History lesson: Why China and India will have to do a swap

Elsewhere in the world, countries are fighting for territories with oil, gas or minerals. In this case, they’re geo-strategic: China needs Ladakh’s Aksai Chin area to link Tibet to Xinjiang, and India fears losing Arunachal Pradesh would make its entire North-East vulnerable.

Praveen Swami May 01, 2013 10:11:11 IST
History lesson: Why China and India will have to do a swap

China and India both insist they share a border sanctified by centuries of custom—but their troops are facing off on some of the most brutal terrain in the world, unable to agree on it. The problem is simple. The two countries’ claims rest on agreements arrived at by local rulers hundreds of years ago, when the only places in the Himalaya that mattered were the passes across the inner Himalayas—used by seasonal trading caravans that provided valuable taxes to local rulers. No one knew, or cared, where the line ran through the high mountains.

Elsewhere in the world, countries are fighting for territories with oil, gas or minerals. In this case, they’re geo-strategic: China needs Ladakh’s Aksai Chin area to link Tibet to Xinjiang, and India fears losing Arunachal Pradesh would make its entire North-East vulnerable.

History lesson Why China and India will have to do a swap

Elsewhere in the world, countries are fighting for territories with oil, gas or minerals. In this case, they’re geo-strategic. Reuters

Many experts say the two great Asian powers will eventually have to do a swap—in essence, that India will have to sacrifice its claims to Aksai Chin in Ladakh for China acknowledging Indian sovreignity over Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides have been engaged in talks that have skirted around this issue, but neither seems keen on expending political capital on such a deal.

In part, that’s because the debate over the border is clouded by political grandstanding, and publics sometimes ill-informed about what the border dispute is actually about.

History lesson Why China and India will have to do a swap

Image courtesy: University of Texas

The Western Sector is where the ongoing Depsang crisis is unfolding. The northern stretch of the China-India border—which is called, just to make things more complicated, the western sector—runs from the Karakoram pass to Gya peak, in north-eastern Himachal Pradesh. The alignment India claims was first outlined in the Treaty of Tingmosang on 1642, signed after a war between Ladakh and Tibet. In 1842, envoys of the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, the Dalai Llama and the Chinese emperor reaffirmed faith in this line, saying it had been “fixed from ancient times”. No-one, though, actually mapped this line on a piece of paper. In 1847, Lord Harding, the governor-general of India, proposed a boundary commission to solve this problem. China, however, said there was no need for the commission, since “the borders of those territories have been sufficiently and distinctly fixed so it will prove far more convenient to refrain from any measures to fix them”. In 1848, though, Kashmir and Tibet signed an agreement to formalise their borders, and surveyors were sent out to map it.

Chinese official maps issued in 1853, 1917 and 1919 accepted the border India now claims—but, in 1956, that country drove a road through Aksai Chin, the giant high-altitude desert to its east. India thus lost possession of Aksai Chin—without, the record shows, much protest until 1958.

There are two other China-India border sectors. The Central Sector runs from Gya peak to the junction of Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. India’s claims again rest on the treaties of 1648 and 1842. The boundary in Uttar Pradesh’s Barahoti were also the subject of diplomatic correspondence in 1889-1890, and in 1914. In 1954, India signed a trade treaty on Tibet with China, which allowed passage through five Himal passes—the Shipki–La, the Mana-La, the Niti-La, the Kungri Bingri, the Darma-La and the Lipu Lekh. These, India says, therefore ought constitute the key markers of the border.

It’s the Eastern Sector, though, that’s the big prize from China’s point of view. In 1913-1914, British officers carried out surveys to map the territorial jurisdiction of southern Tibet—leading to a border called the McMahon Line, after the name of the British-Indian representative at the conference in Shimla where it was agreed on. The Line runs from the Bhutan-India-Tibet junction, to Peak 15,283-feet, 8 kilometers from the Diphu-La, where China, India and Myanmar meet.

China rejects the MacMahon Line, saying it was signed by an illegitimate authority. In 1912, the Tibetans had—briefly—won independence, forcing out the Chinese Amban, or governor. It remained semi-independent until 1950, when China retook Lhasa—a move India then, and now, accepts as legitimate. In essence, this means China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh.

In the current crisis, the issue is that China’s new outpost in Depsang crosses its own Claim Lines—the territories claimed as its own. From the early 1950s, Chinese government maps started showing some 93,240 square kilometres in the east, and 31,080 square kilometres in Ladakh, as being part of its territory. In October 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru raised the issue with Chinese premier Chou En-Lai, only to be told the maps possibly reflected old claims that were no longer being pressed. In November 1956, Chou En-Lai said much the same during a visit to New Delhi. By that time, though, the Chinese had already built a road cutting through Aksai Chin, linking its garrisons in Xinjiang with its troops in Tibet. Indian intelligence, we know, reported this—but for reasons that aren’t clear, India didn’t protest until 1958.

In 1959, a more Chou presented India with a map stating its claims in Ladakh—which, based on the date of the map, is called the 1956 Claim-Line. From June-December 1960, experts from both countries held a series of three meetings in Beijing, New Delhi and Yangon to discuss these claims. There, China presented a fresh set of claims—known as the 1960 Claim-Line—this one making even more expansive claims in Ladakh.

This much is clear, though: the first Chinese complaint about India’s position came in the summer of 1954, when it protested the presence of Indian troops at Barahoti. There were more intermittent face-offs in 1955, and in 1956, intrusions into Indian-claimed territory took place in Ladakh’s Lanak-La, Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti and the Shipki-La in Uttar Pradesh.

Following the war of 1962, the two sides agreed to stop fighting at the Line of Actual Control—the positions where their troops were on-ground.

History lesson Why China and India will have to do a swap

Image courtesy: University of Texas

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to say for sure where the Line of Actual Control actually is. In 1962, when China and India broke off diplomatic relations. Thus, the ceasefire line was never demarcated—unlike the Line of Control that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Thus, the Line rests on unstated conventions arrived at between the two sides—not actual positions marked on a map. From a map issued to Indian troops serving in the area in the 1970s, its clear there were substantial zones of dispute—the grey shaded areas were patrolled by both sides, and still are.

From India’s must-read official war history of 1962, though, we know the Chinese broadly ended up at their 1960 claim line in Ladakh. This is borne out by a Central Intelligence Agency map of the Pangong Lake area in Ladakh, issued in 1992, which shows India’s ground-position there is pretty much where the 1960 Claim Line would have put it.

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