India-China have had longstanding border disputes, and the two countries have engaged in several military and diplomatic standoffs over the years. Read further to know the details of the border issues and related agreements.
The recent standoff between India and China at the Doklam plateau which lies at a tri-junction between India, China, and Bhutan has gained much attention. It has turned into the biggest military stand-off between the two armies in years.
Many even fear a war. In this article, we discuss in detail the India-China border disputes, the recent Doklam issue, various India-China border agreements, and some other issues between the two countries.
Also read: Namsai declaration
India-China Border Disputes
The India-China borders can be broken down into three sectors
- Western Sector – DISPUTED – This comprises the Aksai Chin sector. This region which originally was a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is claimed by China as part of its autonomous Xinjiang region. After the 1962 war, it was administered by China. It is the second largest Indo-China border area covering over 38000 sq. km. However, it is an uninhabited land. While India claims the entire Aksai Chin territory as well as the Shaksgam valley (Indian territory gifted to China by Pakistan-See Note), China contests Indian control over Daulat Beg Oldi (a tehsil in Leh, south of Aksai China is believed to host the world’s highest airstrip)
- Central Sector – UNDISPUTED – Although China has recognized India’s sovereignty over Sikkim and had initiated the trade at Nathu La pass, the Doklam fiasco could mean trouble at all ends.
- Eastern Sector – DISPUTED – The Arunachal Pradesh border that China still claims to be its territory is the largest disputed area, covering around 90000 sq. km. It was formally called the North East Frontier Agency. During the 1962 war, the People’s Liberation Army occupied it but they announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew respecting the international boundary (McMahon Line). However, it has continued to assert its claim over the territory. Nowadays, almost the whole of Arunachal is claimed by China. (Note: This is the reason why the visit of Dalai Lama to Tawang Monastery became such a contentious bilateral issue)
Note: Sino-Pakistani Border Agreement: China and Pakistan have an agreement known as the Sino-Pakistani border agreement, which cedes a part of the Pakistani-administered Kashmir region, Shaksgam Valley, to China. India has raised concerns about this agreement, as it affects its claims in the region.
Johnson Line vs McDonald Line
- The two nations have held on to their stands even on the Johnson line and McDonald line which demarcates the territories of the two.
- Johnson Line – India’s accepted demarcation – It marks Aksai Chin as an Indian territory
- McDonald Line – China’s stance – It marks Aksai Chin as a Chinese territory
The India-China War of 1962
- The pretext of the war was a dispute over the sovereignty of the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.
- But, in reality, there were many reasons and the prominent one was China’s perception of India as a threat to its rule of Tibet.
- The war was preceded by various conflicts and military incidents between India and China throughout the summer of 1962.
- Then on October 20, 1962, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China invaded India in Ladakh and across the McMahon line in Arunachal Pradesh.
- Until the start of the war, India was confident that a war would not happen and made little preparations.
- After a month-long War, China unilaterally declared a ceasefire on 19 November 1962. By then China had made significant advances on both fronts. India suffered a huge setback and was badly defeated.
- China achieved its objective of acquiring control in the Aksai Chin. In the eastern sector, their troops went back to the north of the McMahon line.
India-China border conflicts after the war
- There have been several instances of Chinese troops entering the Indian side and Indian troops entering the Chinese side.
- Still, the Indo-China border has remained largely peaceful, except in 1967 when there were two incidents of armed conflict first at Nathu La and then at Cho La.
- The 1975 Sikkim merger, when Sikkim became an Indian state, led to changes in the eastern sector.
- The 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish in the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.
- The 2017 Doklam standoff, was a military standoff involving India, China, and Bhutan in the Doklam plateau, near the tri-junction of the three countries.
Agreements and initiatives to resolve the border disputes
- Shimla Agreement of 1914: To demarcate the boundary between Tibet and North East India, a convention was held at Shimla in 1914, representatives of all three i.e. Tibet, China, and British India. After the discussion, the agreement was signed by British India and Tibet but not by the Chinese officials. Presently India recognizes the McMahon line, as agreed by the Shimla convention, as the legal boundary between India and China. However, China rejected the Shimla agreement and the McMahon line, contending that Tibet was not a sovereign state and therefore did not have the power to conclude treaties.
