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Reading Between the Lines

Understanding the India-China border dispute. 

Lines yesterday – Fault Lines today 

Lines drawn on paper almost a hundred years ago can be considered the inception of the India-China border dispute. Today these lines haunt the relations between the two Asian giants, like raw wounds they burn, they itch, but eventually they ought to heal. Recently in October both nations observed the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian border wars fought in 1962, and rekindled great debate and discussions on the currently peacefully (relatively) managed border discord. It is against this backdrop we require a better understanding of what lies beneath the conflict the murky waters India and China sail today.

A cursory look at these regions makes apparent that border disputes in this area are deeply intertwined with colonial history and the relations of India and China with its neighbours – be it Pakistan or Tibet. 

The story of these borders begins much before the independence of India, travel back in time – to the Colonial British Empire and the days of the geostrategic ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain. 

The territorial dispute between India and China mainly involve two contentious areas. Firstly – Aksai Chin in the western sector where India, China and Pakistan have made claims, and secondly the region known to India as the state of Arunachal Pradesh, that which China claims is South Tibet! 

Lines on the Western Sector

Aksai Chin is a high altitude desert – desolate and devoid of any human importance. It is located in what is considered by India within Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, or what China considers Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Karakoram Mountains form part of the region; the Karakash River originates in its northern slopes and flows through these lands.

Kashmir played a critical role in the British strategy for securing the northern frontiers of India. The British had annexed Kashmir in 1846, by the Treaty of Amritsar. The ‘Johnson Line’ then determined British India’s border with China. This controversial line is the basis of India’s claim in Aksai Chin. W.H Johnson, a civil servant attached with the Survey of India was sent to survey the area; the ‘advanced boundary line’ he drew was heavily criticized and still continues to be as controversial it was over a century ago. This line was based in the Kashmir Maharaja’s outpost at Shahidullah, making the Kuen Lun watershed as the divide and not the Karakoram Range. In the late 1890s this was supported and enhanced by what is popularly known as the ‘Johnson-Ardagh Line’. A British military officer – Sir John Ardagh proposed a borderline along the Kun Lun Mountains, which is north of the Yarkand River. This line closed the gap between Pangong Lake and Karakoram pass and extended from Shahidullah, along the Keun Len Mountains. 

Yet there remained space for more lines! The British again attempted to redraw the borders for better clarity and to gain acceptance from China, which until now had never been officially sought. In 1899 the ‘McCartney-MacDonald Line’ was drawn, it modified the existing line extending more into Aksai Chin and beyond the Karakoram Range.  This line holds the specialty of being the only line formally notified to China by the British Empire, however it received no reply. 

The British used the MacDonald Line, until the collapse of power in China in 1911 after the Xinhai Revolution. When the Chinese power weakened the British resumed using the Johnson line as the official border. Following the Russian revolution in 1917, the British Empire was no more concerned with Russian expansion in central Asia. With time, the complexities have only multiplied and the borders still remained undefined. 

Lines on the Eastern Sector

Moving away from Aksai Chin and towards the east, we arrive at the second area of contention in this border dispute – Arunachal Pradesh or the erstwhile North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA). The Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh what China considers as South-Tibet is currently occupied by India. The (in)famous ‘McMahon Line’ is the basis of the Indian claim to this area. The events leading to the McMahon Line are most interesting and by far the most mired in controversy! This line was a result of the Simla Accord of 1914.

In 1913, the British convened the Simla Conference with Tibet and China, to come to an agreement on the Tibet’s status and borders. The then Foreign Secretary of British India, Henry McMahon drew up the 890 km line as the border between British India and Tibet during the Conference. The British and Tibetan officers agreed to the line, but China rejected the same. The line ceded Tawang and other Tibetan areas to imperial British Empire; the Chinese refused this, and claimed territory down to the borders of the Assam plain. However, both the Tibetan and British representatives signed the Treaty. While China never considered this agreement legal and binding, both British India and Tibet recognised it. The heart of this line also touches on the sensitive issue of Tibet’s independence from China. China claims Tibet was never independent to sign an agreement, and hence cannot be recognized. The next problem arises in the fact that the Simla Accord, 1914 was not in consonance with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which provided that neither party would negotiate with Tibet, except through the Chinese government – this officially recognized the Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. 

