Geopolitics

The India - China Border Conundrum
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Issue Vol. 28.3 Jul-Sep 2013 | Date : 12 Sep , 2013

China is becoming increasingly aggressive across the Himalayas for multiple reasons. She takes pride in her ‘Middle Kingdom’ legacy but this mentality is laced with guilt from decades of humiliation. As she faces no serious external threat, chances of conflict in the East China Sea/South China Sea are few unless China herself ups the ante despite conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the US, which she is trying to offset through asymmetric means. Similarly, there is no serious existential threat to China but the restive regions of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet need to be managed deftly. Plus failure to address the imbalance between the neo-rich coastal areas and the majority agricultural heartland is a recipe for instability. China simply wants to accelerate the boundary resolution with India and Bhutan because this will help stabilise Tibet and Xinjiang.

Doklam Plateau, if occupied by China, will turn the flanks of Indian defences in Sikkim and endanger the Siliguri Corridor…

Of the 33 territorial disputes in South Asian Region listed out by Wikipedia, nine are between India and China; Aksai Chin, Shaksgam, Arunachal Pradesh (termed South Tibet by China), and Demchok, Chumar, Kaurik, Shipki La, Jadh and Lapthal – all areas between Aksai Chin and Nepal. Then are 11 territorial disputes between China and Bhutan, some of which can have adverse effects on India, should China resort to occupying these areas forcibly. Additionally, Chinese semi-permanent presence in Gilgit-Baltistan exponentially complicates resolution of India-Pakistan territorial disputes.

China is becoming increasingly aggressive across the Himalayas for multiple reasons. She takes pride in her ‘Middle Kingdom’ legacy but this mentality is laced with guilt from decades of humiliation. As she faces no serious external threat, chances of conflict in the East China Sea/South China Sea are few unless China herself ups the ante despite conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the US, which she is trying to offset through asymmetric means. Similarly, there is no serious existential threat to China but the restive regions of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet need to be managed deftly. Plus failure to address the imbalance between the neo-rich coastal areas and the majority agricultural heartland is a recipe for instability. China simply wants to accelerate the boundary resolution with India and Bhutan because this will help stabilise Tibet and Xinjiang.

Territorial Dispute

Of the nine territory disputes between India and China, two major chunks of territory are the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. All other disputed areas lie south of the McMahon Line. Aksai Chin’s importance to China is the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway that China surreptitiously built in the 1950s. Arunachal Pradesh lies south of the McMahon Line. With regard to the Aksai Chin, the Sikhs had captured Ladakh and invaded China in 1841 but were defeated which led to a treaty between the Sikhs and China in 1842. This 1842 treaty stipulated no transgressions or interference in the other country’s frontiers.

Of the nine territory disputes between India and China, two major chunks of territory are the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh…

Then in 1846, the British defeated the Sikhs which resulted in the transfer of sovereignty over Ladakh to the British. Successive British commissioners attempted unsuccessfully to meet with Chinese officials to discuss the border they now shared. Both sides were apparently sufficiently satisfied that a traditional border was recognized and defined by the natural elements, Karakoram Pass and Pangong Tso Lake. However, no boundary demarcation was done and the Aksai Chin area continued to be undefined.

In the Eastern region, British India and China had gained a common border after the British annexed Assam on conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1846). This resulted in the Treaty of Yangdabo in 1826. Further British annexations through the subsequent Anglo-Burmese War expanded China’s borders with British India eastwards, to include the border with Burma (now Myanmar). In 1914, representatives of Britain, China, and Tibet attended a conference at Simla in India and drew up an agreement concerning Tibet’s status and borders. The McMahon Line was decided upon during the 1914 Simla Convention. The agreement was signed by representatives of British India, Tibet (Lonchen Shatra Dorje) and China (Ivan Chen), all affixing full signatures to the agreement and the appended maps showing the alignment of the McMahon Line on the maps.

