Context: This topic is important for UPSE GS Paper 2
China’s expansionist policy is responsible for various border disputes,s, particularly with India. In this article historical base of to present India -China border dispute is discussed.
1914: A border China never agreed to
The conflict stretches back to at least 1914.
In 2014 representatives from Britain, the Republic of China and Tibet gathered in Shimla to negotiate a treaty that would determine the status of Tibet and effectively settle the borders between China and British India.
The Chinese, unhappy at proposed terms that would have allowed Tibet to be autonomous and remain under Chinese control, refused to sign the deal.
But Britain and Tibet signed a treaty establishing what would be called the McMahon Line, named after a British colonial official, Henry McMahon, who proposed the border.
India maintains that the McMahon Line, a 550-mile frontier that extends through the Himalayas, is the official legal border between China and India.
But China has never accepted it.
1962: India-China War and origin of LAC
Tensions rose throughout the 1950s.
The Chinese insisted that Tibet was never independent and could not have signed a treaty creating an international border.
There were several failed attempts at peaceful negotiation.
China sought to control critical roadways near its western frontier in Xinjiang.
India and its Western allies saw any attempts at Chinese incursion as part of a wider plot to export Maoist-style Communism across the region.
By 1962, the war had broken out.
Chinese troops crossed the McMahon Line and took up positions deep in Indian territory, capturing mountain passes and towns.
By November China declared a cease-fire, unofficially redrawing the border near where Chinese troops had conquered territory.
It was the so-called Line of Actual Control.
1967: In Sikkim, India pushes China back
Tensions came to a head again in 1967 along two mountain passes, Nathu La and Cho La, that connected Sikkim — then a kingdom and a protectorate of India — and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
A scuffle broke out when Indian troops began laying barbed wire along what they recognized as the border.
The scuffles soon escalated when a Chinese military unit began firing artillery shells at the Indians.
In the ensuing conflict, more than 150 Indians and 340 Chinese were killed.
The clashes in September and October 1967 in those passes would later be considered the second all-out war between China and India.
But India prevailed, destroying Chinese fortifications in Nathu La and pushing them farther back into their territory near Cho La.
The change in positions, however, meant that China and India each had different and conflicting ideas about the location of the Line of Actual Control.
The fighting was the last time that troops on either side would be killed. — until the skirmishes in the Galway Valley.
1987: A crisis averted
In 1987, the Indian military was conducting a training operation to see how fast it could move troops to the border.
A large number of troops and material arriving next to Chinese outposts surprised Chinese commanders — who responded by advancing toward what they considered the Line of Actual Control.
Realizing the potential to inadvertently start a war, both India and China de-escalated, and a crisis was averted.
2013: Stand-off at Daulat Beg Oldi
After decades of patrolling the border, a Chinese platoon pitched a camp near Daulat Beg Oldi in April 2013.
The Indians soon followed, setting up their own base fewer than 1,000 feet away.
The camps were later fortified by troops and heavy equipment.
By May, the sides had agreed to dismantle both encampments, but disputes about the location of the Line of Actual Control persisted.
2017: Doklam Stand-off
In June 2017, the Chinese set to work building a road in the Doklam Plateau, an area of the Himalayas controlled not by India, but by its ally Bhutan.
Indian troops carrying weapons and operating bulldozers confronted the Chinese with the intention of destroying the road.
A standoff ensued, soldiers threw rocks at each other, and troops from both sides suffered injuries.
In August, the countries agreed to withdraw from the area, and China stopped construction on the road.
2020: Ladakh stand-off
In May, a scuffle broke out several times.
China reinforced its forces with dump trucks, excavators, troop carriers, artillery and armoured vehicles.
What was clear was that it was the most serious series of clashes between the two sides since 2017 — and a harbinger of the deadly confrontation to come.
The incidents took place in the Naku La sector and in a contested area near Pangong Tso, a lake in Ladakh.
But the Army played down the two incidents as “temporary and short-duration face-offs” that were resolved by “local commanders as per mutually-accepted protocols” through dialogue and flag meetings. These kinds of incidents do occur as boundaries are not resolved.
Where is Naku La?
