India’s Neighbourhood Series – China

anil chopra, AirPower Asia, China-India, Neighbours

India is the largest country in South Asia. It is the second-most populous country, the seventh-largest country by land area, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; it’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

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Modern humans arrived on the Indian subcontinent from Africa no later than 55,000 years ago. Settled life emerged on the subcontinent in the western margins of the Indus river basin 9,000 years ago, evolving gradually into the Indus Valley Civilisation of the third millennium BCE. By 1200 BCE, an archaic form of Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, had diffused into India from the northwest, unfolding as the language of the Rigveda, and recording the dawning of Hinduism in India. The Dravidian languages of India were supplanted in the northern and western regions. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism evolved. Early political consolidations gave rise to the Maurya and Gupta Empires. In South India, the Middle kingdoms exported Dravidian-languages scripts and religious cultures to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia.

In the early medieval era, Muslim armies from Central Asia intermittently overran India’s northern plains, eventually establishing the Delhi Sultanate, and drawing northern India into the cosmopolitan networks of medieval Islam. In the 15th century, the Vijayanagara Empire created a long-lasting composite Hindu culture in south India. Sikhism emerged, rejecting institutionalised religion. The Mughal Empire, began in 1526, and last two centuries. Gradually expanding rule of the British East India Company followed, turning India into a colonial economy, but also consolidating its sovereignty. British Crown rule began in 1858. In 1947 the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. India has become a fast-growing major economy, a hub for information technology services, with an expanding middle class. India is a nuclear-weapon state, which ranks high in military strength. It has serious boundary disputes with China and Pakistan. Being a dominant country in the region and the only one to have an ocean named after India, it is important to look at the neighbourly relations and issues.

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India-China Disputes Overview

China–India relations have varied over time; the two nations have sought economic cooperation with each other, while frequent border disputes and economic nationalism in both countries are a major point of contention. India has been very accommodative from the very beginning when in 1950 when India was among the first countries to end formal ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of Mainland China. China and India are two of the major regional powers in Asia, and are the two most populous countries and among the fastest growing major economies in the world.

Cultural and economic relations between China and India date back to ancient times. The Silk Road not only served as a major trade route between India and China, but is also credited for facilitating the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia. Despite growing economic ties, current relations are full of hurdles to overcome. India faces trade imbalance heavily in favour of China. There are serious border disputes, resulting in three military conflicts – the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Chola incident in 1967, and the 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish. In early 2017, the two countries clashed at the Doklam plateau along the disputed Sino-Bhutanese border. Both countries have steadily established military infrastructure along border areas including amidst the 2020 China–India skirmishes. Additionally, India remains wary about China’s strong strategic bilateral relations with Pakistan, and China’s funding to the separatist groups in Northeast India, while China has expressed concerns about Indian military and economic activities in the disputed South China Sea

The Sino-Indian border dispute is about two relatively large, and several smaller, separated pieces of territory. The first of which, Aksai Chin, is claimed by China as part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region and claimed by India as part of the union territory of Ladakh. The Chinese have built the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway through the disputed area. The other disputed territory is south of the McMahon Line, formerly known as the North East Frontier Agency and now called Arunachal Pradesh. The McMahon Line was part of the 1914 Simla Convention signed between British India and Tibet, without China’s agreement. As of 2020, India continues to maintain that the McMahon Line is the legal border in the east. China has never accepted that border, stating that Tibet was never independent when it signed the Simla Convention.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought in both disputed areas. Chinese troops attacked Indian border posts in Ladakh in the west and crossed the McMahon line in the east. There was a brief border clash in 1967 in the region of Sikkim. In 1987 and in 2013, potential conflicts over the two differing Lines of Actual Control were successfully de-escalated. A conflict involving a Bhutanese-controlled area on the border between Bhutan and China was successfully de-escalated in 2017 following injuries to both Indian and Chinese troops. Multiple brawls broke out in 2020, escalating to dozens of deaths in June 2020.

The agreement to resolve the dispute concluded in 1996 included “confidence-building measures” and the Line of Actual Control. In 2006, the Chinese ambassador to India claimed that all of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory amidst a military buildup. At the time, both countries claimed incursions as much as a kilometer at the northern tip of Sikkim. In 2009, India announced it would deploy additional military forces along the border. In 2014, India proposed China should acknowledge a “One India” policy to resolve the border dispute.

