Historical Background

Border disputes between India and China: A colonial legacy

Print edition : August 14, 2020

April 20, 1960: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with visiting Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai Chou in New Delhi. The Chinese government offered to recognise India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh up to the McMahon Line in lieu of a recognition of China’s claim over the Aksai Chin peninsula. Nehru rejected the offer and adopted an inflexible diplomatic posture on the border issue. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Workers of the Border Roads Organisation rest near Pangong Lake in Ladakh region on September 14, 2018. Many commentators attribute the Galwan clash to the construction by the military of an all-weather Darbuk-Sayok-Daulat Beg Oldie road. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

The undefined border between India and China, which has caused several incidents in the last couple of years, is a legacy of colonial rule.

As the Chinese government likes to frequently remind the world, the Sino-Indian border dispute is a legacy of colonial rule. Chinese historians and commentators never fail to point out that the government in Beijing, even when it was at its weakest, had refused to accept the ad hoc border imposed by the British colonialists. The British organised a conference in Shimla in 1914, which the representatives of China and Tibet attended. The conference’s objective was to negotiate a treaty that would demarcate the border between Tibet and British-ruled India. The British plan was to put pressure on the weak Chinese central government to grant more autonomy to the Tibetans and redraw the border in India’s favour.

There was a bigger imperial British plan: to gradually dismember China, by first cutting off Tibet and then Xinjiang. Britain expected China, which was then under a weak central government and was being dictated to by European powers, to capitulate easily. The Chinese delegation refused to be browbeaten and succumb to the machinations of the British. But the British went ahead and signed an agreement with a handpicked Tibetan delegation delineating the northern border, which came to be known as the McMahon Line. It was named after a British colonial officer working in India by the name of Henry McMahon.

China vehemently rejected the ad hoc border that the British sought to thrust down its throat. The British warned the Chinese government that there would “be great trouble” if Beijing did not accept the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and India. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary at that time, warned: “If China does not sign but resorts to an aggressive policy, the consequences must be disastrous for China.”

Both the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong refused to recognise the McMahon Line, arguing that Tibet was not an independent country and therefore had no right to sign a separate border agreement with the British.

Independent India and Communist China established good relations that lasted almost until the end of the first decade of Indian Independence. The Chinese side tried to prevail on the Indian government to negotiate an acceptable solution to the impasse on the border, but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru swore by the sanctity of the McMahon Line bequeathed by the departing colonial power.

Zhou Enlai’s visit

In a last-ditch attempt to find an amicable solution to the border dispute, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited New Delhi in 1960. The Chinese government offered to recognise India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh up to the McMahon Line in return for India’s recognition of China’s claim over the Aksai Chin peninsula. Nehru rejected the offer and adopted an inflexible diplomatic posture on the border issue.

Nehru was in a unique position to compromise as the border issue had not become as emotive as it is today. The ruling Congress party had an overwhelming majority in Parliament and controlled all the State legislatures. Only the Jan Sangh (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s predecessor) and the small Socialist bloc led by Ram Manohar Lohia, all supporters of Tibetan independence, were against the resolution of the border issue.

The issue of Tibetan independence had become a “cause celebre” in the West and among right-wing and social democratic political parties in India. The Dalai Lama, who had raised the banner of revolt against the Chinese government, sought and was given political refuge in India in 1959, angering Beijing. A Tibetan government-in-exile was set up under the Indian government’s patronage with liberal funding from the West. The Chinese Communist Party did not let the Tibet issue come in the way of negotiations although a noticeable hardening of positions on each side was visible.

Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, has claimed that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert operations in Tibet, which had started in 1956, had made Beijing suspicious about India’s reluctance to settle the border issue. With the tacit approval of the Indian authorities, the CIA had trained and financed a failed guerilla campaign under the leadership of Thondup for a few years after the 1962 war. It is indisputable that one of the major reasons the Chinese decided to go to war in 1962 against India was the perception that New Delhi wanted to restore the “status quo ante” in Tibet so that the autonomous region could return to its pre-1949 status.

