Tension At The Border Between India and China

Francesca Mele
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India and China are face-to-face along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a militarised border between the two most populated countries in the world that dates back to 1959. The Indian Express explains the origin of this dispute: the demarcation is considered to be 3,488 km long by India and 2,000 km by China.

The line traverses Ladakh and four Indian states: Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh; but also Tibet Autonomous Region shares borders with India. A key territory that makes the India-China relationship more complicated is Aksai Chin: under Chinese control but claimed by India as a part of the Indian Union territory of Ladakh.

Contrary to the Line of Control (LOC) that separates India and Pakistan, borders with the recognition from both sides and according to what was established through the Simla Agreement in 1972, the Line of Actual Control is rather an “oral agreement”.

Tension At The Border Between India and China
The disputed borders. Source: The Economist

The “oral agreement” is based on a letter sent by the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In his letter, the Chinese PM referred to the LAC as the border defined by the so-called McMahon Line. Following the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Zhoun Enlai, after claiming that troops had withdrawn 20 km from the LAC, added:

“To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so-called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China”.

The McMahon Line was negotiated in the absence of China between Tibetan representatives and Great Britain during the Simla Conference (1913-1914) and named after the chief British negotiator, Sir Henry McMahon.

A further reference to the LAC was recorded in 1993 when India and China signed the “Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement” (BPTA), the first legal agreement that cited the boundaries between the two Asian giants. This agreement, however, did not specify what the real meaning and extent of the border was. Since then, there have been some scuffles, the most recent and important of which happened in 2017, when the two counterparts were in a standoff for two months. It took place in Doklam, a tri-junction area,  lying between China, India and Bhutan.

After three more years, tension broke out in May 2020 along the Himalayas, with Beijing and New Delhi accusing each other of overstepping the LAC. The current standoff is near Galwan valley in Ladakh, where the Indian government started to build a bridge and a feeder road to link with Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, running very close to the LAC.

On the other hand, China’s suspicious attitude has led to an increase in troops along the border including with minor confrontations. These confrontations took place on 5th and 9th May, and resulted in 76 Indian soldiers being injured.

Currently, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping seem to have agreed upon with a peacefully resolution, despite Ms. Rao, the former Foreign Secretary, considering the dispute as unsettled:

“If a problem has lasted so long, and there is no settlement in sight, we may need another generation or two to settle it.”

Ms. Rao might be right: on 15th June, three Indian soldiers were killed during the increasing tension between the two nuclear powers. Both armies claimed casualties, but the actual numbers remain uncertain.

In these days, the loss of 20 Indian soldiers has caused a wave of anger and grief nationwide. Surely the situation is tense. Indian Defence Minister Rjnath Singh has already made it clear that “India is no longer a weak nation, its power has increased. But we do not want to use this strength to frighten anyone. It is only to secure our country.” The Minister suggested to hit them where it hurts most: the economy.

  • How can the borders be drawn with a peaceful agreement from both sides?
  • Will the tension remain as a Cold War or is there a risk of escalation of the violence?
  • Does “secure our country” mean “protect the integrity and sovereignty”? If yes, then what are the risks and the limits for the two great powers of India and China?

Suggested Readings

AlJazeera, China says ‘positive consensus’ with India over border dispute

BBC, India-China clash: 20 Indian troops killed in Ladakh fighting

CNN, The border spat between India and China is turning into an all-out media war

The Indian Express, India no longer a weak country, won’t compromise: Rajnath Singh on border row with China

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