China and India are separated by the Himalayas, and share a border with Nepal and Bhutan acting as buffer states. Parts of the disputed Kashmir and Ladakh region claimed by India are claimed and administered by either Pakistan (Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and Gilgit and Baltistan) or by the PRC (Aksai Chin). The Government of Pakistan on its maps shows the Aksai Chin area as mostly within China and labels the boundary “Frontier Undefined” while India holds that Aksai Chin is illegally occupied by the PRC. China and India also dispute most of Arunachal Pradesh.

Relations of Distrust – Border Misunderstandings

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru based his vision of “resurgent Asia” on friendship between the two largest states of Asia, believed in a policy of ethics of the Panchsheel (Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence), which he initially believed was shared by China. This view was not supported by many learned Indian leaders like Bhimrao Ambedkar and Acharya Kriplani. Clearly the two countries had a conflict of interest in Tibet, which had traditionally served as a buffer zone. Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong viewed Tibet as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. The PRC took full control of Tibet. To avoid antagonizing the PRC, Nehru informed Chinese leaders that India had no political ambitions or territorial ambitions and did not seek special privileges in Tibet but that traditional trading rights must continue. In April 1954, India and the PRC signed an eight-year agreement on Tibet that became the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (or Panchsheel).

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In 1954, India published new maps that included the Aksai Chin region within the boundaries of India. When India discovered that China built a road through the region, border clashes and Indian protests became more frequent. In January 1959, PRC premier Zhou Enlai wrote to Nehru, pointing out that no government in China had accepted as legal the McMahon Line, which the 1914 Simla Convention defined the eastern section of the border between India and Tibet. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal head of the Tibet, sought sanctuary in Dharmsala, Himachal Pradesh where he established the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of Tibetan refugees settled in northwestern India. The PRC accused India of expansionism and imperialism in Tibet and throughout the Himalayan region. China claimed huge swaths of territory over which India’s maps showed clear sovereignty, and demanded “rectification” of the entire border.

Border disputes resulted in a short border war between the PRC and India on 20 October 1962. China occupied strategic points in the Aksai Chin and Demchok regions of Ladakh, before declaring a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November. It claimed that it withdrew to 20 km behind its contended line of control. India disagreed with the claim. The PRC backed Pakistan in its 1965 war with India. In late 1967, there were two more conflicts between Indian and Chinese forces at their contested border, in Sikkim, known as the Nathu La and Cho La clashes. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but India was at better position than PRC. Between 1967 and 1971, an all-weather road was built across territory claimed by India, linking PRC’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Pakistan; India could do no more than protest.

In August 1971, India signed its Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Co-operation with the Soviet Union. The PRC sided with Pakistan in its December 1971 war with India. Although China strongly condemned India, it did not carry out its veiled threat to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf. By this time, the PRC had replaced the Republic of China in the UN where its representatives denounced India as being a “tool of Soviet expansionism.”

In 1980, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved a plan to upgrade the deployment of forces around the Line of Actual Control. India also undertook infrastructural development in disputed areas. In 1984, squads of Indian soldiers began actively patrolling the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. In the winter of 1986, the Chinese deployed their troops to the Sumdorong Chu before the Indian team could arrive and built a helipad at Wandung. Surprised by the Chinese occupation, India’s then Chief of Army Staff, General K.Sundarji, airlifted a brigade to the region. Chinese troops could not move any further into the valley and were forced to away from the valley. By 1987, Beijing’s reaction was similar to that in 1962 and this prompted many Western diplomats to predict war. However, the same was deescalated.

India and the PRC held eight rounds of border negotiations between December 1981 and November 1987. The negotiations achieved nothing. India’s grant of statehood to Arunachal Pradesh in February 1987 caused both sides to deploy troops to the area. The PRC relayed warnings that it would “teach India a lesson” if it did not cease “nibbling” at Chinese territory. By the summer of 1987, however, both sides had backed away from conflict and denied military clashes had taken place.

In the 1990s, China began providing greater military support to Burma. The presence of Chinese radar technicians in Burma’s Coco Islands, which border India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands caused concern in India. In January 1994, the two sides started establishing “confidence-building measures”, discussing clarification of the “line of actual control”, reduction of armed forces along the line, and prior information about forthcoming military exercises. China’s hope for settlement of the boundary issue was reiterated. India-China Expert Group started interacting. These talks further reduced tensions. Meanwhile, there was little notice taken in Beijing of the April 1995 announcement of the opening of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in New Delhi. The Centre serves as the representative office of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and is the counterpart of the India-Taipei Association located in Taiwan. Both institutions share the goal of improving India-ROC relations, which have been strained since New Delhi’s recognition of Beijing in 1950.