‘Forward policy’

Nehru’s “forward policy”,which gave the Indian military the green light to set up military outposts in territory under the military control of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), sparked off the 1962 war. The goal was to expel the Chinese military from all the areas claimed by India. It was a serious miscalculation. The Henderson-Brooks Report on the 1962 India-China war,which the Indian government commissioned, concluded that the “forward policy” increased the chances of conflict with China. The classified report, which is now widely available online, stated that the Indian Army was not militarily in a position to implement Nehru’s “forward policy”. According to Chinese military scholars, Nehru’s adventurist military policy was aimed at turning Tibet once again into “a buffer state” between India and China. The Chinese viewed this as a continuation of Britain’s imperial policy.

There is no doubt that Nehru harboured sympathies for the Tibetan cause, but at the same time it should be remembered that it was India which turned down an U.S. proposal made in 1951 for joint action to support the cause of Tibetan independence. In 1954, India had formally recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. However, New Delhi also encouraged the Dalai Lama to fight for increased autonomy from Beijing. Beijing accused the Nehru government of playing a role in the uprising staged by the Dalai Lama’s followers in Lhasa in 1959. Nehru had sent a message to the Dalai Lama saying that he was welcome to seek political sanctuary in India.

Bruce Riedel, who has held senior posts in the CIA and is an expert on the region, in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War (2017), has revealed that the covert operations by the CIA and others in Tibet played a role in Mao’s decision to invade India. The Dalai Lama later said that the covert American actions were only part of the “Cold War tactics” to undermine the socialist bloc. The CIA was actively supporting the Tibetan separatists from 1957 to 1961 and it could not have been done without the cooperation of the Indian intelligence agencies.

After the recent clash between the Indian Army and the PLA on the Ladakh border, Riedel, in an article, observed that there was a danger of the clashes escalating into a full-blown war like the 1962 conflict “which almost brought the United States to war with China”. Nehru had sent an SOS to John F. Kennedy, officially requesting for the U.S’ help after the Chinese invasion. Riedel writes that the Americans and the British had airlifted arms to India soon after the 1962 war to help the beleaguered Indian Army. But the aid was not enough to stave off a massive military defeat. According to recently declassified Kennedy administration documents, Nehru had asked for 350 U.S. war planes along with 10,000 U.S.Air Force personnel for help in bombing Chinese targets.

Before Kennedy could decide, the Chinese army had withdrawn from most of the Indian territory they had occupied,keeping only parts of Aksai Chin they had claimed. Riedel also writes that the Kennedy administration restrained Pakistan from exploiting the situation in 1962. Pakistan wanted to seize Kashmir as the Indian Army was busy fighting the Chinese. “Kennedy made it clear that he would view any Pakistani involvement as an act of war,” Riedel has written.

Confrontation in 1967

The war lasted a month, with the PLA making deep inroads into Indian territory. The Chinese announced a ceasefire after less than a month of fighting. The McMahon Line was officially replaced by the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The next serious confrontation between the two armies occurred in 1967 at Nathu La and Cho La. Then, as now, the two sides had differing perceptions about the LAC. A scuffle between Indian and Chinese soldiers escalated into a full-fledged military fire fight at the time. More than 140 Indian soldiers were killed. The PLA, too, lost a large number of their troops. That was the last serious confrontation between the two sides until the events of June 15 this year in the Galwan valley.

The two sides were on the verge of clashing on several previous occasions but better sense prevailed. In 1986, the two sides were on the verge of a clash on the eastern border in Arunachal Pradesh following a misunderstanding about the goals of a military exercise the Indian Army conducted near Tawang. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation did not degenerate into a violent one.

The 1993 pact

To avoid further misunderstandings and accidental confrontations, India and China signed the landmark “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control” in 1993. The pact’s confidence-building measures included a commitment by both sides against the use of force to settle disputes along the LAC and to resort to the dialogue process to settle boundary disputes. The two sides also pledged to reduce troop levels along the LAC. Additional border agreements were signed in 1996, 2005 and 2013.

But the undefined border between the two countries continued to witness several minor and a few slightly more serious incidents in the last couple of years. No shots, however, were fired in the past 35 years. But with the coming of the hyper-nationalistic Narendra Modi government to power, which coincided with the ascendance of the assertive President Xi Jinping, the temperature along the LAC has risen. The spurt in infrastructure building on the Indian side of the border, which included building of all-weather roads and the upgradation of airports in the Ladakh sector adjacent to Aksai Chin, has put the PLA on high alert.

