Sunday, 27 July 2014

Himalayan Hurdles: India and China's Territorial Disputes on the Roof of the World

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China has garnered increasing international attention as it continues along the road to superpower status. Commentators in the West have, especially since the turn of the millennium, posited as to Beijing’s ulterior motives and ambitions at regional hegemony in Asia. Many in the West view China as an expansionist power, disregarding Beijing’s overtures to the contrary, and citing China’s historical aggression towards Taiwan, Tibet, Vietnam, and more recent tensions in the East and South China seas with Japan and the nations of ASEAN respectively.Those trying to hedge against Chinese power often cite India as a balancing force in the region, which due to its size, economic and military potential as well as democratic tradition make it an appealing check against Beijing. This assertion is lent credence by the longstanding tensions which characterize Sino-Indian relations.

On February 25th Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister in India’s upcoming general elections, spoke out against China’s expansionist attitudes. Campaigning in the north of the country where China constitutes an important political issue, given the territorial disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, Modi stated that “No power on earth can take away even an inch from India […] China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a development mindset […] I swear by this land that I will not let this nation be destroyed, I will not let this nation be divided, I will not let this nation bow down.”

Narendra Modi speaking in Arunachal Pradesh
Photo Credit:

Colonial Legacy

In order to understand why an Indian prime ministerial candidate would invoke such language, we need to look in detail at the history of Sino-Indian relations to understand the present geo-political balance. To a large extent, the current tensions which exist between Indian and China are the result of India’s legacy as the (primary) successor state to the British Raj. In 1890 Britain and the Qing dynasty signed the Anglo-Chinese Convention which demarcated the borders of Tibet. A similar agreement occurred during the Simla Conference proceedings of 1913-1914 in which Britain negotiated directly with the semi-autonomous regime in Tibet, although Chinese representatives were also present.

The fall of the Qing regime in 1912 left the status of Tibet in question, and the Chinese delegation refused to accept the terms of the Convention and left the proceedings. The Simla Conference concluded with Britain and Tibet delineating their borders along the McMahon Line, with 5180 square kilometres of Tibetan territory (forming part of the North Eastern Frontier Agency – NEFA) falling under British control. India inherited these territorial claims and treaties from Britain following independence. China’s “liberation” of Tibet in 1951 saw the People’s Republic of China (PRC) take over total control of the region. Tibet’s occupation coincided with China’s effort to “rectify past wrongs.” The Chinese government declared that it did not recognize the terms of unjust treaties which were imposed on the imperial regime. 

This claim also encapsulated the various agreements and treaties in the India-Tibet region. Given Beijing’s anti-imperialism, combined with the fact that Chinese delegates had walked out of the Simla Convention, the PRC refused to acknowledge the tenets of the accord. In 1958 Zhou Enlai informed Nehru that no border treaty had ever been signed and that disputes existed, with Zhou openly claiming over 100,000 square kilometres of territory under Indian control. The second revelation was the discovery in 1958 that China had built a road from Xinjiang to Tibet across the Aksai Chin region. Nehru had initially dismissed claims of the road’s existence as fantasy, yet as noted Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies research fellow Jonathan Holslag argued in China and India: Prospects for Peace, the “Indian border troops discovered [the] Chinese road on top of the disputed Aksai Chin plateau, the parliament cried foul and demanded that the road be bombed out of existence. Nehru was obliged to veer and respond to these calls with nationalist rhetoric. Whereas hitherto the border had not been a matter of national interest, the Himalayas now became the crown of India, and part of her culture, blood, and veins.” 

Disputed Territories on the Sino-Indian Border
Photo Credit: The Economist

Nehru's Nightmare

Tensions only increased following the 1959 Tibetan revolt, the flight of the Dalai Lama to India and the resulting Chinese military presence at the border,  with Beijing publishing official maps which incorporated NEFA into China in September 1959. The situation continued to worsen with India entrenching its “no negotiations” stance, recalling its ambassador from Beijing in 1961 and by September 1962 reclaiming some 6500 square kilometres of the 36,000 under dispute in Ladakh and completely easing Chinese forces out of Beijing’s claims in NEFA. In response, by September 1962 there were eight Chinese divisions on the Sino-Indian border.

Tensions finally reached an insurmountable level, when on October 20, 1962 some 30,000 Chinese troops crossed the border in various locations along the shared frontier. The Chinese response to increasing Indian advances in the disputed territory can be summed up by Mao’s following statement: “are we going to invade others? No, we will invade no one anywhere. But if others invade us, we will fight back.” Ironically, both sides considered the other the aggressor; China viewed India as encroaching on territory it considered its own, with its retaliation a defensive action, and India saw the Chinese invasion as an offensive act. Fighting continued until November 20th, when Beijing declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew to its former positions.