Naku La sectoris a pass at a height of more than 5,000 metres above Mean Sea Level (MSL) in the state of Sikkim.
It is located ahead of Muguthang or Cho Lhamu (source of River Teesta). The other passes located in the state of Sikkim are Nathu La Pass and Jelep La Pass.
Violence in the Galway Valley on the India-China border has claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers.
Where is Galwan Valley?
The Galwan valley is strategically located between Ladakh in the west and Aksai Chin in the east, which is currently controlled by China as part of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
At its western end are the Shyok River and the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road. Its eastern mouth lies not far from China’s vital Xinjiang Tibet road, now called the G219 highway.
Where does the Line of Actual Control lie?
The LAC lies east of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers in the valley, up to which both India and China have been patrolling in recent years.
After the June 15 clash, however, China has claimed that the entire valley lies on its side of the LAC.
Territorial claims and LAC claims
They are not the same. The distinction between territorial claims and LAC claims is sometimes blurred.
The LAC refers to territory under the effective control of each side, not to their entire territorial claim. For instance, India’s territorial claims extend 38,000 sq km on the other side of the LAC across all of Aksai Chin, but the LAC India observes runs through the valley.
It is true that the LAC has never been demarcated and there are differences in perception of where it lies in more than a dozen spots, but there have not been previous incidents in the valley.
Attempts to resolve the issue:
The rapprochement between the two countries in 1976 enabled India and China to initiate High Level border talks in 1981 to find a solution to the vexed problem. After eight rounds, the talks broke down in 1987.
In 1988, following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, the Joint Working Group (JWG) was set up to look into the border problem.
In 1993, the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was signed and the India-China Expert Group of Diplomatic and Military Officers was set up to assist the JWG.
In 1996, the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LAC was signed.
In 2003, two special representatives (one each from India and China) were appointed to find a political solution to the border dispute.
Military: India has moved in additional divisions, tanks and artillery across the LAC to match Chinese deployments. Further, India has approved the purchase of 33 Russian fighter jets and upgrades to 59 war planes at a cost of Rs. 18,148 crore.
Economic: Citing the “emergent nature of threats” from mobile applications, including popular ones of Chinese origin such as TikTok, ShareIt, UCBrowser, and Weibo, the government has banned 59 apps. Further, India’s trade deficit with China fell to $48.66 billion in 2019-20 on account of the decline in imports. The trade deficit stood at $53.56 billion in 2018-19 and $63 billion in 2017-18.
However, the tensions on the border, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, have thrown light on India’s economic dependencies on China. India remains reliant on Chinese products in several critical and strategically sensitive sectors, from semiconductors and active pharmaceutical ingredients to the telecom sector, where Chinese vendors are involved not only in India’s 4G network but in ongoing 5G trials as well.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China in India has dipped to $163.78 million in 2019-20 from $229 million in 2018-19. In April 2020, the Indian government tightened FDI norms coming from the countries which share land borders with India. Government approval has been made mandatory.
It has described the app ban action as “a deliberate interference in practical cooperation” between the two countries. China’s State media has warned of economic repercussions, such as affecting outbound Chinese investment into India. Possible Reasons Behind Increased China’s Deployment at the LAC
India’s decision to strengthen its border infrastructure (Darbuk-Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldie road).
India’s United States tilt (e.g. Quad) amid US-China tensions.
China views India’s assertions regarding Gilgit-Baltistan, as an implicit attack on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s flagship programme.
China’s growing assertiveness over the South China Sea.
Political and economic tensions within China due to Covid-19 pandemic.
India being a growing power in Asian region.
Line of Actual Control
Demarcation Line: The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the demarcation that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory.
LAC is different from the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan:
The LoC emerged from the 1948 ceasefire line negotiated by the United Nations (UN) after the Kashmir War.
It was designated as the LoC in 1972, following the Shimla Agreement between the two countries. It is delineated on a map signed by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of both armies and has the international sanctity of a legal agreement.
The LAC, in contrast, is only a concept – it is not agreed upon by the two countries, neither delineated on a map or demarcated on the ground.
