The boundary dispute with China


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INDIA’S relations with its largest neighbour have been blighted by the seemingly intractable boundary dispute. The dispute served as a catalyst for the war of 1962, a conflict that has cast a baleful shadow on India-China relations. Although both countries have been engaged in negotiations to resolve the dispute since the early 1980s, there appears to have been no major progress. Prior to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China, the Indian foreign minister made it clear that there could be no ‘dramatic turnaround’ on the vexed issue. The tortuous course of these negotiations coupled with periodic reports of Chinese ‘incursions’ has created the impression in India that China has an unyielding stance on the dispute. Furthermore, it is felt that unless New Delhi adopts a ‘tough-minded’ approach – such as playing the Tibetan card as a bargaining strategy – a fair and acceptable settlement is unlikely.

This essay seeks to explain the ongoing boundary negotiations and to explore the prospects of a settlement. It ranges back in time to trace the evolution of both sides’ stand on the dispute and to place issues in context.

The Sino-Indian boundary is usually divided into three geographical areas. The western sector consists of the boundary of Ladakh with Sinkiang and Tibet. Here, both India and China claim the Aksai Chin plateau and the territory south and south-west of it. The eastern sector comprises the boundary between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. Here, both sides claim Arunachal Pradesh. The dispute in the middle sector, along the boundary between Tibet and Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh is a minor one.


The status of the boundaries at the time of Indian independence is evident from the maps produced by the Indian government as late as 1950. The boundary in the western and middle sectors was marked ‘undefined’. In the western sector, the British had contemplated a variety of boundary alignments in keeping with their perceived security requirements. Thus the Ardagh alignment of 1897 included the Aksai Chin area within the territorial boundaries of India, while the MacDonald note of 1899 placed it within China. China’s refusal to respond to the MacDonald offer led the British to make further unilateral alterations as dictated by their changing security perceptions. The undefined boundary in the western sector reflected the failure of British attempts to secure a frontier agreement with China.

In the eastern sector the boundary was shown as conforming to the alignment formalized between the Indian and Tibetan representatives in the Simla conference of 1914. The McMahon Line, as it came to be called after the then Indian foreign secretary, was marked on the map of the draft convention and initialled by the Chinese representative. The Chinese government, however, repudiated the Simla Convention.1

Closely related to the boundary issue was the question of Tibet. The British had sought to maintain Tibet as a buffer state, free of external influences, particularly Russian. Hence, they only acknowledged China’s ‘suzerainty’ – as opposed to sovereignty – over Tibet. In practice, this meant that British India maintained direct diplomatic ties with Lhasa, and enjoyed other privileges such as trading rights and armed detachments in Tibet.

Independent India initially persisted with the British policy towards Tibet. However, the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 necessitated a reappraisal. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (and his military advisors) thought that neither India nor any other external power could prevent the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Hence, it was important to establish good relations with China. But this was not tantamount to a policy of appeasement, for Nehru enjoined that India should simultaneously prepare to counter any attempt by China to seize disputed frontier areas. This would require extending India’s administrative hold on these parts and improving roads and communications in border areas.


In 1954 India signed an agreement with China on Tibet, renouncing its inherited prerogatives and recognising Tibet as a ‘region of China’. Neither side sought to discuss the boundary issue during the negotiations. With the benefit of hindsight, scholars have criticized Nehru for failing to raise the boundary issue. India, it is argued, should not have given up its rights in Tibet until China recognised the Indian-claimed boundary. This argument overlooks the fact that India had no means of preserving its rights in Tibet in the face of Chinese determination to arrive at a fresh arrangement.

As the then foreign secretary explained, India’s relinquishment of its rights was ‘a concession only to realism’. Nehru, moreover, was unwilling to broach the boundary issue because India was far from consolidating its hold on the border regions, and was ill-prepared to counter any efforts by China to take possession of these areas. If the issue became an openly contested one, India might be unable to defend its claims.

