Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Perspective on the Sino-Indian Border Dispute

(Note: This post was originally written in 2008. It has been revised in the light of the on-going standoff on the Sikkim border)

The whole gamut of Sino-Indian relations has revolved around the unresolved boundary row between the two neighbours, culminating in the 1962 conflict. Years later there appeared to be a thaw in relations with trade ties between the two countries improving. However, the relations have been far from normal and India had more than adequate reasons to be suspicious of Chinese intentions and motives particularly in relation to the border issue. And the incursions and wanton provocations by the PLA have not helped matters

It is necessary to delve into history in order to determine why resolution of this dispute has been difficult.

India and China have for long found it difficult to resolve the border dispute which has impeded normal ties between the two Asian giants for about four and half decades. The cause of the conflict in 1962 was a dispute over the sovereignty of the widely-separated Aksai Chin (in Kashmir) and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh border regions. Tawang district is located around latitude 27° 45’ N and longitude 90° 15’ E in North-West Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang was the scene of intense fighting during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Chinese troops had then occupied Tawang and destroyed portions of the monastry. After the Chinese troops withdrew, Tawang was once again under Indian administration. Aksai Chin in Kashmir’s Ladakh region is the other disputed territory which is at present under the control of the Chinese. This article primarily focuses only on the disputed border area in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

The core issue
The status of Tibet is central to the border dispute for the simple reason that for two millennia, there never was a border between India and China. Lt Cmdr Calvin James Bernard of the US Navy in his paper titled “China-India Border War (1962)” stated that the roots of the conflict goes back to the 18th century, when both China and British India asserted claims to desolate, remote mountain areas between China and India. Military expeditions, intrigue and unproductive diplomatic exchanges marked decades of relations between the two countries. Rather than resolving the border issue, Chinese and British Indian actions only set the stage for conflict.

According to Mohan Guruswamy, the roots of India’s problem with China go back a couple of centuries when Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander met in July 1807. As the Russian empire began its eastward expansion, which many felt would culminate in the conquest of India, there was a shadow contest for political ascendancy between the British and Russian empires. The Russians’ desire for an empire and a warm water port did not diminish and so the game continued. The British response to meet the Russian threat was to establish a forward defensive line in the northern region so that a Russian thrust could be halted well before the plains of Hindustan. This called for making Afghanistan and Tibet into buffer states and for fixing suitable and convenient borders with these states. In other words, British India did not have a border with China.

It is only in October 1950, when Communist China’s troops entered Tibet to 'liberate' the Roof of the Word that suddenly India acquired a new neighbour. Tibet was always a buffer between the Chinese and the British Empire. In 1914 at Simla an agreement came to be signed between the Dalai Lama's Representative and Sir Henry McMahon to define the border between Tibet and India. The McMahon Line came into being. The border agreement was arrived at bilaterally during the tripartite Convention between British India, China and Tibet. Though the Chinese subsequently refused to ratify the Convention, they did not object to the bilateral accord between Delhi and Lhasa. The Chinese were more concerned by the demarcation of their border with Eastern Tibet. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (or Chou-en-lai) convinced Nehru that the British were 'imperialists' and therefore all treaties or agreements signed by them were 'imperialist treaties.' The inference drawn by the clever Chinese premier was that the McMahon line was an imperialist creation and therefore not acceptable by New China: The Chinese Premier conveniently presumed and told India's ambassador to China K N Panikkar that India had no intention of claiming special rights arising from the unequal treaties of the past. Nehru while concurring that the British were imperialists could not follow Zhou's conclusion on the McMahon Line. However, he did not want to raise the issue first. Since nothing was heard from the Chinese side about the issue of the frontier, Nehru deduced that McMahon Line was a foregone conclusion.

In 1954 the Panchsheel Agreement (known as Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India) came to be signed between the two countries. This agreement too was silent about the border.

The Chinese Premier Zhou did not bring up the topic of the border till the end of the fifties. And by that time it was a bit too late for India as the Aksai Chin was fully in possession of the Liberation Army. The Chinese stand was unequivocal that it had never accepted the McMahon line and NEFA belonged to them.