Sino-Indian relations hit a low point in 1998 following India’s nuclear tests. Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes declared that ““in my perception of national security, China is enemy No 1, and any person who is concerned about India’s security must agree with that fact”, hinting that India developed nuclear weapons in defence against China’s nuclear arsenal. In 1998, China was one of the strongest international critics of India’s nuclear tests and entry into the nuclear club. During the 1999 Kargil War China voiced support for Pakistan, but also counselled Pakistan to withdraw its forces.

In a major embarrassment for China, the 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, who was proclaimed by China, made a dramatic escape from Tibet to the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. Chinese officials were in a quandary on this issue as any protest to India on the issue would mean an explicit endorsement on India’s governance of Sikkim, which the Chinese still hadn’t recognised. In 2003, China officially recognised Indian sovereignty over Sikkim as the two countries moved towards resolving their border disputes. In 2004, the two countries proposed opening up the Nathula and Jelepla Passes in Sikkim.

In the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in 2005, China was granted an observer status. While other countries in the region are ready to consider China for permanent membership in the SAARC, India seemed reluctant. In 2005, China and India signed the ‘Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity’. However, there has been very little if no strategic convergence between the two countries. In 2007, China denied the application for visa from an Indian Administrative Service officer in Arunachal Pradesh. According to China, since Arunachal Pradesh is a territory of China, he would not need a visa to visit his own country. Later in December 2007, China reversed its policy by granting a visa to Marpe Sora, an Arunachal born professor in computer science. 

In October 2009, Asian Development Bank formally acknowledging Arunachal Pradesh as part of India, approved a loan to India for a development project there. Earlier China had exercised pressure on the bank to cease the loan, however India succeeded in securing the loan with the help of the United States and Japan. China expressed displeasure at ADB.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid an official visit to India from 15–17 December 2010. He was accompanied by 400 Chinese business leaders, who wished to sign business deals with Indian companies. During this visit Premier Wen Jiabao said “India and China are two very populous countries with ancient civilisations, friendship between the two countries has a time-honoured history, which can be dated back 2,000 years”. In April 2011, during the BRICS summit in Sanya, Hainan, China the two countries agreed to restore defence co-operation and China had hinted that it may reverse its policy of administering stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir. This practice was later stopped, and as a result, defence ties were resumed between the two countries and joint military drills were expected. In April 2012, in response to India’s test of an Agni-V missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Beijing, the PRC called for the two countries to “cherish the hard-earned momentum of co-operation”.

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The 2013 Depsang standoff lasted for three weeks, before being defused on 5 May 2013. The Chinese agreed to withdraw their troops in exchange for an Indian agreement to demolish several “live-in bunkers” 250 km to the south in the disputed Chumar sector. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in late November 2013 and mentioning in his speech that the area was an “integral and important part of India” angered Beijing, and retaliatory statements followed. Xi Jinping assumed office in November 2012.  He was among the early top world leaders to visit New Delhi after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister of India in 2014. India’s insistence to raise South China Sea in various multilateral forums subsequently did not help that beginning once again, the relationship facing suspicion from Indian administration and media alike. In September 2014 the relationship took a sting as troops of the People’s Liberation Army reportedly entered two kilometres inside the Line of Actual Control in Chumar sector. 

Serious disruptions have risen again due to China building trade routes, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, with Pakistan on disputed Kashmir territory. On 16 June 2017 Chinese troops with construction vehicles and road-building equipment began extending an existing road southward in Doklam, a territory which is claimed by both China as well as India’s ally Bhutan. On 18 June 2017, around 270 Indian troops, with weapons and two bulldozers, entered Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road. Among other charges, China accused India of illegal intrusion into its territory, across what it called the mutually agreed China-India boundary, and violation of its territorial sovereignty and UN Charter. India accused China of changing the status quo in violation of a 2012 understanding between the two governments regarding the tri-junction boundary points and causing “security concerns”, which were widely understood as at its concerns with the strategic Siliguri Corridor. Bhutan issued a demarche, demanding China to cease road-building in Doklam and maintain the status quo. India made it clear that if China unilaterally changed the status-quo of the tri-junction point between China-India and Bhutan then it posed a challenge to the security of India. On 28 August 2017, China and India reached a consensus to put an end to the border stand-off. Both of them agreed to disengage from the standoff in Doklam. In 2019, India reiterated that it would not join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, stating that it cannot accept a project that ignores concerns about its territorial integrity. On 11 October 2019, President Xi Jinping met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India for a second informal meeting between India and China. Modi and Xi Jinping met 18 times between 2014 and 2019.