Copies of these maps and the photograph showing the attendees of the Simla Convention in 1914 are shown below:

McMahon Line Map 1 (1914 Simla Convention) Bhutan tri-junction to Tsang Po / Brahmaputra

McMahon Line, Map 2 (1914 Simla Convention) Extends up to tri-junction of Burma, Tibet and China

Map in album of Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India

Attendees - 1914 Simla Convention including Chinese Representative Ivan Chen and Tibetan Representative Lonchen Shatra Dorje

Representatives of those days are equivalent to Ambassadors today notwithstanding the fact that the designation ‘Representative’ is still prevalent, as indicated by the ‘Special Representatives’ of India and China that currently continue to discuss the sensitive boundary issue. But despite the Chinese Representative (Ivan Chen) having affixed signatures to the 1914 Simla Convention Agreement, China reneged on it saying that the Chinese Representative did not have the permission of the Chinese Government, which is a lame and absurd excuse.

The McMahon Line was decided upon during the 1914 Simla Convention…

The 1962 Sino-India War was fought in this territory. An agreement to resolve the dispute was concluded in 1996, including ‘Confidence-Building Measures’ and a mutually agreed LAC but in 2006, the Chinese ambassador to India stated that all of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. This was followed up with a military build-up and numerous incursions in the region, some penetrating more than a kilometre.

Pillaging the Himalayas

China’s Himalayan loot began silently in the 1950s by transcending the boundaries of Tibet and steamrolling the occupation of Aksai Chin (38,000 square kilometres) that was part of Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir acceded by Maharaja Hari Singh to India post Partition. China’s National Highway 219 repaved recently runs now through Aksai Chin connecting Tibet with the Xinjiang region. This Chinese move was not mere territory grab but part of a larger integrated politico-military strategy that looked far into the future taking into consideration the long term requirements of resources, particularly energy that would increase in gargantuan proportions, plus the security of the long supply lines.

In Pakistan, perpetually in search of its identity, China has found an easy ally. Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley (some 6,000 square kilometres of Indian Territory) to China. China resolved her borders with all countries less India and Bhutan, which was by design. In certain areas Chinese claim lines kept extending progressively as the years went by – from 1959 the claim line to more demanding one in 1963 and subsequently extending further in 1969 and 1975 so forth and so on.

The push for India’s withdrawal from the Saltoro Range in the Siachen area is part of the same plunder of the Himalayas…

A rapidly radicalizing Pakistan had launched an institutionalised jihad to kill the maximum number of ‘Shias’ on her own territory, particularly Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistani calculus, subcontracting itself to China is one solution to stabilise the region that will also nip any Indian designs westwards. China naturally grabbed the opportunity, initiating strategic footprints into Pakistan/POK. Reportedly, Pakistan is to lease out the Gilgit-Pakistan region to China for 50 years. Pakistani analysts also say that China wants to establish permanent bases in POK, which will become the geo-strategic pivot of China-Pakistan for forays into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The push for India’s withdrawal from the Saltoro Range in the Siachen area is part of the same plunder of the Himalayas. Chinese ingress in Nepal is for the same reason. PLA soldiers in uniform have been sighted in northern Nepal by foreign journalists. Further east, China has been claiming the Doklam Plateau and Chinese road built between Zuri and Phuteogang Ridge that overlooks the disputed Charithang Valley. Doklam Plateau, if occupied by China, will turn the flanks of Indian defences in Sikkim and endanger the Siliguri Corridor. Hitherto, China was laying claims only to Tawang. Having got Tibet on its plate, China has suddenly staked its claim to entire Arunachal Pradesh since 2006. What more proof is needed of Chinese irredentism? This is perhaps the ultimate objective in Operation ‘Himalayan Plunder’ for gaining control of the Himalayas right from POK all the way to Arunachal.

Ladakhi & Bhutanese Enclaves in Tibet

What remains shrouded in history are the Ladakhi and Bhutanese enclaves in Western Tibet. The Ladakhi enclave consists of the village of Minsar (Men ser), near Lake Manasarovar (Ma pham), and its surrounding land, while Tconsists of Darchen (Dar chen) Labrang and several smaller monasteries and villages near Mount Kailas (Gangs rin po che, Ti se). The Ladakhi estate of Minsar which the King of Ladakh/J&K retained was ostensibly to meet the religious offering expenses of Lake Manasarowar and Mount Kailas. These enclaves were entirely surrounded by the territory of the Dalai Lama, but Ladakh (superseded by the government of Jammu and Kashmir after 1846) and Bhutan continued to raise revenue there for some 300 years.