The Chinese side would not have forgotten that the previous National Democratic Alliance government had openly identified China as India’s chief strategic rival while justifying the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote a letter to the then U.S. President, Bill Clinton, explaining the rationale behind the Pokhran test. “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which has committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem,” the letter bluntly stated.

There were no major problems along the LAC during the 10-year rule of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that followed. However, it was in that period that the government started implementing the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) programme in a big way. The UPA government ordered the construction of 73 border roads in areas where India and China had differing perceptions about the border. After signing a defence agreement and the nuclear deal with the U.S., the UPA government had moved closer to Washington on key foreign policy and security issues, especially on issues pertaining to China.

The Barack Obama administration found a willing partner in the Indian government as it launched it military pivot to the East as part of its “containment policy” against China. The U.S.wanted India to strengthen its border infrastructure against China and possess a “blue water” navy that would project power in the Asia Pacific region in tandem with the U.S. Navy. It was the UPA government that started the permanent build-up of forces across the LAC and sanctioned the raising of a 70,000-strong mountain corps.

After the Doklam standoff, the Modi government further hastened the road construction. Many commentators attribute the Galwan clash to the construction by the military of an all-weather Darbuk-Sayok-Daulat Beg Oldie road. The road is situated very near the Karakoram Pass and the highway connecting Tibet to Xinjian. The road is crucial to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and the Belt and Road Initiative. The CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan over which India has not relinquished claims.

Relations off to a bad start

Sino-Indian relations got off to a bad start after Modi took over. The Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile was invited for the Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony for the first time. On the campaign trail, Modi constantly criticised the Congress party for not taking a strong stand against China on the LAC and not raising the Tibet issue. India, under the BJP, started using the “Tibet card” more frequently. The Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the holiest places in Tibetan Buddhism. China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet and has not given up its claims on the region. Chinese forces had seized Tawang in 1962 but had withdrawn after declaring a ceasefireunilaterally. Relations were back on an even keel after the visit of Xi Jinping toIndia in 2014 where Modi hosted him in Ahmedabad.

For the Chinese side, therefore, the incident at Doklam in 2017 came as a surprise. The Chinese leadership was preparing for the all-important 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party scheduled in October of the same year. The face-off between the two militaries lasted more than two months in the desolate Himalayan heights. It ended only after both sides agreed “to withdraw” from the disputed area, situated at a trijunction where the borders of India, Bhutan and China intersect. The disputed area in Doklam was in fact a territory claimed by China and Bhutan. Last heard, the PLA has built permanent structures in the area they had occupied.

The Bhutanese side has been unwittingly caught in the middle of the conflicts between its two giant neighbours. The kingdom now seems to be on the way to resolving the border dispute with China on its own. It was after the Doklam incident that the 2018 Wuhan summit took place. Both Modi and Xi agreed “to properly manage and control their differences” and provide “strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to strengthen institutional mechanisms to prevent tensions form escalating in the border areas. The two leaders again met in Chennai in 2019 and pledged to work together to promote regional and international cooperation.

The bonhomie of the last two years has evaporated within six months of the last meeting between the leaders of the two most populous countries in the world. After the June 15 incident which resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers, emotions are still running high, but both the sides have continued to talk and defuse tensions along the LAC.

The PLA has withdrawn from some of the “pressure points” it had occupied, and a buffer zone has been created to separate the two armies. In the third week of July, both sides agreed to not use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) near the friction points along the LAC. Earlier, the two armies had agreed on suspending foot patrolling for a month to reduce tensions. The corps commanders of the two armies have held four rounds of talks since the first week of June.

India is demanding the restoration of the status quo as it existed until earlier in the year. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, on a visit to Ladakh in the third week of July, acknowledged that the negotiations could take time and ultimately might not bring the desired results.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry, in a statement issued on July 23, called on the Chinese side to work “sincerely” on the disengagement plan that the two sides had agreed upon after the discussions held between the Indian National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in the first week of July. The PLA had not withdrawn from pressure points around the Pangong Tso lake which they had recently occupied. As both sides know, only a comprehensive agreement on the border, involving give and take on both sides, can bring about lasting peace.

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