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Galwan Show-down and Aftermath

On 10 May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops clashed in Nathu La, Sikkim, leaving 11 soldiers injured. Following the skirmishes in Sikkim, tensions between the two countries grew in Ladakh with a build-up of troops at multiple locations. There were 20 Indian soldiers and at least a similar number of PLA soldiers killed on the night of 15/16 June. China reinforced troops near the Indian border with Tibet. Bilateral agreements between India and China prevent the use of guns along the line of actual control; however these skirmishes saw the first shots, warning shots, being fired in decades. Prime Minister Modi addressed the nation about the incident, saying that “the sacrifice made by our soldiers will not go in vain”, while the Indian foreign minister told the Chinese foreign minister that Chinese actions in Galwan were “pre-meditated”. Following the Galwan Valley clash on 15 June 2020, there were renewed calls across India to boycott Chinese goods. On 29 June, the Indian government banned 59 widely-used Chinese mobile phone and desktop applications in response to rising tensions and escalating diplomatic dispute between the two nations. On 19 August, it was reported that the ministry of external affairs of India had been told that visas for Chinese businessmen, academics, industry experts, and advocacy groups will need prior security clearance, and the measures are similar to those that have long been employed with Pakistan. On 27 October, the United States and India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), enabling greater information-sharing and further defence cooperation, to counter China’s growing military power in the region.

Multilateral Relations

The United States and Russia (previously Soviet Union) have been a consistent part of developments in Chinese and Indian relations. As a major power, Japan has also been part of China India relations with initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Pakistan and China share relations in an attempt to contain India, as well as drive Chinese infrastructure projects in the disputed territory of northern India. The Middle East, Latin America, Africa are places where both India and China engage and compete. The Middle East is important to both countries in terms of their energy security. In Africa, China and India seem most engaged across a wide variety of issues from development to peacekeeping. In South Asia and South-East Asia, a power balance struggle between China and India is seen in relation to third countries.

Hydro Politics

China and India share a number of water resources including the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra (or Yarlung Tsangpo) and tributaries of the Brahmaputra. India has concern with China’s water–diversion, dam–building and inter–river plans. More so, in a conflict, India fears that China can use the rivers as leverage. China has already constructed ten dam on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries such as the Zangmu Dam, and there has been talk of China building a mega–dam at the “great bend” called the Motuo Dam. India’s concerns also stem from the fact that China does not cooperate with regard to timely sharing of information related to projects which would impact water sharing; nor does China allow Indian experts to visit dam sites. There are a number of MOUs on hydrological data sharing between the two countries with regard to the Brahmaputra including emergency management.

Trade and Economics

Clearly Trade is greatly in Favour of China. India needs to boost economy as a first step. Greater economic strength would allow higher defence budgets and also increase funds for defence research.


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Aksai Chin

Aksai Chinis a desolate, largely uninhabited area with lowest point on the Karakash River at about 14,000 feet (4,300 m) to the glaciated peaks up to 22,500 feet (6,900 m) above sea level, Aksai Chin. It covers an area of about 37,244 square kilometers (14,380 sq mi). It had low initial human importance other than ancient trade routes crossing it, providing brief passage during summer for caravans of yaks from Xinjiang and Tibet. With improved communications and infrastructure it has become strategically important. British and the Chinese were sufficiently satisfied that a traditional border was recognised and defined by natural elements, and the border was not demarcated. The boundaries at the two extremities, Pangong Lake and Karakoram Pass, were reasonably well-defined, but the Aksai Chin area in between lay largely undefined. The Johnson Line of 1865, put Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir. This was the time when China did not control Xinjiang, so this line was never presented to the Chinese. Johnson presented this line to the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, who then claimed the 18,000 square kilometers contained within his territory. In 1878 the Chinese had reconquered Xinjiang, and by 1892, China had erected boundary markers at Karakoram Pass. In 1893, Hung Ta-chen, a senior Chinese official at St. Petersburg, gave maps of the region to George Macartney, the British consul general at Kashgar, which coincided in broad details. In 1899, Britain proposed a revised boundary, based on the Macartney-Macdonald Line. This boundary placed the Lingzi Tang plains, which are south of the Laktsang range, in India, and Aksai Chin proper, which is north of the Laktsang range, in China. The Karakoram Mountains formed a natural boundary, which would set the British borders up to the Indus River watershed while leaving the Tarim River watershed in Chinese control. Chinese did not respond to the British suggestion. According to some commentators, China believed that this had been the accepted boundary.