Length of the LAC: India considers the LAC to be 3,488 km long, while the Chinese consider it to be only around 2,000 km.
Sectors Across the LAC: It is divided into three sectors: the eastern sector which spans Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim (1346 km), the middle sector in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (545 km), and the western sector in Ladakh (1597 km).
The alignment of the LAC in the eastern sector is along the 1914 McMahon Line.
The McMohan line marked out previously unclaimed/undefined borders between Britain and Tibet.
The middle sector is the least disputed sector, while the western sector witnesses the highest transgressions between the two sides.
India's claim line is different from that of the LAC. It is the line seen in the official boundary marked on the maps as released by the Survey of India, including Aksai Chin (occupied by China).
In China’s case, LAC corresponds mostly to its claim line, but in the eastern sector, it claims the entire Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet.
The claim lines come into question when a discussion on the final international boundaries takes place, and not when the conversation is about a working border i.e. LAC.
Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China in 2003 led to the agreement on appointing Special Representatives (SRs) and, in April 2005, there was agreement on the political parameters and principles that would underpin negotiations. The aim was a comprehensive solution encompassing all three sectors. The agreed boundary would follow well-defined geographical features and respect the interests of the settled populations.
During Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China in May 2015, the proposal to clarify the LAC was rejected by the Chinese.
However, in the Wuhan (2018) and Mahabalipuram (2019) summits, both China and India had reaffirmed that they will make efforts to “ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas”.
Relevance of Pangong Tso Lake
Location: It is a long narrow, deep, endorheic (landlocked) lake situated at a height of more than 13,000 ft in the Ladakh Himalayas.
Significance: It lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian-held territory.
Governance: It is overlooked by the Finger Area - a set of eight cliffs extending out of the Sirijap range (on the northern bank of Lake).
India claims that the LAC is coterminous with Finger 8 but it physically controls area only upto Finger 4.
Chinese border posts are at Finger 8, while it believes that the LAC passes through Finger 2.
Why the Indian Army did not use firearms?
Indian troops were armed. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving the post.
Those at Galwan too did carry arms. But, long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) did not allow the use of firearms during faceoffs.
The 1996 agreement is on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas.
Article VI (1) of the 1996 agreement says “With a view to preventing dangerous military activities along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas… Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use of hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres from the line of actual control. This prohibition shall not apply to routine firing activities in small arms firing ranges.”
However, it is Article VI (4) that is more applicable in the current instance: “If the border personnel of the two sides come in a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the line of actual control or any other reason, they shall exercise self-restraint and take all necessary steps to avoid an escalation of the situation. Both sides shall also enter into immediate consultations through diplomatic and/or other available channels to review the situation and prevent any escalation of tension.”
In Article 1: “the two sides will resolve the boundary question through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means”.
The 2013 Agreement on Border Defence Cooperation also stated that neither side shall use its military capability against the other.
Since no round has been fired on the Sino-India border in Ladakh after 1962 and with a view to preventing any escalation, these routines of not firing have been drilled into the soldiers.
Possible factors for Chinese aggression:
India’s border infrastructure:
India has been strengthening its border infrastructure along the LAC.
The strengthening of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road may have angered the Chinese. The Chinese demand in the ongoing negotiations is also premised on India stopping its infrastructure development.
Change in the status of J&K:
One popular argument is that China’s move is driven by local factors such as India’s decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Read more on this in the article, Article 370.
The relations between the two countries have been steadily deteriorating.
India has been against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China further views India’s assertions regarding Gilgit-Baltistan as an implicit attack on the CPEC.
India has put curbs and restrictions on Chinese foreign direct investment.
China’s internal dynamics:
The internal pressures that have been generated within China — in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are also influencing Chinese behaviour.
The coupling of political and economic tensions has greatly aggravated pressures on Chinese leadership and the rising tide of anti-China sentiment the world over has further worsened matters.
Chinese aggression has been observed not only along the LAC but also in the South China Sea. This might indicate a deliberate planning on the part of the Chinese leadership to divert attention from domestic issues.
India’s alignment with the U.S.:
While India professes to be non-aligned, it is increasingly perceived as having aligned with the U.S.