In Pakistani calculus, subcontracting itself to China is one solution to stabilise the region that will also nip any Indian designs westwards…

The status of these Enclaves has continued to be ambiguous. By the 20th century, both Kashmir/India and Bhutan claimed to hold their lands in full sovereignty. By contrast, the Lhasa government acknowledged that Ladakh/Kashmir and Bhutan held certain rights. Nevertheless Tibet tried to exercise its own authority as though the enclaves were no more than foreign-owned estates on Tibetan territory. These disputes were never fully resolved. When the Chinese invaded the area they never paid any compensation to either to Ladakh/Kashmir or to Bhutan. As such, these continue to be disputed territory. What is significant is that Chinese claim to Tawang is on the basis that the Tibetans visit the ancient Tawang Monastery every year to pay obeisance. By the same analogy, the Ladakhi enclave consisting of village Minsar (Men ser) and its surrounding lands should revert to India, while Tconsists of Darchen (Dar chen) Labrang and several smaller monasteries and villages near Mount Kailas (Gangs rin po che, Ti se) should revert to Bhutan for annual pilgrimages.

Major Cross Border Incidents

Earlier this year, Defence Minister A K Antony had stated in Parliament that nearly 600 border transgressions had taken place along the 4,057 km long Line Of Actual Control (LAC) in the past three years (since 2010) and that some of these incursions were deeper than in the past. All these have been denied by China. However, in the unending list of cross border transgressions over the years, there have been three major ones. The first one was in September 1967 at Nathu La where the Chinese without warning opened fire on India troops on the bare stretch of the pass itself and followed it up with artillery fire. India suffered some 70 casualties. However, the Indian response was so intense that all Chinese defences at Nathu La and shoulders of the pass were razed to the ground and by own admission, the PLA suffered heavy losses with about 400 dead.

The second incident (Wangdung Incident) was in area of Sumdorong Chu, a rivulet flowing north-south in the Thag La triangle, bound by Bhutan in the west and the Thag La ridge to the north, where Chinese started intruding south of McMahon Line in June 1986, while claiming they were north of it. The initial intrusion of 40 PLA, one to two kilometres deep inside Indian territory, swelled up to 200 by August and Chinese even constructed a helipad. India even suggested a way out of the crisis by suggesting that if the Chinese withdrew in the coming winter, India would not re-occupy the area in the following summer but China rejected the offer. India then airlifted troops to occupy ridges overlooking the intrusion area. In October 1986, Deng Xiaoping warned India against taking any action, threatening to teach India a lesson like China did to Vietnam. Subsequently, China brought massive reinforcements into Tibet. Consequently, the Indian Army moved three Divisions to positions around Wangdung. Eventually, pursuant to political level parleys, the two sides agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal of their troops from the four border posts (two Indian and two Chinese – in the Sumdorong Chu valley).

Having got Tibet on its plate, China has suddenly staked its claim to entire Arunachal Pradesh since 2006…

The third and most recent intrusion (deepest since the 1962 Sino-Indian War) intrusion that the Chinese made in April this year was in the area of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Ladakh Region. India officially acknowledged this intrusion was 19 kilometres deep inside Indian territory though the distance from KK Pass (North-eastern extremity of J&K State) was actually 30 kilometres. The Government of India also maintained that this was an intrusion at the local PLA commander’s level considering that the Chinese Foreign Minister was to visit India in close succession of the intrusion. These premises were unfounded since such a deep intrusion at local level is impossible given the control of CCP battalion level upwards.

Besides, Chinese strategy has always been based on shock and surprise. This was a psychological challenge posed to the Indian hierarchy and India’s response was lukewarm, simply establishing a post in front of the Chinese intrusion. Eventually, the Chinese did withdraw but not before some 25 days displaying a massive red banner stating this was Chinese territory and compelling India to dismantle its structures in areas near Chumar.

Present Situation

The India-China joint working group meetings over the years have not made much headway. The April 2013 Chinese intrusion apparently did not come up for discussion during the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit to Beijing. This may have been construed by China as the soft image of India. Just before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, there was another intrusion by the PLA in Ladakh which was again downplayed by India. On June 12, 2013, three Chinese nationals (Sunni Muslims named Adil, Salamo and Abdul Khaliq aged 18-23 years) were apprehended by the army inside Indian territory near Sultanchushku in Ladakh carrying political maps in Arabic in the same area. It was not clear from where they had entered though possibly they could have entered through the Raki Nala, the Jeevan Nala or North of DBO.

