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Posted at: Jan 1, 2018, 1:24 AM; last updated: Jan 1, 2018, 1:24 AM (IST)INDIA-CHINA BOUNDARY PUZZLES

Talking about the talkers

Talking about the talkers

Sandeep Dikshit

The border dispute with China has seared independent India’s soul for over half a century. Both sides have striven to unravel this knot that has, over the years, been further complicated by suspicions and apprehensions about each other’s preferences for alliances in the wider world.

India and China took a decisive step in 2003 to turn a new page. This was the setting up of the institution of Special Representatives (SR) headed by officials who were the main foreign policy consigliores to the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President.

Instant commentary about a Chinese incursion or two is never able to impart the flavor of maturity that both sides have injected into keeping the border trouble-free despite wildly differing views of the demarcating line. The two SRs – currently Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Yan Jiechi, a hard nailed former Foreign Minister who still calls the shots in Zhongnanhai – in their last meeting do not seem to have come up with anything substantial.

On the face of it, the highly-choreographed clash of wits between security czars ends up every-time with a limp reiteration of boilerplate statements – need to ensure peace…discussed all issues frankly… — that provide no suggestion about the proceedings within.

But this was not so in the first two years of setting up the SR mechanism despite the regime change in India, from Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh. By 2005, the SRs had agreed on the main goalposts to unlock the tangle. The document’s title was a mouthful – Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Solving the Border Question – but it settled some Indian apprehensions by resolving to give consideration to populated areas; in other words towns like Tawang may get to enjoy status quo (remain in India) in the event of an border agreement.  

Since then there has been no progress on the border question. And this reality has been internalised by the two Governments – the sphere of SR talks has been widened to include discussions on other equally important subjects; perhaps it is an effort to keep this institution going while ensuring it remains important enough.

What had changed in 2005? The Indo-US nuclear deal might have added another layer to China’s strategic uncertainty vis-à-vis India. The first and the most enduring is the presence of Dalai Lama in India. China has never subscribed to the notion that Dalai Lama sole pursuit is benign spirituality but considers him the US-CIA’s cat’s paw and holds him responsible for episodical unrest in Tibet. In fact, that residue of distrust against the Indian state is rarely expressed but still lingers in a section of elite Chinese strategic policy crowd.

This was not so when India and China decided to take steps in 1988 towards bridging the bitterness and doubt spawned by the 1962 war with a Joint Working Group on the boundary. More was to come when both countries asked their armies to withdraw from an eyeball to eye ball confrontation on Sumdorung River: an agreement to restrain their armies on the border in 1993, followed up by another in 1996.

Both India and China have missed opportunities to settle the border issue; documents and records validate that Beijing always took the initiative, 

contrary to the prevailing impression. The first offer was made to Nehru by Chou en Lai when China had not staked a claim to Arunachal Pradesh. But there was a complete misreading of Chinese intent: India startled China by giving a memorandum in 1958 that laid claim to Aksai Chin which had been represented in British maps as ``undefined territory’’. India’s resistance to the Chinese claim on Aksai Chin was neither based on strategic considerations nor on any substantial ground presence of its army but on brief occupation of the territory by the Dogra surrogates of the British.

The 1962 war in which the Chinese army occupied Arunachal and parts of Assam laid low any enthusiasm to reopen the border question for 23 years till Rajiv Gandhi was offered a package proposal: concede Aksai Chin plus a little more (western sector) while India can retain Lower Tibet (Arunachal) in the eastern sector. The third part of the border – the middle sector – did not see armed action in 1962 and there is no substantial disagreement but for a few quibbles. As with Nehru’s time in 1958, diplomacy again let down India.   

India’s dalliance with the US in South China Sea may well have encouraged China to play hardball with Indian on the land border. It is also in a position of strength due to the widening asymmetry in the accumulation of power by both countries.

China holds the joint position along with Russia for the maximum number of land borders: with 14 countries. It is sobering to note that it has settled its disputes with 12 countries; the only holdouts are Indian and its surrogate Bhutan. A cross sectional analysis will reveal that the dozen disputes were settled in two tranches. But there was a commonality: China was generous in most settlements but it ensured that the countries concerned took steps to calm its security related apprehensions.

For India, it means concessions on three fronts: a settlement of the Dalai Lama issue, removing the impression of a quasi-alliance with the US and its military surrogates and erasing the fiction from the maps about Aksai Chin being a part of India.

This is a hard call for the Modi Government or for any dispensation in Delhi. Can it risk appearing soft if it agrees, on paper, to part with Akasi Chin? Can it also take the risk of walking back on its tango with the US? Till then the mechanism of the SRs will douse other fires on the bilateral agenda but will be helpless on the larger border question.


Protracted Discords

Aksai Chin in J&K— Indian claimed 

Chinese territory

  • 37,244 sq. km. area
  • Largely uninhabited 
  • An ancient trade route between Xinjiang and Tibet
Arunachal Pradesh— Chinese claimed Indian territory

Doklam (Bhutan)— disputed between China and Bhutan; India supports Bhutan’s claim

The 1962 War and Aftermath

The dispute that led to the War

  •  Jan 1959– Zhou Enlai disputed the McMahon Line in the east and the Kunlun boundary in the west
  • 1960– Zhou proposed PM Nehru that it would accept the McMahon Line (Arunachal Pradesh) if India accepts its claim in the west (Aksai Chin)
  • Mar 1959– India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama
  • Sep 8, 1962– the Chinese attack
  • Oct 20, 1962– China attacked India; 1,383 Indians and 722 Chinese killed  
  • Nov 20, 1962– China declared unilateral ceasefire 
The Thaw 

  • Dec 1988- India and China agreed to negotiate a border settlement during Rajiv Gandhi’s Beijing visit 
Transformative Agreements

  • Sep 7, 1993– The Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace & Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas (the Border Peace & Tranquility Agreement) was signed during PM Narasimha Rao’s Beijing visit   
  • Nov 29, 1996– Agreement on CBM in the Military Field along the LAC
  • Apr 11, 2005– India-China Protocol defining the 1996 Agreement 
  • Oct 23, 2013– Border Defence Cooperation (BDC) Agreement

Unresolved: 3


Pakistan— PoK and  J&K, Sir Creek,

Siachen Glacier, Saltoro Ridge etc

Nepal— Kalapani (400 sq. km), 

Susta (140 sq. km) etc

Resolved: 2

Sri Lanka— Kachchatheevu

Bangladesh— Bangabandhu Island


Unresolved: 2



Resolved: 12

Afghanistan— treaties signed in 1963 1965

 Kazakhstan— Treaties in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2002

Kyrgyzstan— Treaties in 1996, 1998, 2004

Lao PDR— Treaties in 1990, 1993

Mongolia— Treaties in 1962, 1964

Myanmar— Treaties in 1960, 1961

Nepal— Treaties in 1956, 1960, 1961, 1963

North Korea— Treaties in 1961, 1962, 1964

Pakistan— Treaties in 1963, 1965

Russia— Treaties in 1991, 1994, 1999, 2008

Tajikistan— Treaties in 1999, 2002, 2011

Vietnam— Treaties in 1993, 1999


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