Zhou's visit to India in 1960 was followed by several rounds of detailed discussions which were held between June and December. While India presented detailed maps and documents proving its claims, the Chinese hardly gave any evidence of their 'possessions.'

Could India have averted the 1962 War?

Thus by failing to negotiate with the Chinese on the border through the fifties, India lost the opportunity to settle the contentious issue once and for all. According to Col. (retd) Anil Athale, another opportunity (which was missed by India) to avoid the conflict came in December 1960 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made a brief stopover in Delhi. Under the so-called 'Krishna Menon Plan' it was mooted that India would lease the Aksai Chin area to China and in return the Chinese would lease the strategic (from the Indian point of view) Chumbi valley that is like a dagger pointed at the line of communication with Assam and the Northeast. This would have been a very fair deal as the Aksai Chin area, besides being strategically useless to India, was also very difficult to defend. But it is believed that under the pressure from the right wing of the Congress and fear of vociferous opposition, Nehru rejected it. It is difficult to say now whether the course of history would have been different had India gone ahead with this proposal.

The border war of October 1962

The war itself was limited both in terms of place and time duration. Fighting started on 10th October 1962 and ended on 20th November 1962. The cease-fire came into effect at 0000 on 21st November 1962. Actual fighting was limited to 3 distinct areas, namely Walong, Tawang and Aksai Chin.

Post 1962

Nathu La-September 1967

In 1965, two significant events took place on the Sino-Indian border. The first was the warning issued to India about Chinese sheep not being allowed to graze on their side of the border by India. This happened in September 1965 when the Indo-Pak war was simmering on India’s western border.

At the same time, in September-December 1965, the PLA sent probing missions on the entire Sikkim-Tibet border. According to one account, there were seven border intrusions on the Sikkim-Tibet border between September 7 and December 12, 1965, involving the PLA. In all these border incursions, the Indian side responded “firmly” without provoking the other. Though details of casualties of these PLA border incursions are not reported, there were reports indicating that the PLA suffered “heavy” casualties against “moderate” loss by India.

Two years later, in September 1967, in spite of their setbacks in 1965, the PLA launched a direct attack on the lndian armed forces at Nathu La, on the Sikkim-Tibet border. The six-day “border skirmishes” from September 7-8 to 13, 1967, had all the elements of a high drama, including exchange of heavy artillery fire, and the PLA soldiers tried to cross the border in large numbers. Again the attack was repulsed at all points by the Indian troops.

The Sumdorong Chu Incident-Operation Falcon October 1986

In 1986 China decided to flex its muscles again with India. In mid-1986, it came to the notice of India that the PLA had built a helipad at Wandung in Sumdorong Chu Valley referred to as Sangduoluo He in the Chinese media in Arunachal Pradesh. India reacted swiftly and the PLA had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the India Army in Sumdorong Chu Valley of Arunchal Pradesh in August 1986. After a week of tense moments both sides mutually agreed to withdraw their forces inside their respective territories and create a no man’s land. India's then Army chief General Sundarji decided to use the IAF’s new Russian-made heavy lift MI-26 helicopters to air land a brigade at a place called Zemithang, 90 kilometres from Tawang, south of the Sino-Indian border. 

The airlift took place between 18 and 20 October 1986 (the very dates which marked the beginning of the 1962 Conflict) in this sector. They took up ppositions on Hathung La ridge overlooking Sumdorong Chu along with three other key mountain features. In 1962, the Chinese held the high ground; this time the Indians.

With China scrambling to rush forces to the region, both sides began a general mobilization along the entire border. Here again, the Indian General had a few surprises.

Innovatively using the heavy lift transport aircraft and helicopters of the IAF including the IL-76 and AN-26, the Army placed T-72 tanks and infantry combat vehicles in the Demchok area of Ladakh and northern Sikkim.

The Chinese fumbled for a response and subsequently, a November 15 flag meeting calmed things down a bit. But now, India decided to take the opportunity to covert Arunachal Pradesh, which was a centrally administered territory till then, into a full-fledged state of the Indian Union.

