Border skirmishes between the Indian army and the PLA are not a new phenomenon. Numerous videos of fist fights between Indian and Chinese soldiers surface on social media occasionally, However, the recent skirmish has escalated a level with casualties on both sides for the first time since 1975; India has claimed 20, and while China has been reluctant to state figures, Indian interceptors and US Intelligence has placed the number between 30 and 50.
The current Sino-Indian dispute is a border dispute. It is astonishing that despite living side-by-side since centuries, the two nations have failed to demarcate their boundaries in the modern world. Through history, various empires have attempted to define the boundaries between India (Ladakh) and China (Tibet).
Under the Namgyal dynasty
After the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal War of 1679-84, the Namgyal dynasty and the Tibetan government signed the Treaty of Tinmosgang fixing the Ladakh-Tibet border. The Tibetan government granted the King of Ladakh an enclave at Menser, a village of Mansarovar including but not limited to Mt. Kailash, Lake Rakshastal and Lake Mansarovar, in Tibet.
A governmental report from 1961 states the full account of India’s historical, administrative and revenue rights over five villages near Kailash-Mansarovar. It also provides full records of Maharaja Hari Singh’s jurisdiction on Menser, one of the 110 villages in the Ladakh tehsil, and is backed by various other administrative and financial documents. Local records suggest that J&K authorities stopped collecting annual revenue from Menser only after the India-Pakistan War of 1965.
Under the Sikh Empire
The Sikhs annexed Kashmir in 1819, Ladakh in 1834 and Baltistan in 1840, and replaced the Namgyal dynasty by 1842. General Zorawar Singh wished to conquer Tibet and set out accordingly in 1841. He captured some regions, however, the Tibetans sent reinforcements and in December 1841, General Singh was killed in the Battle of Taklakot.
The Tibetans along with the Chinese army then captured Leh. The Dogras sent reinforcements for Sikhs from Jammu, and the Sikhs pushed back the Tibetans and Chinese to Chusul. The Dogras won the Battle of Chusul in 1842, and the Treaty of Chusul between Sikhs and Tibetans agreed to the ancient boundaries and continuance of Ladakh-Tibet trade.
Under British Empire
The Sikhs lost the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1846 and along with it, the region of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The East India Company then granted this region to the Dogra rulers for their support and remuneration. In 1865, William Johnson, a civil servant with the Surveyor of India proposed the ‘Johnson Line’ which puts Aksai Chin in Jammu & Kashmir.
By 1890, the Chinese began to assert the Karakoram Range as their southern boundary in Xinjiang. In 1892, they placed a stone pillar of and a wooden boundary notice on the summit of the Karakoram Pass. The British government of India learned of this marker only in 1907 but didn’t take immediate action; it later asked the Chinese for clarification which the Chinese addressed with a map showing the Karakoram range as Sino-Indian Boundary.
The British tried to clear misunderstandings around Aksai Chin. George Macartney, British Counsel-General in Xinjiang, opined that the Johnson line was inappropriate and Aksai Chin proper should be divided into half, with the northern part to China and southern part to India. In 1899, Sir Claude MacDonald, the British minister to China, submitted this proposal to Beijing who further communicated it to the Xinjiang Provincial Government. The Xinjiang Government had no objections to this boundary alignment, and informally notified the British delegation so.
In 1911, the Xinhai revoltion in Xinjiang toppled the Qing dynasty and paved the way for the establishment of Republic of China (1912 – 1949). In 1913, His Highness the Dalai Lama XIII proclaimed independence and at the same time, both Mongolia and Tibet recognised each other as independent countries. The Bolshevik Revolution and World War I changed the geo-dynamics of the region, and the British went back to the Johnson Line in order to buffer their territory from Russia and China.
At independence, India accepted British-demarcated boundaries. However, in 1950, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Tibet and signed a treaty whereby Tibet accepted to be a part of the PRC under the condition that Tibetans could retain their autonomy. From here, slowly and steadily, PRC started deferring India’s claims, issuing erroneous maps, and building roads in Aksai Chin region. Eight years later, PRC formally told India that Aksai Chin had always been in PRC’s jurisdiction.
In 1960, when PRC Premier Zhou Enlai visited India to discuss border issues, he mentioned to the then Indian Vice President Chinese legends of the 12th century referring to Ladakh and Aksai Chin as parts of China. Radhakrishnan retorted that India could claim parts of Afghanistan and even China with the same logic. Several meetings took place and China flipflopped on many occasions. For instance, in 1956, Enlai endorsed a map which correctly showed the entire Galwan valley in Indian territory while during talks in 1960, PRC maps showed Galwan valley as Chinese territory.
In 2001, Chinese ambassador to Britain Ma Zhen Gang proposed to Sarosh Zaiwalla, a prominent London-based lawyer of India origin, to set up a “second channel” for Indian and Chinese leaders to settle the border dispute. He told Zaiwalla that China did not accept British-demarcated boundaries and saw the original border of Tibet as the Sino-Indian border. Zaiwalla told Ma that India and the erstwhile Tibetan government had signed treaties which were legally binding on the PRC as well, on which Ma cited a 1959 diplomatic note signed by Enlai recognising “a Line of Actual Control that closely approximates to most of the McMahon Line along the eastern side of its border with India”.
In April 2019, PRC displayed a Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) map which showed entire Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir (including Aksai Chin) as part of India. In November 2018, China’s state-run media showed a map of Pakistan excluding PoK. In July 2018, PRC-backed Global Times warned Beijing may support pro-independence forces in Sikkim should New Delhi pursue regional hegemony through border face-offs. In 2003, PRC had acknowledged Sikkim as an integral part of India.
In the case of Tibet, on one hand, PRC claims Tibet and its boundaries with neighbours, on the other, it is reluctant to accept treaties signed by Tibet. PRC denies Tibet’s authority in making treaties but is mum on the Simla Accord which despite not being signed by the RoC allows Tibet to be a part of it.
These instances clearly show PRC’s frequent flipflops and dilute the credibility of its claims. India clearly has the upper hand in the Sino-Indian border issue as its claims are consistent and based on facts. India must recognise this and particularly include the Menser issue in the talks.
However, PRC has mastered the art of denial and deception, and its decades-old claims, offers and flipflops do not seem to be ending soon. Given this reality and its border antics, India must recalibrate its foreign policy with respect to the Sino-Indian border, Tibet and Tibetans and rethink its conventional position of Non-Alignment.
(This post first appeared here in The Tilak Chronicle.)
Mark Kinra is a corporate lawyer by profession and geopolitical analyst at heart. He primarily works on South Asia, specializing in Pakistan.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.