Resolving the boundary dispute


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INDIA and China have been at loggerheads on the question of their common borders since the mid-fifties. Talks between the two sides through the fifties produced no agreement and eventually led to a war during October-November 1962, ending with the defeat of elements of the Indian Army deployed along the border in the western (Ladakh) sector and the eastern (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) sector. The Chinese declared a ceasefire and withdrew beyond the Himalayan crest line with a few exceptions in the eastern sector, but continued to occupy the territory taken in the western sector. Since then an uneasy calm has existed along the Sino-Indian border punctuated by the odd armed clash.

For a long time there was a hiatus in any effort to find a solution to the problem and it was only in 1981 that an agreement to start official level talks was reached. Since then talks at various levels and by various groups have continued but with no apparent progress on the actual settlement of the dispute. On 7 September 1993, the two sides signed an agreement on maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control. On 11 April 2005 a further agreement on the guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China boundary dispute was signed. The last round of talks was held in March 2006. At the end of the talks, the Indian National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan, the leader of the delegation stated that it would take at least a couple of more rounds to reach an agreement on the basis for a settlement.

This paper attempts to examine the possibility of an approach different to what has been attempted before. Can we go beyond history to look at solutions which do not hark back to the past? However, even to ignore history one needs to understand the genesis of the problem in order to understand why history needs to be ignored.


It requires to be noted, when discussing boundaries, that for much of history boundaries were not as firm or immutable as they have now become. A state or nation’s boundaries waxed and waned depending on the rise or fall of the state or of its neighbours. Boundaries were scarcely ever marked either on maps or delineated on the ground by a series of boundary pillars as they are now. At most, a country or kingdom would place checkposts at important routes entering its territories, basically with a view to keep a check on incoming travellers and collect duties on goods coming in or out of the state. This is particularly so for India where for long periods it was divided into numerous small kingdoms whose domains increased or decreased as they fought each other.

The more powerful empires, such as the Mauryan empire or later the Mughal empire, extended well beyond what one may call the geographical limits of the Indian subcontinent. Both empires extended beyond the Himalaya to include large parts of Afghanistan. Also the Cholas of South India, at one stage took control of a number of strategic places on the Straits of Malacca.1 Similar was the case with most parts of the world, including China, with boundaries between countries changing as one country grew more or less powerful. It was the Conference of Vienna in 1815 which met after the Napoleonic Wars that for the first time defined boundaries of various European states as well as their colonial possessions. In fact it was the growth of colonial possessions that led to a spate of boundaries being marked on maps and delineated on the ground to identify areas annexed by each of them.

We now come to the formulation of India’s boundaries as they existed at the time of independence in 1947. These were formulated over a period of time by the British once the governance of the British possessions in India was taken over by the Crown from the East India Company. Many have attributed the British urge to delineate borders to their preoccupation with the so called ‘Great Game’, the name given to the contest between Britain and Russia for influence in Asia, more particularly the area surrounding India. The British, quite correctly, appreciated that for the effective defence of the Indian possessions they needed a series of buffer states on the periphery which would insulate India from direct Russian contact and give time and space in case of any Russian advance towards India to delay and allow them to deploy their own troops.


The areas selected to be buffers were Afghanistan, Sinkiang and Tibet as far as the northern borders were concerned. But the delineation of India’s borders was not purely for military reasons. Even for effective administration, revenue collection and working out the requirement of forces required for the defence of the area, the British needed to know the limits of the domain they had acquired and subsequently expanded.

On the north-western frontier, the British in 1893 established the Durand Line as the boundary between Afghanistan and India. Carrying on further they established the boundary between Hunza and Sin Kiang as running along the crest of the Karakoram range, even though Hunza claimed certain grazing grounds beyond it.