In August '87, Indian and Chinese troops moved their respective posts slightly apart in the Sumdorong Chu Valley, following a meeting of the field commanders. During the 8th round of border talks on November '87, it was decided to upgrade the talks from the bureaucratic to the political level. Following then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in 1988, a Joint Working Group (JWG) was set up to discuss, among other things, the alignment of the LAC. In 1993, an agreement was inked between the foreign ministers of the two countries on the reduction of troops along the LAC. This was possibly first of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). It was decided to pull back from respective forward check posts in the Sumdorong Chu Valley from a situation of "close confrontation" and in 1994, the Indian External Affairs Ministry described the situation as one of "close proximity" where the respective posts were 50-100 yards apart. Following the JWG meeting in April 1995, 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. As of June 1999, the valley was unoccupied by either the Indian army or Chinese, and their respective posts in the area were close to a kilometre apart.

A View from China

According to a leading Chinese scholar on India Ma Jiali, China's claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh may only be a negotiating ploy. However, he added that the demand for Tawang might well be non-negotiable. According to Ma Jiali, the disputed area in Arunachal Pradesh is very large. Tawang was the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. The Tibetan people thus have very strong religious sentiments towards Tawang. It must be noted that in 1938, the Survey of India published a map of Tibet, which showed the Tawang tract as part of that country. Even the first edition of Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery Of India showed the Indo-Tibetan boundary as running at the foot of the hills. The Tibetans did not accept this 'annexation' of the Tawang tract and challenged the British attempts to expand their government into this area. But they tacitly accepted the rest of the McMahon demarcation. It is clear that, but for the Tawang tract, there is little basis for the Chinese claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. According to other Chinese scholars, India should accept the Chinese view that McMahon Line was illegal and unacceptable and once it is done, the border settlement would be easy. Scholars have also warned that “substantial adjustments” would have to be made if the border issue between India and China is to be resolved. The hint here is towards major concessions by India on Tawang. As far as the other sector of dispute, namely, Aksai Chin is concerned the Aksai Chin road is strategically too important for the Chinese, as it is the only link between its two western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Thus the question of relinquishing the occupation of this area does not arise. It is important to appreciate that there have been subtle changes in the Chinese position on the border dispute. At a point of time it was felt that the North-East was the bargaining chip or the ‘pressure’ for a de jure control of Aksai Chin. Today, while Aksai Chin has become non-negotiable, China seeks concessions from India on Tawang. The pressure on Tawang has been kept up by raking up issues of the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh and even Sikkim. China is in no hurry to resolve the issue. One reason could be the repeated incursions into Tawang could provide legitimacy to China for exercising de facto control over the territory. But at the core is also the assessment that the time for striking a deal with India is not now and when that would be would depend on how the mandarins assess the respective strengths of the two sides and whether China holds the upper hand.

The Sun Yuxi factor

Just a week ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to India in November 2006, Beijing's envoy to New Delhi Sun Yuxi claimed that Arunachal Pradesh was a Chinese territory.

“In our position the whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory, and Tawang (district) is only one place in it. We are claiming all of that—that's our position,” he told the news channel CNN-IBN just days ahead of the Chinese President’s visit to India.

Sun was the man who drove Beijing's policy of stirred up tensions along the border in Arunachal. From incursions into the state, to demolition of Indian army observation posts along the Bhutan border and objections to road building in Sikkim, Sun carried out his mission with a bullheadedness that drove South Block to silent fury and prompting them to demand the recall of the envoy.

The South Block was infuriated by Sun’s manipulation of the bilateral talks on border issue: from Aksai Chin in Ladakh to thousands of miles east in Arunachal, where India's insecurities ran the deepest.

The Indian government angrily rejected the statement, and a year later Sun was recalled. New Delhi conveyed to Beijing a message that unless Sun was recalled, the Indian Prime Minister would not send a final list of dates for his visit to China. The Prime Minister’s Office held its ground despite China’s initial refusal to concede. Delhi may seem to have been one up on the Chinese but it must be remembered that it could well be a case of two steps forward and one step backward. It is important to note that the envoy could not have taken a unilateral decision to claim the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. Surely, there was some sort of official backing for him to make this provocative statement. Secondly, it took nearly a year for the Chinese to concede to the Indian demand for withdrawing him. Sun’s statement could very well be the unstated Chinese policy on the border issue. India can ill-afford to ignore the Sun Yuxis of China's political set up.