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By the end of World War I, the British officially used the Johnson Line. In 1927, the line was adjusted again as the government of British India abandoned the Johnson line in favour of a line along the Karakoram range further south. However, the maps were not updated and still showed the Johnson Line. From 1917 to 1933, the “Postal Atlas of China”, published by the Government of China in Peking had shown the boundary in Aksai Chin as per the Johnson line, which runs along the Kunlun Mountains. The “Peking University Atlas”, published in 1925, also put the Aksai Chin in India. In 1940–1941, British again advocated the Johnson Line, but still made no attempts to establish outposts or control over the Aksai Chin, nor was the issue ever discussed with the governments of China or Tibet, and the boundary remained un-demarcated at India’s independence. In 1947 at the time of independence, Aksai Chin was part of India. Indian government fixed its official boundary in the west, which included the Aksai Chin, in a manner that resembled the Ardagh–Johnson Line. India did not claim the northern areas near Shahidulla and Khotan. From the Karakoram Pass (which is not under dispute), the Indian claim line extends northeast of the Karakoram Mountains north of the salt flats of the Aksai Chin, to set a boundary at the Kunlun Mountains, and incorporating part of the Karakash River and Yarkand River watersheds. From there, it runs east along the Kunlun Mountains, before turning southwest through the Aksai Chin salt flats, through the Karakoram Mountains, and then to Pangong Lake. On 1 July 1954 Prime Minister Nehru wrote a memo directing that the maps of India be revised to show definite boundaries on all frontiers. Up to this point, the boundary in the Aksai Chin sector, based on the Johnson Line, had been described as “un-demarcated.”

Trans Karakoram Tract

The Johnson Line is not used west of the Karakoram Pass, where China adjoins Pakistan-administered Gilgit–Baltistan. On 13 October 1962, China and Pakistan began negotiations over the boundary west of the Karakoram Pass. In 1963, the two countries settled their boundaries largely on the basis of the Macartney-MacDonald Line, which left most of the Trans Karakoram Tract 5,180 km2 to China, although the agreement provided for renegotiation in the event of a settlement of the Kashmir conflict. India does not recognise that Pakistan and China have a common border, and claims the tract as part of the domains of the pre-1947 state of Kashmir and Jammu. However, India’s claim line in that area does not extend as far north of the Karakoram Mountains as the Johnson Line. China and India still have disputes on these borders.

The McMahon Line

British India annexed Assam in northeastern India in 1826, by Treaty of Yandabo at the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). After subsequent Anglo-Burmese Wars, the whole of Burma was annexed giving the British a border with China’s Yunan province. In 1913–14, representatives of Britain, China, and Tibet attended a conference in Shimla, India and drew up an agreement concerning Tibet’s status and borders. The McMahon Line, a proposed boundary between Tibet and India for the eastern sector, was drawn by British negotiator Henry McMahon on a map attached to the agreement. All three representatives initialed the agreement, but Beijing soon objected to the proposed Sino-Tibet boundary and repudiated the agreement, refusing to sign the final, more detailed map. After approving a note which stated that China could not enjoy rights under the agreement unless she ratified it, the British and Tibetan negotiators signed the Shimla Convention and more detailed map as a bilateral accord. The basis of these boundaries, accepted by British India and Tibet, were that the historical boundaries of India were the Himalayas and the areas south of the Himalayas were traditionally Indian and associated with India. The high watershed of the Himalayas was proposed as the border between India and its northern neighbours. India’s government held the view that the Himalayas were the ancient boundaries of the Indian subcontinent and thus should be the modern boundaries of British India and later the Republic of India.

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Chinese boundary markers, including one set up by the newly created Chinese Republic, stood near Walong until January 1914, when T. O’Callaghan, an assistant administrator of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA)’s eastern sector, relocated them north to locations closer to the McMahon Line (albeit still South of the Line). He then went to Rima, met with Tibetan officials, and saw no Chinese influence in the area. Because of doubts concerning the legal status of the accord, the British did not put the McMahon Line on their maps until 1937, nor did they publish the Shimla Convention in the treaty record until 1938. Rejecting Tibet’s 1913 declaration of independence, China argued that the Shimla Convention and McMahon Line were illegal and that Tibetan government was merely a local government without treaty-making powers.

