The Bloody China-India Border Fight Is a Lot Like the Last One
In 1967, a fierce clash over an unstable frontier killed hundreds.
Chinese and Indian troops killing each other in the thin air of the Himalayas. America torn by violent confrontations between police and protesters. Rumors of leadership turmoil in Beijing. It’s not 2020. It’s 1967.
The last time there was an incident as deadly as Monday’s along the China-India border, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were both teenagers. In 1967, in the Himalayas far to the southeast of the location of the present violence, several deadly encounters between the world’s two most populous countries left dozens of Indians and Chinese dead. Coming only five years after their 1962 war, and with China’s Cultural Revolution at its most chaotic point, many feared the conflict could escalate regionally.
After its loss to China in 1962, India initiated an extensive military expansion. The total size of the Indian military doubled. Intelligence agencies took note. The CIA argued in August 1967 that the Indian military could be expected to repulse a Chinese attack without relinquishing substantial territory.
At the time, the area in which the skirmishes took place, Sikkim, was a semi-independent kingdom and protectorate of India. The Chinese Communist Party government encouraged Sikkim’s population to break from India decisively and declare independence. (Eventually, in 1975, it did the opposite and voted in a referendum to join India as a state.)
As is the case this year, the conflict in 1967 began with a gradual increase in nonmilitary activities. This year, an Indian road project led to Chinese attempts to harry work crews. In 1967, a series of minor building projects near the mountain pass at Nathu La (also known as Naku La), such as new loudspeakers, a trench, and a small wire fence, led to minor incidents of pushing, shoving, and punching between soldiers on either side of the line that serves as the functional border, known as the Line of Actual Control.
On Sept. 9, 1967, Beijing’s People’s Daily ran a story claiming that Indian soldiers had crossed the border and attacked Chinese soldiers, who fought them until they retreated. No other source I have seen lists fighting around that time. Whether the story was a pretext for aggression or not, it was on Sept. 11, 1967, that the major flash point occurred. By most accounts, as Indian soldiers were replacing older fencing with a barbed wire fence, Chinese soldiers argued with them and then opened fire from bunkers and nearby fortified positions. Artillery hit the positions, and many Indian soldiers fled—some of whom were later convicted of desertion.
That very same day that Chinese forces attacked, the People’s Daily decried a supposed invasion of Chinese territory, a propaganda technique that China would repeat in subsequent conflicts, such as its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. For three straight days, Indian and Chinese positions exchanged artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. Although the death tolls offered by each side are totally inconsistent—China later claimed 36 of its soldiers were killed or wounded, while one Indian estimate approximated the number around 400—at least dozens were killed on both sides. More Chinese fortifications were destroyed, however, because the Indian artillery was better located tactically on the high ground of the pass—which, if Indian figures are correct, may explain why the Chinese came off worse. So too could the logistical and leadership tumult inside a Chinese military already roiled by the political attacks of the Cultural Revolution.
As the fighting continued and headlines blared, then-Deputy Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai was in the United States on a scheduled visit. While he was there, he was interviewed on the Today show and asked repeatedly about the conflict. He also conversed with American officials about their issues with China. Finally, as Desai was heading home, a cease-fire was reached via high-level diplomacy.
Two weeks later, however, another incident broke the fragile calm. Indian and Chinese soldiers again began fighting over Chinese troops’ advance into a neighboring patch of borderland known as Chola. Wielding bayonets and knives, several soldiers on both sides were gored and even beheaded in the brawl. A firefight ensued that lasted into the next day, when Chinese troops retreated. The last deadly fight between China and India until this week’s occurred in 1975 when Chinese troops fought an Indian patrol near the border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in another incident whose details are disputed by both sides.
That similar incidents are still occurring more than half a century later speaks to the broader interests of national prestige and the strategic position of the Himalayas, which are the world’s geographical apex, the source of nearly all of the region’s major rivers, and a place of cultural confluence. Despite the violence, however, both governments continue to leave themselves options for de-escalation. Chinese media have downplayed the recent incidents. Similarly, in 1967, only one story on the topic made the front page of the People’s Daily.
Another similarity to the 1967 conflict is that due to the remote locations of the conflict zones, there are no reporters, or even civilian observers, present. A review of press from 1967 reveals how dependent the reporting was on government statements. That is true so far this year as well. War reporters and foreign-policy analysts are once again left parsing government statements, nationalistic press reports of dubious origin, and outright propaganda to try to understand what exactly happened. This leaves considerable room for the governments to manipulate impressions domestically and internationally.
While India’s greater press freedom may lend the country’s press accounts greater weight, the physical absence of anyone not directly affiliated with the governments means all accounts should be treated with a degree of skepticism, especially given the jingoistic turn of much of Indian media in recent years. Governments often try to manipulate perceptions of conflicts, but the degree to which it is possible is greater under these circumstances. Even in recent conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, when the Assad regime sought to cover up atrocities, the mere presence of civilians with cameras meant that much of the truth eventually reached the world. China did not offer casualty figures for the 1967 border conflict until the 1990s. Some details about the 1967 incidents remain unclear. It is possible that will be another similarity between 1967 and today. Anyone asserting with confidence that they know the exact course of events or attitude of the leadership in each country should be treated skeptically.
The most major difference between the 1967 fighting and today is that, by all accounts, no firearms or artillery were used in Tuesday’s killings, a norm that developed over the intervening years. Today, border patrols go unarmed precisely to avoid such escalation. The fact that such a norm arose was viewed by many observers as an important stabilizing influence to prevent future escalation. However, if that norm is viewed by either side as an opportunity to advance its interests without risking all-out war, and then de-escalate after achieving its goals, it encourages risk-taking.
Reasonable people may justly hope that the fighting goes no further. However, even if the incidents do not escalate into a broader conflict, the Ussuri River clashes between China and the Soviet Union in 1969 were of similarly minor scope. And yet, they had vast implications for the structure of the international system, locking in China’s split from the Soviets for decades. In 1967, India was a member of the nonaligned movement. In recent years, it has deftly maintained cordial relations with both the United States and China during their growing rivalry. Whether it will maintain such a position indefinitely after its soldiers’ blood has been spilled is less certain.