According to the late B Raman, former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, there have been recurring instances of innumerable border intrusions by the Chinese troops. Since the last decade there have been numerous incursions into Indian territory by PLA patrols. There have been air space violations as well by Chinese choppers flying into India's Uttarakhand region. According to the Strategic Affairs expert, Dr. Brahma Chellaney "Bite by kilometre-size bite, China is eating away at India’s Himalayan borderlands. For decades, Asia’s two giants have fought a bulletless war for territory along their high-altitude border. Recently, though, China has become more assertive, underscoring the need for a new Indian containment strategy."

He further adds that on average, China launches one stealth incursion into India every 24 hours. Kiren Rijiju, India’s minister of state for home affairs, says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is actively intruding into vacant border space with the objective of occupying it. And according to a former top official with India’s Intelligence Bureau, India has lost nearly 2,000 sq. km to PLA encroachments over the last decade. Strangely, India has downplayed these violations and very little visible action has been taken against the intruding Chinese on the ground.

Sources: Articles by Lt. Col. (Retd) Anil Athale, Claude Arpi, Mohan Guruswamy published in, V Natarajan (Bharat Rakhshak), Manoj Joshi's Operation Falcon (The Quint), Sreedhar's "China Becoming a Superpower and India's Options", Lt. Cmdr Calvin James Bernard's paper - China-India Border War (1962), Wikipedia.

Analysis of the Standoff in Sikkim

The drums of war may not have been beaten as yet. However, the standoff on the Sikkim border has continued since early June of this year. A peaceful resolution does not appear to be in sight with both sides locked in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.

Genesis of the Confrontation

The Indian defence establishment is opposed to China's attempts to construct a road on the Doklam plateau leading right up to the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which has emerged as the major flashpoint in the ongoing face-off between the two armies in the remote border region. 


The Doklam plateau is Bhutanese territory but China, which calls it Donglang, regularly sends its patrols to the area to lay claim to it. Beijing is anxious to integrate the plateau in its adjoining Chumbi Valley. China is desperate to incorporate the plateau in its adjoining Chumbi Valley, which is shaped like a dagger jutting into India, separating Sikkim from Bhutan for geo-strategic reasons. 

China claims a total of about 764 square kilometers of Bhutanese territory – in the North West about 269 square kilometers constituting Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in Samste, Haa and Paro districts; and in the Central parts about 495 square kilometers constituting the Pasamlung and the Jakarlung valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district.

In 1996, China offered Bhutan a “resolution package deal” proposing an exchange of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys aggregating an area of 495 square kilometers in Central Bhutan with the pasture land of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe, amounting to 269 square kilometers in North Western Bhutan. However, Bhutan rejected it. In 1998, Bhutan and China signed a peace agreement promising to maintain peace and tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas. 

China violated this peace agreement by trying to construct roads in Doklam. According to Bhutanese ambassador to India, Doklam is a disputed territory and there is a written agreement between the two countries that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquility should be maintained in the area. China thus cannot describe the area as a part of its territory.

Strategic Dimensions

Chumbi Valley is only 500 kilometres from Siliguri corridor – a place called the Chicken’s Neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. 

This explains the rationale behind the aforesaid package deal that China has offered to Bhutan – Central areas for Bhutan in exchange the North-Western areas, which lie next to the Chumbi Valley tri-junction, for China.
The Chumbi Valley has enormous strategic importance for India in the sense that dominance here by China will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between Indian mainland and the north-eastern Indian states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.

And this is all the more important after China opened a railway network in August 2014 connecting Lhasa with Shigatse, a small town near the Indian border in Sikkim. China now wants to extend this line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will take a menacing proportion.

India-Bhutan relations are guided by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1949 and renewed in 2007. Bhutan and India are supposed to consult each other closely on foreign affairs and defence matters.

The Indian Army has always been present in Bhutan and is posted on many China-Bhutan border posts. The Indian Army maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), not to speak of the exemplary work done in that country by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a subdivision of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.