The British records show that the Tibetan government’s acceptance of the new border in 1914 was conditional on China accepting the Shimla Convention. Since the British were not able to get an acceptance from China, Tibetans considered the McMahon line invalid. Tibetan officials continued to administer Tawang and refused to concede territory during negotiations in 1938. The governor of Assam asserted that Tawang was “undoubtedly British” but noted that it was “controlled by Tibet, and none of its inhabitants have any idea that they are not Tibetan.” During World War II, with India’s east threatened by Japanese troops and with the threat of Chinese expansionism, British troops secured Tawang for extra defence.

China’s claim on areas south of the McMahon Line, encompassed in the NEFA, were based on the traditional boundaries. India believes that the boundaries China proposed in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh have no written basis and no documentation of acceptance by anyone apart from China. Indians argue that China claims the territory on the basis that it was under Chinese imperial control in the past, while Chinese argue that India claims the territory on the basis that it was under British imperial control in the past. However, the practice that India does not place a claim to the regions which previously had the presence of the Mauryan Empire and Chola Dynasty, but which were heavily influenced by Indian culture, further complicates the issue.

India’s claim line in the eastern sector follows its interpretation of the McMahon Line. The line drawn by McMahon on the detailed 24–25 March 1914 Simla Treaty maps clearly starts at 27°45’40″N, a tri-junction between Bhutan, China, and India, and from there, extends eastwards. Most of the fighting in the eastern sector before the start of the war would take place immediately north of this line. However, India claimed that the intent of the treaty was to follow the main watershed ridge divide of the Himalayas based on memos from McMahon and the fact that over 90% of the McMahon Line does in fact follow the main watershed ridge divide of the Himalayas. They claimed that territory south of the high ridges here near Bhutan (as elsewhere along most of the McMahon Line) should be Indian Territory and north of the high ridges should be Chinese territory. In the Indian claim, the two armies would be separated from each other by the highest mountains in the world.

During and after the 1950s, when India began patrolling this area and mapping in greater detail, they confirmed what the 1914 Shimla agreement map depicted: six river crossings that interrupted the main Himalayan watershed ridge. At the westernmost location near Bhutan north of Tawang, they modified their maps to extend their claim line northwards to include features such as Thag La ridge, Longju, and Khinzemane as Indian Territory. Thus, the Indian version of the McMahon Line moves the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction north to 27°51’30″N from 27°45’40″N. India would claim that the treaty map ran along features such as Thag La ridge, though the actual treaty map itself is topographically vague (as the treaty was not accompanied with demarcation) in places, shows a straight line (not a watershed ridge) near Bhutan and near Thag La, and the treaty includes no verbal description of geographic features nor description of the highest ridges.


The Nathu La and Cho La clashes were a series of military clashes in 1967 between India and China alongside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate. The end of the conflicts saw a Chinese military withdrawal from Sikkim. In 1975, the Sikkim’s monarchy held a referendum, in which the Sikkimese voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining India. At the time China protested and rejected it as illegal. The Sino-Indian Memorandum of 2003 was hailed as a de facto Chinese acceptance of the annexation. China published a map showing Sikkim as a part of India and the Foreign Ministry deleted it from the list of China’s “border countries and regions”. However, the Sikkim-China border’s northernmost point, “The Finger”, continues to be the subject of dispute and military activity. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in 2005 that “Sikkim is no longer the problem between China and India.”

Boundary Discussions, Disputes and Clashes

During the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China built a 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) road connecting Xinjiang and western Tibet, of which 179 kilometers  ran south of the Johnson Line through the Aksai Chin region claimed by India. Aksai Chin was easily accessible from China, but for the Indians on the south side of the Karakoram, the mountain range proved to be a complication in their access to Aksai Chin. The Indians did not learn of the existence of the road until 1957, which was confirmed when the road was shown in Chinese maps published in 1958. The Indian position, as stated by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was that the Aksai Chin was “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and that this northern border was a “firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody”. The Chinese minister, Zhou Enlai argued that the western border had never been delimited, that the Macartney-MacDonald Line, which left the Aksai Chin within Chinese borders was the only line ever proposed to a Chinese government, and that the Aksai Chin was already under Chinese jurisdiction, and that negotiations should take into account the status quo. In 1960, based on an agreement between Nehru and Zhou Enlai, officials from India and China held discussions in order to settle the boundary dispute. China and India disagreed on the major watershed that defined the boundary in the western sector. The Chinese statements with respect to their border claims often misrepresented the cited sources.

