At the second informal summit between India and China at Mamallapuram, off Chennai (October 11-12, 2019), China’s President Xi Jinping had told Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “In accordance with the agreement on political guiding principles, we will seek a fair and reasonable solution to the border issue that is acceptable to both sides.” Background to the border issue:
- The India and China border are divided into three sectors, viz. Western, Middle and Eastern.
- The boundary dispute in the Western Sector pertains to the Johnson Line proposed by the British in the 1860s that extended up to the Kunlun Mountains and put Aksai Chin in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
- Independent India used the Johnson Line and claimed Aksai Chin as its own.
- However, in the years that followed it reversed its position and stated that it had never acceded to the Johnson Line and therefore did not see why it should cede Aksai 2 Chin to India.
- In the Middle Sector, the dispute is a minor one.
- The disputed boundary in the Eastern Sector of the IndiaChina border is over the McMahon Line.
- Representatives of China, India, and Tibet in 1913-14 met in Shimla, where an agreement was proposed to settle the boundary between Tibet and India, and Tibet and China.
Till the 1960s, China controlled Aksai Chin in the West while India controlled the boundary up to the McMahon Line in the East. Lost opportunities in resolving boundary issues between India and China: The recent border Initiatives Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question:
- In 2005 Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India and China Boundary Question agreement was signed between 2 neighbors.
- The agreement was a ray of light in an otherwise dim process of talks that began in 1981.
- It signaled that both sides had substantially converged their positions on the overarching principles that would guide a resolution.
- The agreement declared that a “package settlement” was the only way forward along with a mutual recognition that this would involve only minor territorial adjustments.
- The exercise got suspended in politics soon after and both sides have been unable to engage in meaningful negotiations.
Border issue during colonial times: Northern boundary
- It is now accepted that the frontier politics of British India had failed to produce a single integrated and well-defined northern boundary separating the Indian subcontinent from Xinjiang and Tibet.
- The underlying rationale for the British at the time was to carve a buffer around an autonomous “Outer Tibet” that would eventually fall under its sway.
- “Inner Tibet” was intended to stay within China’s fold.
- While this attempted zonal division of Tibet never materialized because of Chinese resistance to the idea.
- It is instructive that China’s principal concern a century ago was not the precise boundary between Tibet and India but the borders and the political relationship between Tibet and China.
- The Chinese, utterly weak at the time, were primarily concerned about the British extending their sway over much of Tibet.
- However, the McMahon Line became the border between India and Tibet.
- This sector, the crux of the dispute, was never formally delineated nor successfully resolved by British India.
- The fluid British approach in this sector was shaped by the geopolitical goals of the Empire.
- The move was never envisaged to meet the basic requirements of a sovereign nation-state.
- However, were exploratory surveys by frontier agents reflecting British expansion in the north-west frontiers rather than a concerted pursuit of an international border.
- When Russian influence reached Xinjiang, some British strategists advocated an extreme northern Kashmiri border to keep Britain’s main adversary at bay.
- During normal times, a relatively moderate border was favored, with reliance being placed on Chinese control of Xinjiang as a buffer against Russia.
- The net result was that in 1947, no definite boundary line to the east of the Karakoram Pass existed.
What was the situation of the border after 1947?
- On the official 1950 map of India, the boundary of Jammu and Kashmir east of this pass was expressed as “Boundary Undefined”.
- The McMahon Line, the de facto border between Arunachal Pradesh and China today, was depicted as the boundary in the eastern sector.
- Hence, in effect, India and China were faced with a “no man’s land” in eastern Ladakh, where the contentious Aksai Chin lay.
Indo-Chinese efforts to resolve the disputes after 1947: Initial maintenance of the status quo:
- Between 1954 and 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru engaged in several long exchanges with Premier Zhou Enlai in Delhi and Beijing.
- But the border issue was mostly excluded from their conversations.
- New Delhi’s assumed that highlighting the border issue would re-open the whole question and provide the Chinese with an opportunity to make all kinds of claims.
- The 1954 Agreement that affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but made no reference to the border
- They were seen as having “dealt with all outstanding matters and nothing remained”.
Initiation of border talks
- In December 1956 that the eastern section of the border was raised in the context of the Sino-Burmese border.
- Zhou Enlai had then remarked that the McMahon Line was an “accomplished fact” and both agreed that the “minor” border problems with India should be settled soon.
- In early 1957, India invited the Chinese for talks to resolve those “minor” disputes.
Why did the talk did not materialize?
- The talk was quickly overshadowed by an escalating crisis in Tibet.
- China’s attempt to restore its authority in Tibet became inextricably linked with its attitude on the frontier with India.
- India’s decision of March 1959 to provide asylum to the Dalai Lama dramatically transformed India-China relations.
- The event was followed by two skirmishes on the border.
Why did the Indo-Chinese relationship suffer a setback? Both India and China perceived each other with deep suspicion and mistrust
- Due to Chinese provocation at the borders.
- India’s open interference in China’s domestic affairs.
What was the Chinese Swap plan to overcome the setback suffered in the previous meeting?
- China was prepared to accommodate the Indian point of view in the eastern sector. Provided India should accommodate China in the western sector.
- Translating this principle into practice would have meant China accepting present-day Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory in exchange for India accepting Aksai Chin as Chinese territory.
What was India’s stand on the Chinese swap plan?
- Due to fierce domestic opposition, the then PM Nehru rejected a potential deal.
- India felt that there can be no question of horse-trading in this.
The inability of the Indian side to countenance the swap principle was a missed opportunity that could have eventually settled the dispute and contained the escalating conflict in the ensuing years. Also read: Indo-China Relations China – Nepal Bilateral Relationship