Nehru was aware that the Tibetans would be disappointed with the agreement, but felt that there was little that India could do. The Indian prime minister refused to encourage separatist movements within Tibet; he was prepared ‘at best’ to ‘tolerate it’ in Indian soil provided they were ‘peaceful and unobtrusive’. Should China complain about any activities, India would have to curb them.2


Soon after the 1954 agreement, differences in the middle sector came to the fore. But both countries refrained from bringing up the other two sectors. During this period, New Delhi attached greatest importance to the eastern sector, which was the largest and most populated. In the western sector, although India claimed Aksai Chin, Nehru was amenable to compromise if the rest of the frontier were satisfactorily settled. Beijing’s interests lay in the western sector. In 1956 China began constructing a highway through Aksai Chin, connecting Tibet and Sinkiang, which would become a link of strategic importance in maintaining control over Tibet.3

When the Indian government learnt of the road through Aksai Chin, it sent a formal complaint in late 1958. Correspondence between the prime ministers ensued, each side clarifying its conception of the boundary. Beijing claimed not only Aksai Chin but also areas south and south-east of it, and refused to accept the McMahon Line boundary, besides. Concurrently, an anti-Chinese rebellion was raging in Tibet. The Chinese mistakenly thought that India was abetting the rebels in an effort to detach Tibet from China and turn it into a buffer state.4 New Delhi’s decision to offer refuge to the Dalai Lama incensed Beijing. In the event, the confluence of the boundary dispute and the rebellion in Tibet gravely impaired Sino-Indian relations.


To subdue the rebellion, China moved its forces to the frontier with India. The Indians, too, were fortifying their presence in these parts. This resulted in clashes between Indian and Chinese forces – incidents that imposed further strain on relations between the neighbours. In January 1960, Nehru agreed to meet Premier Zhou Enlai: the correspondence between the prime ministers had been deadlocked while the situation on the frontier remained tense.

The talks were held over several sessions in April 1960, yet they got nowhere. During the discussions, Zhou stated that China discerned a link between India’s territorial claims and its position on the Tibetan rebellion. Beijing evidently believed that India’s insistence on the McMahon Line boundary and its support for the Dalai Lama reflected its desire to make Tibet an independent state. Nevertheless, Zhou sought to reach an agreement on the boundary issue.


The Chinese indicated that they were ready for a ‘package deal’: if India accepted their claims in the western sector, they would adopt a reasonable stand on the eastern sector. Whilst they would not recognise the McMahon Line, they would agree to a boundary not very different from it. This position stemmed from two concerns. First, if Beijing recognised the McMahon Line, it would be tantamount to accepting that Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence at the time of the Simla conference, weakening its claim that Tibet was an inalienable part of China.

Second, there were domestic constraints on the Chinese government, especially since they had denounced the McMahon Line as a relic of imperialism and had claimed the entire eastern sector. As Foreign Minister Chen Yi stated, ‘If the Chinese government recognises the Simla convention and the McMahon Line there would be an explosion in China and the Chinese people would not agree. Premier Chou has no right to do so.’

Beijing was apparently ready to give up its claims in the east, except in certain places. These were ‘grey areas’, which lay north of the McMahon Line as marked in the original maps of 1914, but were actually south of the highest watershed. India’s position – which China did not accept – was that the line was intended to run along the watershed, and despite discrepancies the boundary had to be accordingly interpreted.

India, for its part, was focused on the western sector. Here China claimed not just Aksai Chin but also areas south and south-west of the plateau. India rejected the idea of a ‘swap’, partly because the Chinese were nowhere near their claim line in Ladakh. Indeed, China occupied these areas only after the war in 1962. As far as the eastern sector was concerned, the Indians mistakenly believed that China had sought no concessions. As the foreign secretary informed Indian envoys after the summit, ‘The Chinese aim is to make us accept their claim in Ladakh as a price for their recognition of our position in NEFA.’ This, we shall see, would lay the ground for misapprehensions in the future.


In the months following the abortive summit, India and China sought to consolidate their claims on the ground. As the Chinese began to move forward towards their claim line in Ladakh, the Indians sought to forestall them by establishing posts in areas claimed but unoccupied by China. By the summer of 1962, Beijing saw India’s ‘forward policy’ – especially in the eastern sector – as a continuation of its attempt to make Tibet a buffer state. This perceived link between India’s stance on the boundary dispute and Tibet played a critical role in China’s decision to go to war.