1967 Nathu La and Cho La saw a series of military clashes between India and China alongside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate. The Nathu La clashes started on 11 September 1967, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched an attack on Indian posts at Nathu La, and lasted till 15 September 1967. In October 1967, another military duel took place at Cho La and ended on the same day. According to independent sources, the Indian forces achieved “decisive tactical advantage” and defeated the Chinese forces in these clashes. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were said to be destroyed, where the Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces.

Nathu La Border post. Image Source: Nytimes

The 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish was the third military conflict between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Ground Force and Indian Army that occurred at the Sumdorong Chu Valley, with the previous one taking place 20 years earlier.

On 20 October 1975, 4 Indian soldiers were killed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. According to the official statement by the Indian government, a patrol of the Assam Rifles comprising a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and four other soldiers was ambushed by about 40 Chinese soldiers while in an area well within Indian Territory, and which had been regularly patrolled for years without incident. Four members of the patrol unit were initially listed as missing before confirmation via diplomatic channels they had been killed by the Chinese troops; their bodies were later returned. The Indian government registered a strong protest with the Chinese. 

In April 2013 India claimed, referencing their own perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) location, that Chinese troops had established a camp in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector, 10 km on their side of the Line of Actual Control. This figure was later revised to a 19 km claim. According to Indian media, the incursion included Chinese military helicopters entering Indian airspace to drop supplies to the troops. However, Chinese officials denied any trespassing having taken place. Soldiers from both countries briefly set up camps on the ill-defined frontier facing each other, but the tension was defused when both sides pulled back soldiers in early May. In September 2014, India and China had a standoff at the LAC, when Indian workers began constructing a canal in the border village of Demchok, Ladakh, and Chinese civilians protested with the army’s support. It ended after about three weeks, when both sides agreed to withdraw troops. The Indian army claimed that the Chinese military had set up a camp 3 km inside territory claimed by India. A general perception started gaining ground that China gains territory with every incursion. It was also becoming clear that Indian official position often was to suppress information and deny incursions. The aim was to lull the people of India.

Demchok. Image Source:

In September 2015, Chinese and Indian troops faced-off in the Burtse region of northern Ladakh after Indian troops dismantled a disputed watchtower the Chinese were building close to the mutually-agreed patrolling line.

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In June 2017 Doklam Military Standoff occurred between India and China in Doklam, near the Doka La pass. On 16 June 2017, the Chinese brought heavy road building equipment to the Doklam region and began constructing a road in the disputed area. Previously, China had built a dirt road terminating at Doka La where Indian troops were stationed. They would conduct foot patrol from this point up till the Royal Bhutanese Army (RBA) post at Jampheri Ridge. The dispute that ensued post 16 June stemmed from the fact that the Chinese had begun building a road below Doka La, in what India and Bhutan claim to be disputed territory. This resulted in Indian intervention of China’s road construction on 18 June, two days after construction began. Bhutan claims that the Chinese have violated the written agreements between the two countries that were drawn up in 1988 and 1998 after extensive rounds of talks. The agreements drawn state that status quo must be maintained in the Doklam area as of before March 1959. It is these agreements that China has violated by constructing a road below Doka La. A series of statements from each countries’ respective External Affairs ministries were issued defending each countries’ actions. Due to the ambiguity of earlier rounds of border talks beginning from the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention that was signed in Kolkata on 17 March 1890, each country refers to different agreements drawn when trying to defend its position on the border dispute. Following the incursion, on 28 June, the Chinese military claimed that India had halted construction of a road that was taking place in Chinese sovereign territory. On 30 June, India’s Foreign Ministry claimed that China’s road construction in violation of the status quo had security implications for India. Following this, on 5 July, Bhutan issued a demarche asking China to restore the status quo as of before 16 June. Throughout July and August, the Doklam issue remained unresolved. On 28 August, India issued a statement saying that both countries have agreed to “expeditious disengagement” in the Doklam region.

In June 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a brawl in the Galwan River valley which reportedly led to the death of 20 Indian Soldiers. Claims have been made of death of 40+ Chinese Soldiers but such claims have been denied by Chinese authorities. The stand-off continues. Both sides have taken up vanatge positions and have amassed large troops and heavy military equipment, and are prepared for a possible war.