Besides, the Royal Bhutan Army relies on the Eastern Command of the Indian Air Force for air support during emergencies. In 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India.

In order to get a bigger hold on the area and a wider depth in the event of a military deployment are attempting to shift down the tri-junction point in the Chumbi valley by almost 12 kilometres. China thus claims Gyemochen is the tri-junction between India, China (Tibet) and Bhutan whereas the Survey of India maps of 1956 show Batang La, north of Gyemochan, as the tri-junction.

The difference of 18 kms would affect the claims of both countries regarding the border with reference to the McMahon Line, which Beijing describes as 'illegal' beyond Myanmar.

They intend building a road which they want to extend further so that it will bring them as close as possible to Chicken's Neck.

'The Chinese troops have even been patrolling areas up to a place called Gemochin, where the Royal Bhutanese Army has its posts and PLA troops marched to their positions and reportedly even confronted them for being in their territory,' the sources said.

From the Chinese Army's point of view, the Chumbi valley has to be widened as they want to move closer to the strategically important Chicken's Neck corridor in Siliguri - which is under the watch of Army's 33 Corps headquarters situated in Sukna in West Bengal.

The Indian establishment is obviously concerned about Chinese incursions into the Bhutanese territory. For one, India will lose its "strategic advantage" in the region if the road is constructed. 

According to a source, "Though our troops don't hold the plateau, the watershed they hold dominates it. The Dhok La, in which we are present, opens into the Chumbi Valley."

Moreover, China can militarily threaten the strategically-vulnerable and narrow Siliguri Corridor just about 50-km away in West Bengal — the so-called "Chicken's Neck" that connects the rest of India with the north-east states — if China manages to extend the road up to the tri-junction.

"China already has a couple of roads coming up to a certain point in the Chumbi Valley. If one of them is extended till the tri-junction, through what we consider is Bhutanese territory, it will help the PLA in military logistics and maneuverability, like rapidly moving artillery and other equipment, in the case of a conflict with India," said the source. 

Cartographic Aggression

The Chinese have adopted one strategy – embark on a cartographic aggression, followed by a physical aggression on the ground. This is the reason why the Chinese are reluctant to share their final official Claim Line of 1960 of their perception of LAC, as this gives them the freedom to engage in further cartographic aggression leading to physical confrontation. 


Stepping up its claims that India had "trespassed", China has now released a map showing the site of the stand-off as well as China's territorial claims at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction that are in conflict with India's and Bhutan's claims.

The map claims the Indian Army crossed the border at Doka La pass, depicted with a blue arrow, into the Doklam plateau which India and Bhutan see as Bhutanese territory but is claimed by China.

The map, released on Friday, also reveals China's substantial territorial claims at the tri-junction that are conflicting with India's and Bhutan's. It shows that China fixes the tri-junction far south of where India and Bhutan do, which explains the current stand-off.


The Chinese tri-junction, marked by an arrow that claims it is under the 1890 Britain-China treaty, is at the Mount Gipmochi. This is far south of where India and Bhutan mark the tri-junction, which the map acknowledged with a dotted line.

The area on the Doklam plateau south of the dotted line is claimed by China, and it is here that Beijing was building a road into what Bhutan sees as its territory, triggering the stand-off with Bhutan and India.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday: "The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory. It is without any doubt that the spot where the Indian border troops trespassed is on the Chinese side of the boundary."

Indian Reaction
India, however, on 30th June 2017, reminded China that building a road in this disputed area was a violation. "India is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese Government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India," the Ministry of External Affairs said.

"In this context, the Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding. Where the boundary in the Sikkim sector is concerned, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the "basis of the alignment". Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework." 


India needs to call China’s bluff. India through diplomatic channels and other outlets must expose China’s cartographic aggression and must thwart the physical land grabbing carried out by the Chinese (where it invariably uses civilian resources like herders to settle on disputed territory and then follow it up with PLA control). And if minimum use of force is required to be used, India must not hesitate to use it, more so as a message than as a strategy.  Beijing understands the language of force and bullet than of words.