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About Borders
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Claude Arpi | Date:01 Oct , 2020 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.


For centuries, the subcontinent was separated from the Tibetan plateau by the most formidable natural barrier, the Himalaya.

This border has been remarkably peaceful from time immemorial.

It is only since the early 1950s, once Tibet, a State with all the legal attributes of an Independent Nation, was occupied by Communist China, that the border became a bone of contention with the latter.

What is a Border?

Wikipedia, the online dictionary, explains what a border is: “Borders define geographic boundaries of political entities or legal jurisdictions, such as governments, sovereign states, federated states and other subnational entities. Some borders — such as a state’s internal administrative borders, or inter-state borders within the Schengen Area — are open and completely unguarded. Other borders are partially or fully controlled, and may be crossed legally only at designated border checkpoints and border zones may be controlled.”

Today borders are useful conventions for separating or defining sovereign countries/nations.

A Porous Border between India and Tibet

For centuries, the Himalaya saw a constant flow of Tibetan lamas, pandits and yogis visiting the great Indian viharas of Nalanda, Odantapuri or Vikramasila. Once Tibet converted to the doctrine of non-violence, it was transfigured. It lived only for the Dharma and by the Dharma of Buddha. It is fascinating to look at the changes wrought by the Buddhist faith on the people of Tibet who were among the most belligerent on earth. After adopting the new religion, their powerful Empire which had spread far and wide suddenly turned pacifist. As a result it would never recover its past military glory but it would start another kind of conquest, the conquest of self, and begin to spread its cultural influence over Central Asia and Mongolia.

Unfortunately for Tibet after 1950, the People’s Liberation Army walked onto the Tibetan plateau and brutally imposed its rule.

The fact is that when neighbouring States are on friendly terms, it is not too difficult to find an agreed frontier; when one faces an expansionist, aggressive neighbour, it is more difficult.

Border control

Over the last century, most States have instituted border control to restrict or limit the movement of people, animals, plants, and goods into or out of the country. Under international law, a State can decide the conditions under which a person can legally cross its borders; the State is also entitled to prevent persons or goods from crossing its borders.

To cross borders, one generally requires legal documents or travel documents like passports (which in many cases need a visa) or at least identity documents.

Till 1954, the Indo-Tibet relations were so friendly that the two nations trusted each other and no travel documents was required for the nationals of India or Tibet to visit the neighbouring country; one can take the example of Indians visiting the Kailash-Manasarovar area without any identity proofs.

What defines a border?

There are different ways to define borders.
To understand the difficulties to have a ‘border agreement’ with India’s most difficult neighbours, namely Pakistan and China, it is necessary to look at the features which define a border.

Geographical Borders

Natural borders are geographical features that present natural obstacles to communication and transport. It can be:

    • Mountain ranges:
      In the present study, the Himalayan range is the most formidable natural barrier, though mountainous passes for centuries witnessed cultural, trade and religious exchanges; they were unfortunately closed after 1962 War with China. As far as Tibet and India are concerned, diplomats, pilgrims or traders knew that when they crossed a certain pass, they had reached the neighbouring country; that was it.
    • A Watershed or a ridge:
      The entire McMahon Line in the North-east follows the watershed principle. One of the problems is that the Chinese have not accepted the watershed as the primarily principle. The Central Sector also follows the watershed principle except in four places today disputed by China (Chuva-Chuje, Shipki-la, Nilang-Jadhang and Barahoti-Lapthal-Sangchamalla).
    • A pass:
      One can give the example of the six passes mentioned in the 1954 Agreement between India and China. It constitutes a clearly definable boundary.
    • A Pasture:
      The location and ownership pattern of customary pastures can define the border between two countries.
    • Rivers:
      Some political borders have been formalized along natural borders formed by rivers, for example the Rhine border between France and Germany. The international border usually runs in the middle of the river.
    • Lakes:
      Large lakes can be a natural border. One example in the Himalayan region is the Pangong tso (lake) which spreads between India and Tibet. It is today the object of a bitter dispute between India and China.
    • An ocean or a sea:
      They often create very large natural borders. A nation may have exclusive rights over the mineral and other resources (including biological) in some areas in an ocean or a sea. The South China Sea is an example, though China fixed its claims without historical or legal sanction.
    • A wall:
      The Great Wall of China was the most famous example of a border protection for China against foreign invasions.

A few more such principles could be cited, but the above are the most usual features to determine a common border.

The Great Wall was China’s border

On what is a settled border based?