Indian Soliders during the 1962 Sino-Indian War
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Tensions Wax and Wane, Troops Remain

Following the war India was left humiliated, and tensions and border skirmishes continued during the 1960s. The 1970s saw less violence, yet during the 1980s and 1990s relations between New Delhi and Beijing remained tense. During this time there developed a common wisdom according to Mohan Malik that “since neither China nor India would ever give up the areas they occupied, the most feasible settlement would be acceptance by both sides of the existing line of actual control (LAC), with some minor adjustments.” In conjunction with such thinking, from December 1981 to September 1984 India and China engaged in five rounds of discussions, with China in 1982 suggesting that both countries recognize the status quo (China in Aksai Chin and India in NEFA). India again refused to entertain this option. 1986 saw a border clash between China and India erupt in the Sumdorong Chu valley following Indian claims that China had built a helipad on its territory. Tensions were not helped by India’s Operation Chequerboard which in 1986-7 simulated a border war along the McMahon line, with India amassing 400,000 troops in NEFA to conduct training. Moreover, during this same time period India undertook the reorganization of the NEFA into the state of Arunachal Pradesh, incorporating it into the Indian Union. 

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a thawing of Indo-Chinese relations as demonstrated by the fourteen rounds of negotiations held between 1988 and 2002. This thaw was also notably signalled by Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China, the first such visit in twenty-five years. This visit was reciprocated by Li Peng’s visits to India in 1991 and 1993, with the signing on September 7th 1993 of “peace and tranquillity” agreement between Li Peng and Narasimha Rao respecting the LAC. A similar agreement was signed in 1996 during Jiang Zemin’s trip to India. Despite this, China increased the intensity and frequency of its intrusions in the Ladakh region during the 1999 Kargil War.

Since 2005, China has taken an increasingly hardline stance on the border issue in part due to its rising international political and military clout. According to Malik, China alleges that India controls 90,000 square kilometres of territory it deems to be Chinese, citing the ominous statistic that this area corresponds to two-and-a-half Taiwans. In addition, Chinese military commanders in Chengdu and Lanzhou acknowledge that a potential war with India remains central to their military scenarios and planning. In addition to this contingency planning by China, India increased the manpower of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police by twenty battalions in 2007, which will join the Indian 2nd Mountain Division whose motto perhaps unsurprisingly given the historical tensions, remains “They Shall Not Pass.” Since 2005, China has referred to Arunachal Pradesh as Zangnan, or southern Tibet in Chinese. This term has only been in existence since 2005, and does not represent a historical name for the region. Indeed, it is merely a tool to bolster Chinese claims to the area. 

Chinese and Indian Troops meet at a Mountain-top War Memorial
Photo Credit:

2006 saw Beijing further increase its demands for populated areas, notably Tawang, despite a 2005 agreement between China and India stating that there would be no transfer of populated areas in a border settlement. India characterized the terms of such demands by China as “humiliating and non-negotiable,” yet in May 2007 Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi informed his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee that the “mere presence in populated areas [of Arunachal Pradesh] would not affect China’s claims.” The same month an Indian official from Arunachal Pradesh was denied a visa to China and in 2007 there were 170 border incursions by Chinese troops. In 2008 there were 210 incursions and 2300 instances of aggressive border patrolling, with a similar number in 2009. These incursions coincide with Chinese criticism of PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in January 2008 to unveil major infrastructure projects. During the 2008 Tibetan riots, China increased border incursions in large part to dissuade India of any notions of weakness or lack of control.

PM Singh was similarly rebuked by China for a local campaign visit during the Arunachal Pradesh legislative elections in October 2009. Amusingly, a month later India approved a visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang, followed by China blocking a $2.9 billion dollar Indian loan request from the Asian Development Bank because $60 million was earmarked for watershed development in Arunachal Pradesh. Following several tense decades interspersed with violent clashes, New Delhi has now yielded to the idea of negotiation. Unfortunately, progress has been slow and eventually stagnated, taxing Indian patience to negotiate while eroding China’s inclination toward conciliation and mediation. The new millennium has seen India faced with an ever more assertive China, with both sides using the border issue to vent mutual frustrations and engage in sabre rattling on the roof of the world.

Note: This piece was originally published as "China's Indian Challenge" at, whose editors are to be accorded all credit for the hyperlinks and minor edits.

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