Dispute Resolution Mechanism

There are reportedly enough bilateral mechanisms to solve border disputes diplomatically. These agreements include, 1993 Agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border; 1996 Agreement on military Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) along the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border; 2005 Protocol on the modalities for the implementation of CBMs on LAC; 2012 Establishment of a working mechanism for consultation and coordination on Sino-Indian border affairs; 2013 Border defense cooperation agreement between India and China. Additionally there are other agreements related to the border question such as the 2005 “Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question”. However, some critics say that these agreements are “deeply flawed”.

There are five Border Personnel Meeting points (BPM) for holding rounds of dispute resolution talks among the military personnel with a defined escalation path, such as first between colonels, then between brigadiers, and finally between major generals. Of these five BPM, two are in the Indian Union Territory of Ladakh or India’s western (northern) sector corresponding to China’s Southern Xinxiang Military District, one in Sikkim and two in Arunachal Pradesh in India’s central and eastern sectors corresponding to China’s Tibet Military District.

Military Commands

Chinese has an integrated Western Theater Command (WTC) across the whole LAC with India. Western Theater Command also covers provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Chongqing. Indian Military has divided the LAC into 3 sectors – the northern sector (sometimes also called western sector) across Ladakh and the Chinese-held Aksai Chin, the central sector across Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand states, and the eastern sector across Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh states. Similarly, Indian Air Force has Delhi based Western Air Command, Prayagraj-based Central Air Command, and Shillong-based Eastern Air Command to cover the LAC. India, whose sole integrated command is Andaman and Nicobar Command, is still going through integration of its various geography and services based commands as of 2020.

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As per an independent analysis by Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) of troops deployment in 2020. Indian Army strike forces has 225,000 soldiers near China border all of whom are focused on China, 34,000 in the Northern Command, 15,500 in the Central Command, and 175,500 troops in the Eastern Command, including 3,000 soldiers of T-72 tank brigade in Ladakh and 1,000 soldiers of BrahMos cruise missile regiment in Arunachal Pradesh.

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Of the 200,000 to 230,000 ground forces under the China’s Western Theater Command, only 110,000 are available for focusing on the Indian border, rest are deployed on protecting China’s border with Russian in north, and for suppression of internal rebellion in restive Tibet and Xinjiang, or deployed elsewhere deep inside Chinese provinces. Chinese troops aimed at India border, who belong mainly to 76th Group Army and 77th Group Army, 70,000 are deployed in Southern Xinjiang Military District (corresponding to India’s northern or western sector in Ladakh) and 40,000 are deployed in Tibet Military District (corresponding to India’s central and eastern sector along rest of the LAC from Himachal Pradesh to Arunachal Pradesh), rest will be not be available for deployment on India border in the case of war. This creates a disparity in terms of India’s larger number of conventional troops (225,000) focused on China border compared to the smaller number of Chinese troops (90,000-120,000) focused on the Indian border majority of whom are deployed far from the Indian border while Indian troops are deployed with single mission of defence against china. In case of stand offs, while Indian troops are already in position on or near border, China will have to mobalise troops mainly from Xinjiang and secondarily from other troops of Western Theater Command in deep interiors of China.

Indian Army Command Areas. Image Source:

Options India

          Most boundary disputes between India and China are legacy come down from British Raj days. China often makes historical references to periods when some Chinese King or Emperor had partial dominance over some of the disputed territories. India has similar historic periods when Indian Kings or British India dominated or controlled these and many other territories which are now in Xinjiang or Tibet controlled by China. So selective quoting of old times and treaties will never allow a final solution. Mostly boundary disputes are solved by give-and-take. Unfortunately China believes in “Only take”. Over the decades they have been inching into Indian Territory what is commonly called “Salami Slicing”. Indian military is not only strong today, but also better trained and prepared for a mountain war. Indian Air Force can bring in much larger punch in the region. There will be no walk overs any more. Indian military and political leadership have to stay firm and resolute. Any war will be at cost to both sides in life and image.

          While India must remain strong militarily, it must exert international diplomatic pressure and also form appropriate long term alliances (like QUAD) to check-mate China. India must also strengthen its relations with other neighbours. Lastly there should be no doubt in Chinese leadership that India is not a push-over but a major military power with nuclear weapons.  

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

One thought on “India’s Neighbourhood Series – China

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