Chinese strategy has always been based on shock and surprise…

It is significant to note that the April 2013 PLA intrusion too, was in the area of Raki Nala. Chinese nationals with fake Indian documents had been apprehended during 2012 also in the Eastern theatre on a mission to contact North-east insurgents. China has also been supporting ULFA and has supplied arms, communications equipment and arms manufacturing capability to Indian Maoists and the PLA of Manipur. On June 16, 2013, Chinese troops intruded more than a kilometre into Sikkim’s northernmost point (called Finger Point). Only a month ago, Chinese soldiers had threatened to demolish stone structures in the area. That warning was subsequently echoed and endorsed by Chinese officials.

The 16th round of talks between the Special Representatives of India and China on the boundary question took place in Beijing on June 28-29, 2013. Maintenance of peace and tranquility border areas including possible additional Confidence Building Measures, ways and means of strengthening existing mechanisms for consultation and coordination on border affairs and methodology to enhance the efficiency of communications between the two sides were reportedly discussed, which is no different from previous such meetings without much headway though the usual fanfare of ‘fruitful talks’ was credited to the event.

There is proposal of a new Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) but that is of little consequence considering China’s past record of not respecting agreements. The latest example is the open defiance of the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace along the Line of Actual Control which India and China signed in 1993. In April 2013, China intruded 19 kilometres into India territory and brazenly maintained that the intruded area was on Chinese side of the LAC.

Acceptance of any intrusion in terms of Chinese perceptions is that bit of territory having been ceded…

Just prior to the Indian Defence Minister’s visit to China in July 2013, Luo Yuan, the Deputy Director at a PLA academy told Chinese reporters, “The Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase military deployment at the border areas and stir up new trouble.” Though these are routine Chinese tactics, they also smack of considerable arrogance. The issue was ignored by India. The next India-China joint exercise is scheduled in October 2013, which does not mean much because there has been no apparent change in Chinese attitude towards India including in stoking internal instability by supporting and arming insurgencies.

Analysis of Chinese Behaviour

China’s perceives herself as the second pole after the US in the multi-polar world she strives for. However, within this ambit, she aims for an unequivocal China-centric Asia and as part of this strategy, views India an inconvenient hindrance. Hence the erratic ‘carrot and stick’ policy against India and the penchant to play the Pakistan card both politically and asymmetrically. Chinese strategy focuses on the mind of adversary’s political leadership as the centre of gravity, which it keeps attacking through multiple means. Therefore, acceptance of any intrusion in terms of Chinese perceptions is that bit of territory having been ceded. Analyses of the aforementioned three major cross border incidents shows that whenever India has taken a firm stand, China has backed off. This will remain a reality in future as well no matter the levels to which Chinese comprehensive power rises. To that end, the key uncertainty whether Chinese economic growth will continue or plateau or witness a bubble burst effect is already plaguing China.

Then there is the moot point whether China will be able to contain internal sub-national movements (Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia) or will they lead to increased violence thus limiting China’s external hegemonic designs. At the same time, whether Chinese nationalism becomes hyper with propensity to miscalculate or over-react to perceived sensitive situations will remain intrinsic to Chinese behavior. Unfortunately, our Foreign Minister’s trivialising the serious Chinese intrusion in April this year sent across a wrong signal and was reminiscent of Nehru calling loss of Aksai Chin a “small matter” to be settled without much difficulty. Such responses can only encourage China to nibble more of our territory. Capitalising on India’s neglect to border areas, China has built roads right up to the LAC that facilitate intrusions. There have also been reports of a road built by China five kilometres inside Indian territory. These reports have been denied by our government. The fact is that there is plenty of ambiguity under the ambit of ‘differing perceptions of the LAC’ by both sides. Both Aksai Chin and Ladakh are known to have large uranium and mineral reserves though no mining has been undertaken.

India has ceded over 400 square kilometres of territory to China in Ladakh alone…

According to former ambassador P Stopden (himself native of Ladakh), over the years India has ceded over 400 square kilometres of territory to China in Ladakh alone. This is not counting the illegal occupation of Aksai Chin (38,000 square kilometres) and Shaksgam Valley (5,800 square kilometres) by China. He would not make such statement without basis. The implications are, therefore, clear – there have been many intrusions in the past that have been hushed up and similar may be the case in the Eastern theatre. The comprehensive communication network developed by China in forward areas is also being used by China for covertly providing rations and money to villagers in selected areas including in East Sikkim to mould local perceptions and facilitate infiltration of Special Operations forces, when required.