- Panchsheel Agreement of 1954: The Panchsheel doctrine indicated the willingness to ‘Respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Although we have come a long way since, from the 1962 war to the cold peace era of 1962-1989, to the revived tensions of the present, the intent of the doctrine was well directed. It must have acted as a safeguard against any such disputes arising in the first place.
- In 1989, India formed a Joint Working Group for Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and agreed to mutually settle all border disputes.
- India-China Agreements regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC): The LAC is the effective military border that separates Indian-controlled areas of Jammu and Kashmir from Aksai Chin. It is to be noted that this border is not a legally recognized international boundary, but rather it is a practical boundary. Conventionally, India considers the Johnson line of 1865, marked by a civil servant W.H. Johnson, which put Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir. On the other hand, China recognizes the Macartney-Macdonald Line as the actual boundary which puts Aksai Chin in the Xinjiang region of China. In 1993, when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited China, ‘The Agreement for Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC‘ was signed between India and China. In 1996 an agreement took place on confidence-building measures in the military field along the LAC.
- In 2003 India and China signed a Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation and also mutually decided to appoint Special Representatives to explore the framework of a boundary settlement from the political perspective. The India-China relations received a major boost in 2003. China recognized India’s sovereignty over Sikkim. This was also followed by a framework of Guiding principles and political parameters to improve bilateral ties. It proposed a three-step resolution to the border disputes:
a. A bilateral agreement on the laid down principles.
b. This was to be followed by an exchange of maps between the two countries.
c. Once satisfied with the markings, the final demarcation of borders was to take place.
- In 2005 a protocol was agreed on Modalities for the implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military field along the LAC.
- In 2012 India and China agreed on the establishment of a working mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India China borders.
The policies have not sufficed in realizing a solution to the long-standing disputes. A status quo exists owing to the face-off between the differential aspirations of the two nations. While China’s support for the resolution of border disputes stands subservient to the Tibet issue, India would continue to hold on to the Tibet card unless the border disputes are resolved.
Besides, the changing global and regional picture – from China’s move towards ‘assertive regionalism’, it is strengthening ties with Pakistan and its complete disregard for counter-opinions on contentious issues like the South-China Sea – has only worsened the chances of a quick resolution.
What is the Doklam issue?
- The offensive stand of China on Doko La (Doklam) and India’s strong warning in return, is the latest addition to the worries that spoil Indo-China relations.
- It started when India (Indian Army) objected to road construction by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China in the Doklam plateau which China claims to be a part of its Donglang region. However, India and Bhutan recognize it as Doklam, a Bhutan territory.
- Later, China accused Indian troops of entering its territory and India accused the Chinese of destroying its bunkers (People’s Liberation Army bulldozed an old bunker of the Indian army stationed in Doklam).
- Thereafter China stopped the passage of pilgrims heading toward Kailash-Mansarovar through the Nathu La pass, Sikkim. The route is a better alternative to the Lepu Lekh route via Uttarakhand and was opened for pilgrims in 2015.
- Hereafter, both India and China increased the presence of their troops and since then there has been a war of words especially from the Chinese state media.
- Although a military standoff was averted, diplomatic negotiations have not yielded many results to cool off the passions across the border.
Why is Doklam so critical?
- Doklam (Zhoglam or Droklam or Donglang) is a narrow plateau lying in the tri-junction of India, China, and Bhutan.
- China believes Doklam to be a disputed territory between Bhutan and China.
- It, therefore, contests the presence of the Indian army in the region as a transgression.
- The disputed region is very close to India’s Siliguri Corridor which connects the seven northeastern states to the Indian mainland.
Why is India supporting Bhutan in the Doklam issue?
Bhutan and India have a very cordial relationship as Bhutan and China do not have formal relations.
- Bhutan has a very strategic position considering India’s geography.
- To foster the relationship, India and Bhutan signed a ‘Friendship Treaty’ in 2007 that commits India to protect Bhutan’s interests and the close coordination between the two militaries.
- Also, India is worried that if the road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s strategically vulnerable “chicken’s neck” (Siliguri Corridor) that links the seven northeastern states to the Indian mainland.