A border agreed by the two neighbouring States is based on historical or customary features. Further, to determine these borders some factors are taken into account:

    • A Treaty or Agreement
      Borders can based on a treaty or an agreement signed by the two parties; this is the case of the McMahon Line between NEFA (today Arunachal) and Tibet; two concerned States affixed their signature on a map.
      Another case is the Peace Treaty between Ladakh and Tibet of 1684 which says: “The boundaries fixed, in the beginning, when king Skyed-lda-nyeema gon gave a kingdom to each of his three sons, shall still be maintained.”
      Further, the Treaty of 1842 between Ladakh and Tibet reiterated the same border; unfortunately, no map was attached to the 1684 and 1842 Treaties (it was probably not necessary at that time).
    • A Brokered Agreement i.e. the 1949 UN Cease-Fire
      Another example is when an agreement is brokered by a third party; in July 1949, the delegations of India and Pakistan, under the UN auspices reached the following agreement: “Under the provision of Part I of the resolution of 13 August, 1948, and as a complement of the suspension of hostilities in the State of Jammu and Kashmir on 1 January, 1949, a cease-fire line is established…” This became the Line of Cease-Fire.
    • Arbitral Decision i.e. The Radcliffe Line
      The Radcliffe Line was announced on 17 August 1947 as a boundary demarcation between India and Pakistan. Named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the chairman of the Border Commissions who had to equally divide 450,000 km2 of territory with 88 million people.
    • Custom and usage, i.e. Panchsheel, 1954
      More importantly for the Indo-Tibet (now Sino-Indian) border, custom and usage have been used to determine the borders.
      The 1954 ‘Panchsheel’ Agreement says: “Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel by the following passes and route: (1) Shipki La pass, (2) Mana pass, (3) Niti pass, (4) Kungri Bingri pass, (5) Darma pass, and (6) Lipu Lekh pass. Also, the customary route leading to Tashigong along the valley of the Shangatsangpu (Indus) River may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom.”
    • Historical proofs
      The publication of maps or accounts of travelers fall in this category. This is the case of the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh.

One or several of these principles can be used to determine a border.

The Case of the McMahon Line

A few words should be mentioned about the McMahon Line.

In 1913, the British government convened a tripartite Conference in Simla between plenipotentiaries of Great Britain, China, and Tibet. The Convention provided for an ‘Outer Tibet’ which would be fully autonomous. However, after initializing the Convention, Ivan Chen, the Chinese plenipotentiary withdrew his consent in July 1914. Great Britain and Tibet attached a note to the Convention denying China any privileges under the Accord. The Convention was later sealed as a bilateral agreement.

Nevertheless, in March 1914, on the side of the Simla Conference, the British and the Tibetans defined their common border in India’s North-East; the McMahon Line was born.

Lonchen Shatra officially wrote to Sir Henry McMahon: “As it was feared that there might be friction in future unless the boundary between India and Tibet is clearly defined, I submitted the map, which you sent to me in February last, to the Tibetan Government at Lhasa for orders. I have now received orders from Lhasa, and I accordingly agree to the boundary as marked in red in the two copies of the maps signed by you subject to the condition mentioned in your letter, dated 14th March, sent to me through Mr. Bell. I have signed and sealed the two copies of the maps. I have kept one copy here and return herewith the other.”

During the following years, British officials had regular contacts with the Tibetan Kashag. Following the signature of the Convention, trade marts were opened in Tibet and telegraphic lines were maintained by Government of British India.

How to delimitate a border?

What are the stages of delimitation of a border between two independent States (or three in case of a trijunction) once they have agreed on principle(s)?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word ‘delimit’ means “to mark or determine the limits of; to define, as a limit or boundary” while ‘delimitation’, it is the “determination of a limit or boundary, especially of the frontier of a territory”.

The first step for ‘delimiting’ a border is to ‘define’ the border, for example, ‘the border will follow the watershed’ or ‘will be the center of this river’.

‘Definition’ needs to be a precise statement. The next stage is to ‘delineate’ a ‘defined’ border. The dictionary says that ‘delineate’ is ‘to trace out by lines; trace the outlines of, a on a chart map’, for example.

‘Demarcation’ is often treated as the same as the ‘definition’, however ‘demarcation’ can also refer to work on the ground by means of pillars or other conventional signs.

The final stage is ‘abornement’ which is the ‘determination of the precise limits of a piece of land or border by fixing pillars or other markers on the ground.

The entire process is called ‘delimitation’ of the border; it is a long process. In the case of the Sino-Indian border dispute, the two parties have not even exchanged maps of their ‘perceptional’ Line of Actual Control (LAC).

China does not stick to any principle

It is difficult to deal with China because the claims made by Beijing are often without historical, cartographical or geographical support. This is true for the frontier (the so-called LAC) in Ladakh, but also for other recent Chinese claims in the South China Sea, in Tajikistan’s Pamir Region or Vladivostok.

For India, the principle of the watershed is the prime deciding factor; while most Chinese claims are not based on any of the principles normally used to demarcate a boundary, i.e. watershed, river, customary routes, grazing rights, etc.

As an example, we can cite the case of the now famous 1960 Chinese map, which just follows Beijing’s strategic interests and not any world-agreed principles.

That is why it is difficult to talk to China, which goes by its own changeable rules, practically promoting only its own interests.
It makes it impossible to find a mutually agreeable solution to the vexed issue today.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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