Proceeding further eastwards they had to demarcate the boundary of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose defence was now their responsibility, with Tibet. The Himalaya, at this point, break up into a number of ranges – the major ones being the Karakoram range and the Kuen Lun mountains 70 miles further north. Ladakh, which borders on Tibet, had at various times been an independent kingdom and at other times under Kashmiri rule. In 1842, Maharaja Gulab Singh, then Governor of Kashmir (under Sikh rule at the time) had captured Ladakh and advanced up to the Kuen Lun mountains and occupied Shahidula. A peace treaty was signed between the representatives of Maharaja Gulab Singh and those of Tibet in 1842. No mention of a boundary between the two countries was, however, made in this treaty. A further agreement signed in 1852 only states that the boundary between Ladakh and Tibet would remain the same as before. When Kashmir became independent of Sikh rule under Maharaja Gulab Singh, it claimed that its boundary lay on the Kuen Lun mountains but there is no record of actual administration being extended to this barren and unpopulated area.


In 1878 the Chinese re-established their control over Sinkiang and established a customs post north of Shahidula implying that they considered the Kuen Lun as outside their jurisdiction. However, seeing that there was no effective Kashmiri governance in this area, the Chinese in 1890 occupied Shahidula and two years later moved further westwards and erected a boundary marker at the Karakoram pass.

Worried by the Russian advance into Central Asia along with their own anxiety to fix borders, the British now started work on defining the border between Ladakh and Tibet. A number of expeditions sent to the area found that the choice lay between the Karakoram and the Kuen Lun ranges. W.H. Johnson, an officer of the Survey of India, who had passed through the area on his way to Khotan, recommended that the boundary lie along the Kuen Lun mountains. He may well have been guided in this by the fact that the Kashmir government claimed that their territory extended to these mountains. Johnson was supported by John Ardagh, the Director of Military Intelligence, and this proposed boundary came to be called the Johnson-Ardagh Line.


Lord Elgin, the then Viceroy felt that this line was too far forward and would be difficult to defend. An alternative alignment which skirted the northern edge of the Karakoram range was proposed by George McCartney, the British representative in Kashgar who discussed this with the Russian representative in Kashgar as well as with Chinese officials. This line was then also formally proposed to the Chinese by the British Minister in Peking, Sir Claude Macdonald. This line thus came to be called the McCartney-Macdonald Line.

The Chinese gave no indication whether they accepted this line or not, but the British for some time treated this as the boundary. Fredrick Drew, who was Governor of Leh from 1870-1871 had opined that the true watershed in the region lay along the Laktsang range, a low range of hills that connect the Karakoram to the Kuen Lun; however this recommendation does not seem have been taken into account. The 1911 revolution in China and the subsequent unrest and power vacuum in the area led the Viceroy to propose that the boundary be extended to the Johnson-Ardagh Line and this is the line that appeared on official maps when India gained independence.


Though India inherited the borders of Kashmir with Sinkiang and Tibet as decided by the British, neither the Indian government or the state of Jammu and Kashmir took any steps to actually extend their control beyond the Karakoram range and into the Aksai Chin plains. To an extent this was understandable. Till January 1949 India was busy in a war with Pakistan over J&K and it was only with great difficulty and daring that it was able to ensure that Ladakh did not fall to the Pakistanis. Even after the ceasefire there were many more pressing problems to attend than to look after a far off forgotten frontier where no one lived and through which no threat was envisaged.

In March 1956 the Chinese began to construct a road to link Sin-kiang and Tibet. The first that India knew about this was when the Chinese reported its completion. Maps accompanying the report showed both Aksai Chin in Ladakh and territory up to the Himalayan foothills, east of Bhutan as Chinese territory. It is not necessary for the purpose of this paper to recount the tortuous discussions which took place during the fifties, except to state that no concrete proof was provided by the Chinese that this territory belonged to them. Nor is it necessary to recount the ill-advised ‘Forward Policy’ followed by the Government of India leading finally to the outbreak of hostilities in October 1962. During the talks, the Chinese put forward what they claimed was the boundary.

Two alignments were put forward by them, one in 1956 which to a large extent coincided with the McCartney-Macdonald Line and the other in 1960 which pushed the line even further east. The Chinese produced no documents to prove the authenticity of these lines other than two secret maps produced by the Carto-graphic Bureau of the Chinese General Staff and the other by the Bureau of Survey of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence. During the 1962 operations the Chinese advanced up to their 1960 claim line, and in some cases even beyond. While they did withdraw from areas they had captured in the east, no such withdrawal took place in Ladakh and the Line of Actual Control lies even further east than what was originally claimed by them.


