By now, we’re accustomed to the two Asian powerhouses of the 21st century, China and India, battling for regional economic domination. But in 1962, these two nations actually fought each other in a brief war that ultimately changed the future trajectories of both countries.
Nepal, Bhutan, and the kingdom of Sikkim created a buffer zone between China and India, but they still shared a disputed border along the Himalayas. China began to flood troops into the region during the spring of 1962, and India quickly saw itself being outnumbered by 3-to-1 in manpower. On October 3, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai traveled to New Delhi and told Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that there would be no war. That promise lasted for exactly one week. Chinese troops overran their Indian counterparts at a mountain outpost called Yumtso La, and the armed hostilities were on.
The Chinese forces quickly claimed the high ground, and geographically-speaking, they weren’t kidding. Combat raged at an altitude of 4,250 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level as winter approached. Chinese soldiers rampaged over Indian defenses on two fronts, and then declared a cease-fire on November 20.
Bizarrely, China then withdrew from the region it had captured. Its troops retreated behind a line which China insisted was the true border with India. The sense of humiliation in New Delhi was overwhelming, with the war emboldening rival Pakistan into violent border incursions of its own. India reacted by building up its military might and, eventually, developing tactical nuclear weapons.
China, for its part, showed it was powerful enough to break from its traditional alliance with the Soviet Union (which backed India), and ultimately test-blasted its first atomic bomb two years after the Sino-India war.
Other events conspired to reduce the Asian military action to an historical footnote, when Fidel Castro began installing his own atomic arsenal in Cuba. So during the week when the rest of the world was consumed with nuclear brinksmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis, two of the globe’s most populous countries had fought to a stalemate in the cold and snow at the top of the world.