared and poorly led Indian army. The battle was seen in national, civilisational, and ideological terms. India b ecame free of British rule in 1947; China was united under communist auspices in 1949. These two nations were, or at least saw themselves as, carriers of ancient civilisations that had produced great literature, philosophy, architecture, science, and much else, but whose further evolution had been rudely interrupted by western imperialists. The recovery of their national independence was seen as the prelude to the re-emergence of China and India as major forces in the modern world.

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