The British continued their map making to define the border between what is now Himachal Pradesh, Garhwal and Kumaon with Tibet. In all these areas the line was drawn to follow the watershed of the Himalaya. Even on this border the Chinese claim minor areas as belonging to them. In all these cases these areas are across the watershed but the Chinese claim that these areas were traditionally under Tibetan, and therefore now under Chinese control.

On the eastern frontiers of India, of what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the formulation of the boundary with Tibet took longer. The Brahmaputra valley had always been a part of the Hindu cultural tradition. This rich valley attracted successive invaders from the east, i.e. from the area of Burma, now Myanmar, with the last and most prominent of these being the Ahoms who invaded Assam in the 16th/early 17th century. In 1819 there was another invasion from Myanmar; the Ahom king called for British help leading to the first Burma War which ended by the king of Burma signing the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. By this treaty Assam and the Assam Himalaya were ceded to the British.

The British were basically interested in the Brahamaputra plains and the foothills of the Himalaya bordering them. From the foothills to the crest of the Himalaya was a rugged, thickly forested area occupied by numerous tribes. This area had always been considered by the Ahom kings to be within their jurisdiction, but given the terrain they did not establish direct rule over the area. They were content with sending an odd punitive expedition when the tribals became troublesome to the people of the plains. There is no evidence of the Chinese or Tibetans ever being in contact with the tribals other than in the area of Tawang where the Monpa inhabitants were followers of Tibetan Buddhism and had contact with the administration in Lahsa.


The British were initially content to let matters be as they were, exercising a sort of loose control over the tribal areas. By 1903, however, the Government of India began to apprehend the possibility of Russian influence being exercised in Tibet and this led to the launching of the Younghusband mission to Lahsa in 1904 and the signing of a convention between Britain and Tibet. The result of this convention was the recognition by Tibet of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as defined by an earlier British-Chinese convention of 1890. This convention also allowed for the setting up of Indian trading posts in Tibet.

The British-Tibet convention was further ratified by another convention signed between the British and China in 1906. In 1907 the British and Russians came to the conclusion that it was in their best interest to allow Tibet to remain under Chinese suzerainty and to refrain from interfering in Tibet. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 covered not only their relationships with Tibet but also those with Afghanistan.

The next development was when a strong Chinese force invaded Tibet; the then Dalai Lama escaped to India (shades of 1959). The Chinese also concentrated forces in the neighbourhood of Sikkim and near Rima on the Indo-Burma border. This awakened the British to the danger of a Tibet fully under Chinese control and the need to define and delimit a definite boundary in this area. A series of expeditions and surveys were conducted between 1911 to 1913 which led to reports and maps from which the Himalayan watershed in the area was found, which in turn led to a defining of the McMahon Line.


While this was going on, the Manchu dynasty in China was overthrown in October 1911 and a Republic of China was proclaimed. The Chinese invasion of Tibet collapsed. The Tibetans revolted and threw out the Chinese forces, some of whom escaped into India. Sun Yat Sen, the new President of China on the one hand declared that Tibet, Mongolia and Sinkiang were equivalent to provinces of China and thus an integral part of the country; at the same time he realised that Tibet could not be pacified till the Dalai Lama came back and so invited him to return with full honour. The Dalai Lama returned in January 1913, refused to recognise Chinese suzerainty and declared Tibet an independent state.

Tibet, as a full fledged province of China or as an independent state, was not acceptable to the British. They were happier with the earlier arrangement of a Tibet with a great deal of autonomy but under Chinese suzerainty. It was under these circumstances that the British convened the Simla Conference in 1913. The British aim was to divide Tibet into an inner and outer Tibet as had already been done in the case of Mongolia. Inner Tibet would be fully under Chinese control, outer Tibet would be under Chinese suzerainty but functionally autonomous under the Dalai Lama. The Chinese initially objected to the presence of a Tibetan delegate at this conference, but finally relented.