India’s humiliating defeat in the war ensured that negotiations on the boundary dispute would not be resumed for nearly two decades. In 1980, Deng Xiaoping revived Zhou’s ideas, suggesting that the problem could be solved if both parties ‘respect the present state of the border’. This formulation, however, slurred over the differences on the eastern sector, particularly in the grey areas. The Indian response demonstrated the perceptual gulf. The foreign minister stated that Beijing was making no concession by forsaking claims in the eastern sector, for China had never possessed that area. Yet, he welcomed the prospect of this sector being settled ‘without any particular difficulty’.


Thus when discussions on the boundary began in 1981, India spurned the idea of a package solution and called for a Chinese withdrawal in Ladakh. The Indian government was under the impression that in 1960 the Chinese had been willing entirely to give up their claims in the eastern sector. Consequently, New Delhi proposed a sector-by-sector approach to resolving the dispute. The rationale was that once Beijing acceded to the Indian-claimed boundary in the eastern sector, it would be easier for the Indian government to make concessions in the west. Moreover, to sell such a deal in the political marketplace, it was imperative that China at least gave up the 3000 square miles of territory in Ladakh annexed in 1962. The Indian government could not be seen as acquiescing in ‘gains of war’.

China assented to a sector-wise approach demanded by India. But, during the sixth round of talks in October 1985, they began to press their claims over Arunachal Pradesh, particularly Tawang. The McMahon alignment of 1914 had placed Tawang within Indian territory. But the Raj had never extended its administration to the area, and Tibetan officials continued to collect taxes from Tawang. It was only in February 1951 that an Indian political officer took charge in Tawang and evicted Tibetan representatives. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese believed that they had a robust historical claim to the Tawang area. In a reversal of their earlier stance, the Chinese now called for a package deal involving Indian concessions in the east and Chinese concessions in the west.

This shift in China’s negotiating position was spurred by two considerations. Beijing reckoned that if concessions in one sector would no longer be linked to gains in another, it was sensible negotiating tactics to adopt a maximalist position in each. Besides, the domestic constraints on the Chinese government had only increased over the years. The Chinese had to obtain some favourable adjustments in the east as part of an acceptable settlement.


In the 1980s the Chinese leadership also sought to improve relations with Tibetans. In particular, Beijing tried to work towards a settlement with the Dalai Lama and his return to Tibet. Following preliminary discussions, the Dalai Lama sent delegations to Tibet for talks. The tremendous and spontaneous welcome accorded by the people of Tibet to these delegates convinced the Chinese leadership that the Dalai Lama’s return would be undesirable. Subsequently, the Dalai Lama’s demands for genuine autonomy, including UN membership for Tibet, were summarily rejected by Beijing.

The Chinese government grew increasingly concerned over the attempts by Tibetan exiles to garner international support. Hence, during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988, the Chinese sought an affirmation from him that Tibet was an ‘autonomous region of China’ and that India would not permit anti-Chinese political activities on Indian territory by Tibetan émigrés. This, of course, was consistent with the Indian government’s long standing policy on Tibet.

In the following years, the discussions on the boundary dispute were focused on clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It bears emphasizing that this exercise was begun at India’s insistence. An agreement on maintaining peace along the LAC signed in 1996 admitted that the two sides had differing perceptions of the LAC. Subsequently, it was identified that in the eastern sector, these were in the grey areas along the McMahon Line: Namka Chu, Thag La, Sumdurong Chu, Tulung La, Asaphi La, Longju, and Chen ju.


The claims about Chinese ‘incursions’ that are frequently aired in India pertain to these areas. In July 2003, when there was uproar over Chinese movements in Asaphi La, the Ministry of External Affairs’ spokesman accepted that ‘This is an area where there are differences in perception.’ In response to the recent allegations of Chinese intrusions, a senior PMO official was quoted as acknowledging that, ‘It is only in the disputed parts [of the LAC] in the eastern sector that [Chinese] patrolling takes place.’ The official further admitted that ‘both sides send patrols to these areas.’ More recently, the Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor stated in an interview that a ‘degree of misperception has been built on this particular issue of incursions... First of all, it is a matter of perception. Chinese have a different perception of the Line of Actual Control, as do we. When we come up to their perception, we call it incursion and likewise they do.’ To deal with such ‘incursions’, the 1996 agreement allows the parties to seek clarifications through diplomatic channels – a mechanism that has been used by India.