The Future

In the game of toying with the border and nibbling territory, China is also launching attacks on the cognitive domain focused on the minds of the political leadership of India. This needs to be met resolutely. Ignoring intrusions apart, even smaller incidents such as acquiescing to not hosting the Tricolor in open at Demchhok in Eastern Ladakh, and stopping development work in the border village of Koyul in Leh for fear of the Chinese, will send completely wrong signals. The need for developing our border communications speedily was never more urgent, which we should do without the fear of China, even at the cost of minor confrontations. China will also use all possible means to bring all neighbours of India into the gravitational ambit of China, which is becoming clear in Bhutan. India must refashion its foreign policy accordingly.

…it is in US interest to ensure that India and China never join hands…

At the political and diplomatic front, we should play on the overall territorial expanse of Tibet that India so far has not contested as being an independent country. Considering this vast expanse of territory, China should see reason to accept the McMahon Line as the international border with India. Aksai Chin must be returned to India with India guaranteeing access to China along China’s National Highway 219, which could be renamed Friendship Highway. The Minsar Enclave must be reverted to India, as should be the Darchen Labrang Enclave to Bhutan for sacred religious reasons. At best, these could be adjusted against Chinese occupation of Shaksgam Valley.

China perhaps is unaware that 1962 vintage documents de-classified in the US were categorical in stating that while some weapons can be given to the Indians to stave off the Chinese, it is in US interest to ensure that India and China never join hands. The Chinese leadership needs to take a cue from this unless they cannot get over the pleasures of jointly promoting terror with Pakistan. That is the reason Russia had proposed a Russia-China-India strategic partnership, which China has downplayed.

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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.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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4 thoughts on “The India – China Border Conundrum

  1. China has an identity of various ethnic considerations, that the Chinese see as indications. The border near Aksai Chin, is supposed to have no identity that is Ladakhi, on the Chinese side of the border. Similarly, the dispute with the Vietnam govt. was similar. The Chinese wanted to demarcate the border with Pakistan also. It seems, that the population at the borders need to have a certain affiliation with China, and this is important, to some distance within her borders, and not exactly near the border. I agree that precautions must be adhered to, when guarding the border, but a nation can also start a war, being over cautious.
    This is an important idea that has occurred. The Chinese can guard a section of the border, that has no Indian troops there, and the Indians can guard a section, where there will not be any Chinese troops. When Chinese nationals cross the international border, the nature of modern statehood, deems it that it wasn’t an accidental crossing. The improved infrastructure in Tibet, is so that people don’t cross over easily, from India and from Tibet. There must be toll booths, and guards on the Tibet border.

  2. Gen you write well I remember the days (1974) sitting on LALGARH POST in Sikkim and counting Yaks grazing with a 20x telescope as it was estimated that 40 Yaks could move a Independent Chinese Brigade group to cut the Siliguri corridor it never happened but a herd of Musk deer always exceeded the number alternating between India and Tibet where ever the grazing was good. Yes there was a difference when they went out they were more on coming back were a bakers dozen less (they bred in India but killed in occupied Tibet) just old reminiscences.
    In Actual fact due course of time I became G3 (INT) of the division and the chinkiese started insulting Indira Gandhi through loudspeakers we lost no time in relaying on our PA system about Mao and every became quiet at Jelep La the chinks became sheep.
    The moral of the story is the Chinese system is very fragile if we start counter propaganda they will come down on their knees.
    Fight we will to liberate Tibet with weapons if required but why not ? defeat communism without firing a shot like the Americans did with the USSR.
    to sum up you are warrior (Yodha) please contact on email address dalji96@rediffmail.com

  3. It seems our Politicians & Bureaucrats of MOD have not yet fully realised the danger of EXPANSIONIST CHINA.The Armed Forces need to be upgraded urgently along the entire Indo-China border..The Indian army urgently need 2 Mountain Strike corps along the indo china borders.. One of these should be based in Arunachal Pradesh. If neccessary, a new North-East command should be created as the Eastern Command has heavy responsibilities. Also, the ITBP & SSB need to be put under the operational command of the Army. Prithvi Missile Regiments need to be close to the Sikkim-Bhutan-Siliguri areas to prevent the Chinese from choking the Siliguri corridor.

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