No agreement was reached despite much discussion. To break the deadlock, Sir Henry McMahon, the leader of the British delegation, produced a map which delineated the borders of Outer Tibet both with India and Inner Tibet. The Chinese delegate, Ivan Chen after stating that he was not authorised to discuss Tibet’s borders with India, eventually signed the document. The Chinese repudiation of this agreement was only in relation to the boundary between Outer and Inner Tibet and not between Tibet and India. In fact the Chinese accepted the concept of Inner and Outer Tibet and of Tibetan autonomy as evident by the memorandum given by the Chinese foreign minister to the British minister in Peking on 30 May 1919 where he states, ‘In the past the Chinese government has treated Mongolia and Tibet in the same manner. Outer Mongolia has already been permitted to enjoy autonomy; it follows that no opposition will be placed in the way of Tibetan autonomy.’2


Irrespective of the legality or otherwise of the McMahon Line, the fact remains that historically the Chinese have never exercised any jurisdiction south of the Himalayan crest in this region. Tibet did, for a period, exercise a certain amount of control over the Tawang tract, more because of the Monpa reverence for the Dalai Lama than for any political reason. Looking at the geographical reality, Tibet quite rightly gave up its claim to the Tawang tract in accepting the 1914 treaty. First the British and then the Indian government gradually extended their writ into the area south of the watershed. Both Tibet and China were aware of this, but did not object.

However, the escape of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and India giving asylum to him raised Chinese temperatures. This, combined with the boundary dispute in the western sector, led to the Chinese claiming the area south of the McMahon Line up to the plains. They, however, have not been able to convincingly explain the basis of their claim. It appears to have been more of a pressure tactic to compel India to give up its claim on the western sector. In the 1962 war the Chinese were able to advance up to their claim lines but then vacated the areas and returned beyond the watershed.

While this indicates that they had no serious intent of occupying the area, there were also good military reasons for the pull back. With winter setting in, the passes on the watershed would close and they could not have sustained their troops located south of it. The present situation is that the Chinese are generally north of the watershed, except in some locations where there is a dispute on the actual alignment of the watershed itself.


As stated earlier, India and China have tried for the last fifty years to solve their border disputes. One of the difficulties is in reconciling ‘so called’ historical facts. As far as the Chinese are concerned any paper produced by India, such as the treaties of 1690 between Ladakh and Tibet or the 1842 treaty between Kashmir and Tibet, are repudiated on the grounds that Tibet had no right to sign any treaty as it was not independent. In the Chinese mind this applies equally to the 1914 Simla Convention. This approach begs the question as to how Tibet was so bold as to sign these treaties if it was really under Chinese rule. In fact from about 1914 to 1950 Tibet was a de facto independent state, the Chinese having no presence or control over its governance.


The Chinese on the other hand make claims, such as the boundaries in Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh, without any proof or documentation. Are there documents to state that the rulers of Ladakh or of Assam had accepted the boundaries that China now claims? There are none. It sometimes appears that despite its declared stand of being ‘anti-imperialist and anti-hegemonistic’, China harks back to its own imperial past to claim any territory which was ever, howsoever remotely, under Chinese domination. C.P. Fitzgerald quoted by Francis Watson in his book, The Frontiers of China, writes, ‘Territory once won for civilization must not be given back to the barbarians; therefore, territory which was once Chinese must forever remain so, and if lost, must be recovered at the first opportunity.’3

There is also the Chinese inclination to renounce any treaties and agreements signed by previous Chinese governments. In September 1949 there was a declaration on reconsideration of previous treaties ‘concluded between the Kuomintang and foreign governments.’4 On 8 March 1963, this was further expanded and the word Kuomintang was replaced by the phrase, ‘Previous Chinese Governments’, thus expanding the scope of renouncing agreements even further. The next question in working with history is, how far back do you go and whose history do you accept? Is there a cutoff date, more so as borders have tended to wax and wane and have never been immutable? It does not appear that history can provide an answer to solving the Sino-Indian border dispute.