Also read: India-Bhutan-China Relations
Is the Indian border ready to face challenges?
- India is far ahead of what it was in 1962, both militarily as well as infra-structurally. However, to undermine China would be to relive the fallacies that led to the 1962 war.
- The ‘Theory of asymmetry’ does not hold ground when dealing with China. Therefore, a rational policy of dialogue is essential. Along with that, seeking gains on the work that has already been done must be the target.
(Note: Theory of Asymmetry is an approach of capitalizing on the huge asymmetry in resources by the major party, followed by a show of magnanimity and conciliation. While this approach is a possibility when dealing with Pakistan, it can’t be the way forward in the case of China)
- Contrasting the border readiness of the two, for instance, we see stark distinctions, more often, revealing a Chinese upper hand.
- As of now, only 21 of the proposed 73 roads have been developed by India for the Indo-China border (Also the revised target is now 2020 instead of the original target, 2012).
- China, on the other hand, developed and still developing its borders under the pretext of CPEC, OBOR, or even otherwise (as in the case of Doklam). This exposes how we are lagging in the connectivity of our border posts.
- The ‘Mountain Strike Corps’ of India, specifically proposed to be raised to check the Chinese influence, has a strength that is much less than the proposed strength. Along with that, the force is not yet equipped with the advanced armories that were envisioned for them.
- The recent initiatives including the Dhola-Sadiya bridge (Bhupen Hazarika Setu-9.2km-Connects Assam with Arunachal Pradesh) are a welcome step as they help bring down the travel time and as such, a military response time as well.
- A Brahmos cruise missile regiment is being deployed in Arunachal Pradesh. This signals Indian intentions to China, which finds every opportunity to reiterate its sanction over the territory.
- Many abandoned airstrips in India are also being reactivated. Though thought-provoking, it is a step in the right direction.
India-China: Other Bilateral Issues
The recent standoff is seen as a culmination of several disagreements between India and China and the relations between the two sides have soured in the last 2-3 years. A few of them are:
- India’s entry into the UNSC and the NSG: China has been opposing India’s entry into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG).
- India’s opposition to the OBOR: India has been opposing China’s flagship ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative‘, as the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)‘, a part of OBOR, passes through the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and acceding to OBOR would mean undermining India’s sovereignty.
- Strengthening of India-USA relations: China is critical of India-USA relations and it is not merely a coincidence that the escalation at the tri-junction coincided with the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the United States. India supports the US and other countries in reaffirming the freedom of navigation in international waters, which includes the South China Sea. Along with this, the ‘MALABAR Naval exercise’ between India, Japan, and the USA is also a matter of worry for China.
- Issue of Tibet and Dalai Lama: The fact that Tibet’s spiritual leader Dalai Lama lives in India is a tension area in India-China relations. The recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh has been a matter of conflict between the two sides.
- Issue of Masood Azhar: India’s bid to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar to be declared as a UN-designated terrorist has been blocked by China again and again. China is the only country among the 15 members UNSC to have opposed the ban. China is of the view that India is trying to pursue political gains in the name of counter-terrorism.
Read: China-Tibet issue
From the recent incidents, although the possibility of an India-China armed conflict cannot be ruled out, any kind of military conflict is not in the interest of any country. The need of the hour is realizing that our ‘strategic partnership’ could serve us both and help see Asia emerge as the core of the world economy. This dream of the ‘India-China Millennium of Exceptional Synergies’ that the Prime Minister envisions, however, needs magnanimity and willingness on the part of both nations.
Efforts to resolve the India-China border disputes have been ongoing for decades through diplomatic negotiations. Various rounds of border talks and agreements have been held to manage tensions and prevent escalations. However, a final resolution of the border disputes remains elusive, and the situation along the Line of Actual Control can be tense and prone to periodic flare-ups.
Both India and China recognize the importance of maintaining peace and stability along their border, and diplomatic channels remain open to seek peaceful resolutions to the disputes.
- Security Challenges and Their Management in Border Areas
- Cross-Border Insolvency
- India’s Connectivity Projects
- Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM)
- Redrawal of National Boundaries
Contributors: Deepak Kaushik and Shuja Shabir