War can look different in retrospect. If the US-led army that entered Iraq in 2003 had found a massive nuclear or chemical arsenal hidden by Saddam Hussein, it is safe to say that the invasion might be viewed now as a necessary evil. Instead—because the much-heralded weapons of mass destruction turned out not to exist—it is often seen, even in countries that backed the attack, as a disastrous and illegal war.
While the 1962 border conflict between India and China was memorialised last month on its fiftieth anniversary, another campaign which took place less than a year earlier has been quietly forgotten. In December 1961, nearly 50,000 Indian troops invaded coastal territory known by the archaic name of ‘Portuguese India'. Attacking by sea, air and land with overwhelming force, they quickly routed the 3,000 or so defenders who were loyal to Portugal. When the United Nations condemned his aggressive conduct, Prime Minister Nehru gave no quarter, saying that if any attempt was made to get India out of Goa it would provoke “thermo-nuclear war”. At the time, this was viewed by many countries as a fatal blow to independent India's reputation as a peaceful and democratic nation. But today, if they are remembered at all, the events of 1961 are seen as a necessary tidying-up of the flotsam of empire. Even in old-fashioned parts of Goa, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the territory should be put back under Portuguese colonial control.
The India-China war of the following year is more problematic. Although there were instances of bravery and ingenuity on the Indian side, it is remembered as a national humiliation because the Chinese military were able to advance across the border so easily, and then go home. Certainly the accounts written by those who were there, such as Brigadier J.P. Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder, make for shocking reading. As the Chinese prepared to invade, Indian troops up on the border were left not only without machine-guns, fuel and viable roads but without proper food, clothing and even matches. While the invasion of Goa is considered a fait accompli, the war with China is a continuing national niggle because the border issue has still not been resolved.
In recent years, the security of this frontier has come back to public attention. It remains the longest disputed border in the world, and during the last decade China has pushed up against it with roads and infrastructure. Beijing has also been antagonistic by refusing to issue visas to Army officers from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. China has built at least six operational airfields in Tibet and deployed a new set of medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles. India is expanding its military footprint in the Himalayan foothills: it has three divisions in Sikkim and four in Arunachal, two new tactical strike divisions, and is developing a pair of armoured brigades.
Although a future border war with China is not impossible, neither country sees it as a way to solve the problem. India is the nation with the greatest potential impact on Beijing's ambitious geopolitical strategy. China objects to even a tacit alliance between India and the United States, and a skirmish in the mountains would surely generate a powerful Indo-US bond. An alternative future scenario—which forms the basis of current diplomatic thinking in New Delhi—is that Beijing's antipathy to Indo-US friendship may be so strong that it is ready to make radical moves favouring India.
In this optimistic scenario, the border would be settled and a strong Sino-Indian alliance would block out American influence in Asia. As an alternative, it sounds better than a conflict between two nuclear-armed, nascent great powers. Half a century ago, several thousand soldiers died in the Himalayas, and any re-run of the 1962 border war would be likely to produce infinitely higher casualty figures.
French is the author of India: A Portrait (Penguin). Feedback: @PatrickFrench2