It's a matter of boundaries

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

What led to the border dispute between India and China?

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 initialled 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.

China witnessed a Civil War in 1949 during which the then government the Republic of China was overthrown by People’s Republic of China. India was one of the first countries to accept the legitimacy of PRC and established diplomatic relations with PRC. In the 1950s Mae Zedong viewed Tibet as an integral part of People’s Republic of China. Mao saw Indian concern over Tibet as a demonstration of interference in the internal affairs of the PRC. In the interest of pursuing friendly diplomatic relations, India clarified that it had no political or territorial ambitions. So, during the early 1950s there was a sense of mutual suspicion and a sense of mutual friendship between the two countries. In 1954, both the countries took a step ahead and signed the Panchsheel Agreement (or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence). Immediately after the signing of this agreement, the border dispute erupted over the Aksai-Chin region. By 1958, both the countries were claiming Aksai-Chin and both the countries included this region on their maps and China had already built a road through this region. China also made it clear that they will never accept the McMahon line as the border between Tibet and the north-eastern India. In 1959, India granted asylum to the refugees of the Tibetian uprising led by the Dalai Lama. This further increased the tensions between the two countries and led to the Indo-China war in 1962.

The border dispute over the years

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. Following these clashes, the strategic Nathu La Pass was closed and it remained shut for nearly 40 years. It was reopened only in 2006 after the bilateral relations improved between the countries.

In 1993, during Prime Minister Narashimha Rao’s visit to China, the two countries signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Country (LAC).

2000 onwards, both the countries took steps to improve the bilateral relationship. But despite these steps, the border disputes carried on parallelly. In 2003, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China, for the first time, China implicitly recognized Sikkim as a part of India.

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. 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, and Chinese civilians protested with the army's support. It ended after about three weeks, when both sides agreed to withdraw troops. 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.

In June, 2017, a military standoff occurred between India and China in the disputed territory of Doklam, near the Doka La pass. This stand-off lasted for 73 days. On August 28, India issued a statement saying that both countries have agreed to "expeditious disengagement" in the Doklam region.

The recent skirmishes

Since 5 May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops were reported to have engaged in aggressive action, face-offs and skirmishes at locations along the Sino-Indian border, resulting in the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers (including an officer) and deaths and serious injuries of at least forty-three Chinese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat on 16 June 2020, and numerous injuries on both sides on several other skirmishes. Incidents have taken place near the Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Nathu La pass in Sikkim. In addition, face-offs are ongoing at locations in eastern Ladakh, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Most recent of them is at the Galwan River valley, where the Chinese forces objected to Indian road construction within Indian Territory.

Experts say that the standoff might have resulted from pre-emptive measures on China's part in response to the Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road infrastructure project in Ladakh. Extensive Chinese infrastructure development is also taking place in these disputed border regions.

Increased military capabilities of India and the increasing aggression of China along the border is threatening to disrupt the peace and tranquillity of both the countries.

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