The current round of negotiations on the boundary proper began in 2003. It is reasonable to assume that the minimum requirements of both sides remained unaltered. New Delhi sought a Chinese withdrawal by at least 3000 square miles in the western sector; Beijing needed some concessions in the grey areas in the eastern sector. The political parameters agreed upon in April 2005 aimed at the reconciliation of these interests. Both sides would work towards a package settlement involving all the sectors. The agreed boundary would follow well-defined geographic features. It is worth underscoring that Beijing has insisted since 1960 that a watershed is not the only such feature. This, of course, relates to its expectations in the eastern sector. Finally, the agreement would safeguard the interests of settled populations in disputed areas.

This last point amounted to an acceptance by Beijing that its claims over most of Arunachal Pradesh were notional. Yet, from China’s perspective, they are a useful bargaining counter until a satisfactory settlement – including some adjustment in the eastern sector – is reached. The state, especially Tawang, is its bargaining chip – not only to obtain concessions in this sector, but also to avoid having to give up too much in Ladakh.


Furthermore, China’s stand might also be linked to India’s Tibet policy. Beijing is aware that the demise of the current Dalai Lama would offer an unprecedented opportunity to recast its relations with Tibet. In this regard, China would be keen to undercut efforts by émigrés to influence Tibetan politics in the future. An important institutional player in this regard is the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’ operating in India. Created in the early 1960s, the government-in-exile has mushroomed into a substantial organisation undertaking numerous tasks – administrative, economic, cultural and educational.

The Indian government has not recognised the government-in-exile and has maintained that it would not permit it to undertake political activities. But the Chinese are sceptical about India’s disavowals, and believe that India tacitly permits anti-China activity by Tibetans. As a leading scholar of Sino-Indian relations observes, the Chinese tend to see India’s stance ‘as further evidence of Indian duplicity.’5 Hence, in the ongoing negotiations the Chinese might be looking for some form of reassurance on Tibet – perhaps the dissolution of the parliament-in-exile.

Some Indian commentators have argued that New Delhi should use the Tibetan issue to gain leverage in negotiations with China. But it is not clear how raising the issue – in any manner – can prove useful to India. It would only serve to accentuate Chinese suspicion of India’s intent. The history of Sino-Indian relations in the 1950s suggests that this would vitiate any effort to reach a negotiated settlement. After all, it was Tibet that gave an edge to the boundary dispute, leading to the war in 1962. Moreover, the Tibet issue has no purchase on the Indian political class or public opinion. It is unrealistic to assume that Tibet is an effective mechanism of leverage for India.


Ultimately, a settlement of the boundary dispute will hinge on the willingness of India as well as China to make concessions. The Indian government has repeatedly made it clear that uprooting settled populations is unacceptable to India. This still leaves India with some room to accommodate China’s interests in the east. Alongside a Chinese relinquishment of some territory in Ladakh, they could pave the way for an overall settlement. A final settlement will also entail some effort by India to assuage China’s lingering concerns over Tibet. The challenge for both the governments is to move forward in this direction, whilst simultaneously ensuring that their security interests are preserved and that the concerns of domestic audiences are addressed. Such an outcome is unlikely to be achieved soon. But now, more than ever before, it is in the realm of the possible.



1. On the historical aspects of the boundary dispute see, Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line, 2 vols., Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966; Lamb, The Sino-Indian Boundary in Ladakh, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1975; Parshottam Mehra, The McMahon Line and After, Macmillan, New Delhi, 1974; Mehra, An ‘Agreed’ Frontier: Ladakh and India’s Northernmost Borders, 1846-1947, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1992.

2. Note to secretary general MEA, 18 June 1954, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (Second Series), vol. 25, pp. 476-80.

3. On the significance of the road, see, John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001, pp. 82-88.

4. Chen Jian, ‘The Tibetan Rebellion of 1959 and China’s Changing Relations with India and the Soviet Union’, Journal of Cold War Studies 8(3), Summer 2006, pp. 54-101.

5. Garver, Protracted Contest, pp. 74-75.