Lessons learned from Cuban Missile Crisis, not so much in South Asia

Just about anyone with the slightest connection to the Cuban Missile Crisis 53 years ago has penned their recollections, including me. But few of those who were around then, and certainly subsequent generations, have much recall of a simultaneous conflict a world away. That one could have drawn the United States into war with the country then commonly called Communist China just as the U.S. was on the edge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

All these years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis is still studied for lessons in statecraft and history, but none of its underlying causes or triggers remain. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the United States and Cuba have recently established diplomatic relations. While Russia’s recent military forays in Ukraine and Syria have marked an end to a 25-year post-Cold War period of relative calm and peace, no one is predicting a return to the kind of hostilities that led to near Armageddon between Moscow and Washington.

The same cannot be said of the countries involved in the 1962 war in South Asia. The two major protagonists, China and India, increasingly are rivals in a geo-strategic contest over a region that more analysts in Asia and the West are referring to as the Indo-Pacific, a vast swath of ocean and land mass from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. India and Pakistan are still bitter enemies in South Asia, especially over the contested territory of Kashmir. Even remote Tibet, a sideshow in the 1962 conflict, remains a source of tension.

Most ominously, and in contrast to 1962, the three major countries involved directly or indirectly in that conventional war on the India-China border, are now armed with nuclear weapons and not necessarily given to bromides and platitudes about the consequences of using them.

This second 1962 crisis, and its enduring and current consequences, are spelled out in a riveting book by Bruce Riedel, a Central Intelligence Agency veteran and more recently an adviser to four U.S. presidents on South Asia and the Middle East. He is also a recurring guest on the PBS NewsHour and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, publisher of “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War”.

For a small and seeming bit player, Tibet assumes a more outsized role in Riedel’s narrative. China has claimed a protectorate over the territory since 1720 and seized military control of it in the 1950s, It reacted with growing anger over the efforts of the CIA to stoke rebellion there, including air drops from planes flown from Pakistan and what it imagined as India’s designs to keep it as some kind of buffer state. It was also from Pakistan that the U.S. flew U2 spy planes over the Soviet Union.

For all their post-colonial and Third World solidarity, India and China should have been more allies against Western powers than rivals since Indian independence and the communist takeover of China in the late 1940s. But they never resolved, and still have not, their border disputes and lingering suspicions.

And since it was created as a separate Muslim state from the departing British empire, Pakistan has been enmeshed in bitter rivalry and four wars with India. As Riedel says, It has long played the great powers off each other, especially the United States and China.

As set out by Riedel, by the fall of 1962, China grew increasingly suspicious of India’s military buildup along its 1,000 kilometer contested frontier; Pakistan kept demanding that its U.S. ally not come to India’s aid should a war break out. And by mid-October, the top ranks of the Kennedy administration became totally absorbed in the drama that unfolded with the revelation that the Soviets had placed offensive missiles in Cuba.

Catching the Indians unawares, China sent tens of thousands of troops across two parts of the India border in mid-October. Officially neutral India pleaded for U.S. aid and a preoccupied President Kennedy pretty much delegated India policy to his colorful and witty ambassador to New Delhi, the Harvard economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith.

Within weeks, India was in panic at the possibility Chinese forces could capture some of its major cities. The U.S., along with Britain and some Commonwealth nations, organized a major airlift and were ready to deploy combat aircraft. After failing to persuade Pakistan to join its campaign, China stopped the offensive, seizing some chunks of territory but avoiding a direct clash with western forces.

The immediate crisis was averted, but the consequences continue. As Riedel writes:

“The events of the autumn of 1962 created the balance of power, the alliance structure and the arms race that still prevail today in Asia.”

India was then famously non-aligned but tilting to the Soviet Union. It is still officially neutral but has evolved ever closer to the United States. It competes with China for influence and control in its own ocean and beyond, becoming more aligned to such such U.S. allies as Australia and Japan.

And then there is Pakistan. As Riedel asserts, Pakistan officials contrast their fair-weather friend Washington with the all-weather friend Chins Beijing is increasingly investing in infrastructure projects there, including a port that will give it direct access to the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps nothing so well describes the downward slide of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship as the interaction between its leaders. The Pakistani president in the early 1960s was Ayub Khan, a dashing military man who once presented Jacqueline Kennedy with a beautiful black horse and who was feted with one of the most elegant and glamorous state dinners on record, at Mount Vernon.

Yet none of this mutual charm offensive meant much after the U.S. sent military supplies to India, without consulting Pakistan. Ayub rightly assumed the weapons would be turned on his country in a future conflict. But Pakistan’s real feelings toward the United States were perhaps best revealed when Foreign Minister Zulfikar Bhutto (also president and prime minister as was his daughter Benazir) visited President Kennedy in the White House in October 1963.

The president said that had Bhutto been born an American, he would have been a member of his Cabinet. To which Bhutto responded, if he had been born American, he would be president and Kennedy would be in his Cabinet. Things have been going pretty much downhill since.