Thus, the Simla Accord produced nothing that was agreed by China and the McMahon Line was practically forgotten until 1935 when the British government decided to publish the documents in the 1937 edition of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties. 

The British had political officers placed in the northeastern parts, and had christened them as the North East Frontier Tracts (NEFT). The NEFT was inherited by India upon independence in 194 and became part of Assam. After a constitutional amendment and other political changes finally the NEFT evolved into the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1951. It is the NEFA that later acquired an independent political status as the union territory of Arunachal Pradesh in 1972 and with became a state as recognized by the Constitution of India in 1987. 

The much discussed Sino-Indian war of 1962 was primarily fought over these territories. The 50th anniversary of the war recently reinvigorated the discussion on India’s folly and defeat in the war. China retains much of Aksai Chin it conquered in the 1962 war, whereas in Arunachal Pradesh, it stepped back to the McMahon Line after delivering a crushing defeat to India. Currently the Line of Actual Control is more or less similar to the McMahon Line. The war destroyed the relatively cordial days and slogans such as “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai”(India-China brothers) were replaced with cries of hurt and humiliation. It brought the element of mistrust and disharmony. Today the relations have remarkably improved, yet the mistrust and skepticism remains.

The claims in the Aksai Chin were further complicated by the Sino-Pak Boundary Agreement of 1963. Where Pakistan ceded parts of Ladhak and Northern Kashmir to China and in return it recognized about 1,942 square kilometers of Pakistan’s claim in the area. This agreement contains a clause whereby once India and Pakistan resolve the Kashmir issue, the boundaries marked shall be opened for re-negotiation. It drew a lot of controversy because of a readjustment in the cold war dynamics with Pakistan growing closer to China and away from the United States of America.

The simmering heat was brought to boil again in the Sino-Indian border skirmish of 1967 popularly known as the Chola Incident, and again in 1987. The Chola incident took place in the state of Sikkim (which again was a disputed area), while the latter took place in Sumdurong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh. These skirmishes had no effective change on the border disputes. 

Falling in Line

Recognizing that in wars and battles they merely lost soldiers but came no closer to resolving the border dispute, neither nation has gone to war over the border issue. In 2003 a land mark agreement was drawn between India and China. Where China recognized Sikkim as an Indian state provided India recognized the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China. The bitter and cold relations began to thaw with this agreement. The Nathula pass in Sikkim was opened to cross border trade with China, and the economic relations grew warmer, and supported greater political dialogue. 

There have been various rounds of negotiations on the border conflict. Every now and then when things seem cordial, a small hiccup shows on the map. For example, China blocked the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank from providing aid to Arunachal Pradesh, citing the reason that the territory did not belong to India. It provoked great debate, and greater controversy, but never brought a solution. Over the years China and India have developed a rather unique relationship in the geo-political space. Both nations have developed a highly pragmatic approach to their relations with each other and recognize the importance of regional stability.

Most recently the Defence Minister of India, Mr. A.K Antony made a promising statement that the border negotiations with China are in its final stages. Similarly the Chinese foreign ministry's spokesperson Hong Lei reiterated that both nations are committed to resolving the border dispute through negotiations, adding that the border area has been maintained peacefully and remains stable.

The Bottom Line

The present climate in global politics is not one that is even considers war over territorial claims. India and China have made evident that neither of them intend to go to war over the disputed boundary lines. Both nations believe peaceful negotiations and diplomatic endeavours are the way forward. China rephrased its peaceful ‘rise’ to a peaceful ‘development’ to avoid even a hint of domination in its diplomatic voice but off late have been assertive (read aggressive) with regard to their territory across the ocean. India on the other hand, hasn’t shaken off its paranoia since the border war 50 years ago and still remains overtly cautious and skeptical of China’s motives in any and every move. In the geo-political arena any unresolved border is an invitation for instability in the region. Both India and China are riding on top of the economic wave and cannot afford to invest in conflict. The clichéd debate on conflict or co-operation between India and China has reached a clear conclusion the question is no more “if” a solution to the border issues will be made but rather “when” and “how” it shall be made. Most certainly it must be sooner than later – and that’s the bottom line!

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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