There has often been talk of a pragmatic solution to the Sino-Indian boundary question which involves the Chinese giving up all claims to the areas in the east and in return India giving up its claim to the Aksai Chin area. While this solution sounds attractive, it is inequitable. The Chinese are making no concessions; they concede an area which was never theirs, to gain another to which their claim, at best, is tenuous. It becomes even more inequitable if India is expected to cede all that the Chinese claim in Ladakh, which is much more than just the Aksai Chin. The ceding of such a large chunk of territory which the people of India have been led to believe is theirs, is unlikely to have broad political or public support. Public support is essential in a democracy, particularly when it involves territory. This solution, therefore, is unlikely to be unacceptable at present and in the foreseeable future.


A possible solution lies in forgetting the past and starting from scratch to delineate a Sino-Indian border, based not on history or on sentiment but purely on geography. As it happens, geography has given India a clear and defined geographical boundary – that of the Himalaya. The Himalaya has been the traditional boundary of the geographical area called India and a traveller, wherever he came from, irrespective of who ruled the area, entered geographical India as soon as he crossed the crest of the Himalaya and headed for the plains. That this was recognised as the boundary of India from ancient times is well illustrated by Huen Tsang’s description of India, ‘On three sides,’ he says, ‘India is bounded by a great sea; on the north it is protected by snowy mountains. It is broad at the north and narrow in the south; the shape is like a half moon.’5


To be fair to the British, the boundaries they marked, whether the Durand Line in west or between Hunza and Sinkiang in the north or between the rest of India and Tibet, were all based on the principle of the Himalaya being India’s natural border and its high watershed becoming the actual boundary. However, as any line delineated by the British is unlikely to be unacceptable to China, let us re-delineate the boundary accepting that it will be based on the principle of the high watershed and this will be the only determining factor throughout the boundary from the tri-junction of the India-China-Myanmar boundaries till the tri-junction of the areas physically held by India and Pakistan in Kashmir.

Once this principle is accepted a series of joint survey teams can be set up, which by using the latest and most scientific survey methods can accurately delineate the watershed. The boundary so formed must be strictly enforced without any consideration of emotion or tradition. If, for example, Longju falls on the Chinese side of the watershed, so be it and India must give up its claim; if it falls on the Indian side, China must give up its claim. If the survey proves that Aksai Chin lies on the Chinese side of the watershed, India cedes all the territory that lies on the other side of the watershed to China; similarly China cedes any territory, including Aksai Chin, to India if it lies on its side of the watershed.

This, that is Aksai Chin lying on the Indian side, can create a problem for China and its communications between Sinkiang and Tibet. India can assure China that if this occurs, i.e. the Indian claim to Aksai Chin is upheld by the configuration of geography, it will lease in perpetuity or even sell that tract of land required by China to retain control of its communications in the area. The area to be leased or sold can be mutually worked out. The advantage of having a border on such a prominent line as the high watershed of the Himalaya is that it is easily identifiable, historically traditional and politically neutral. As far as the Indian public is concerned, they have been brought up to believe that the Himalaya is the traditional boundary and they will be willing to concede any territory that lies beyond it without demur. Such a boundary should also be acceptable to China as it is based on the same watershed principle which they have accepted in defining their boundaries with Myanmar, Sikkim and Nepal.


India and China have a 2400 km common border, none of which has been jointly delineated, leave alone marked on the ground. Fifty years of intermittent talks and a war have not resulted in a solution. It seems unlikely that either side can agree on historical facts as to the ownership of various portions of land along the border. Any territorial concessions must have public support, particularly in a democracy. India has, however, from time immemorial a natural border, the Himalaya, and the entire Sino-Indian border lies along it. It is, therefore, proposed that the high watershed in the Himalaya as be accepted as the border between India and China.



1. Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, Penguin Books, p. 66.

2. Lt Col D.K. Bannerjee, Sino-Indian Border Dispute, International Publishing House, Delhi, p. 108.

3. Francis Watson, The Frontiers of China, Praegar, New York, p. 18.

4. Ibid., p. 24.

5. J. Barthlemy Saint Hilaire, Hiouen-Thsang in India, Rupa, New Delhi, p. 65.