India’s United States tilt is perhaps most pronounced in the domain of U.S.- China relations. Recent instances are often highlighted to confirm the perception that India tends to side with the U.S. and against China whenever there is a conflict of interest between the two.
An evident degree of geopolitical convergence also exists between the U.S. and India in the Indo-Pacific, again directed against China.
India is a member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia and India) which has a definite anti-China connotation.
The U.S. President’s proposal of redesigning the G-7, including countries such as India (India has conveyed its acceptance), but excluding China, provides China yet another instance of India and China being in opposite camps.
India is being increasingly projected as an alternative model to China, and being co-opted into a wider anti-China alliance which China clearly perceives as a provocation.
India’s traditional clout in its neighbourhood was slipping:
For India, tensions with Pakistan have been high keeping the troops occupied in the border areas.
Nepal raised boundary issues with India.
Sri Lanka is diversifying its foreign policy and China is making deep inroads into that region.
Bangladesh was deeply miffed with the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Even in Afghanistan, where Pakistan, China, Russia and the U.S. are involved in the transition process, India is out.
Even as India and China engage in talks, the current state of tension is likely to continue
China passing a new border law amid a continuing stalemate in negotiations with India sends a clear signal to New Delhi that Beijing is in no mood to quickly end the 18-month-long crisis along the LAC.
The law, which will take effect on January 1, designates the responsibilities of various agencies in China, from the military to local authorities, in guarding the frontiers. It “stipulates that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China are sacred and inviolable”.
Calling on the military to “guard against and combat any act that undermines territorial sovereignty and land boundaries”, the law says the Chinese military “shall carry out border duties” to “resolutely prevent, stop and combat invasion, encroachment, provocation and other acts”.
India has reacted sharply, telling China that it must not use legislation as a “pretext” to formalise the PLA’s actions since last year to unilaterally alter the LAC.
While the law says Beijing will negotiate with its neighbours to settle its borders, India reminded China that the legislation will have little bearing on the India-China boundary as both sides are yet to resolve the boundary question.
Responding to India’s concerns, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the law would not affect the implementation of existing agreements. The legislation also has implications for the only other country China has unresolved land borders with — Bhutan — calling for continuing efforts to develop border areas. Among those efforts is the on-going construction of frontier villages, including in disputed areas.
The Chinese side may justify the law as an “internal” matter akin to India’s abrogation of Article 370 and the creation of a Union Territory in Ladakh, which China strongly opposed because it included Aksai Chin.
The last round of LAC talks, held on October 10, ended with both sides trading accusations, Beijing blaming India for making “unrealistic” demands and New Delhi countering that the other side offered no real proposals for a solution.
Indeed, the new law underlines that China increasingly sees little space for compromise as far as its frontiers are concerned. Even as India and China continue negotiations, the law is the latest signal that the current state of affairs along the border, marked by continuing deployments by both sides in forward areas and a build-up of infrastructure, is likely to continue over the longer term.
Solution of border issue is important for peaceful neighbourhood which can only be achieved through mutual talks, confidence building measures and infrastructural development .
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Monday said it was aware of infrastructure construction by China in the past several years “along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)” and that India has also stepped up its construction. The statement came after a report by NDTV showed satellite images of a new Chinese settlement in Arunachal Pradesh.
This is the first time the government has acknowledged Chinese construction, although official sources say the land has been under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) control since 1959.
“The Chinese have been holding the area since 1959 and it is not a new development. Prior to that, there was an Assam Rifles post there which was overrun. They have been doing construction there on and off. There were some temporary constructions a few years back. They have now done permanent construction there,” an official source said.
A second official source said, “They are doing it [the construction] on their side and we are doing it on our side.”
Satellite images show the construction of a big village on the banks of Tsari Chu river in Upper Subansiri district between November 2019 and November 2020.
Stating that the government remains committed to the objective of creating infrastructure along the border areas for the improvement of the livelihood of its citizens, including in Arunachal Pradesh, the MEA said in a statement, “Government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security and takes all the necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It said that India, too, has stepped up border infrastructure, including the construction of roads and bridges among others, which it added has provided “much-needed connectivity to the local population along the border.”