The McMahon Line boundary dispute is at the heart of relations between China and India. China has land and sea boundary issues with 14 neighbors, mostly for historical reasons. The Chinese have two major claims on what India deems its own territory. One claim, in the western sector, is on Aksai Chin in the northeastern section of Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir. The other claim is in the eastern sector over a region included in the British-designated North-East Frontier Agency, the disputed part of which India renamed Arunachal Pradesh and made a state. In the fight over these areas in 1962, the well-trained and well-armed troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army overpowered the ill-equipped Indian troops, who had not been properly acclimatized to fighting at high altitudes.
In the early 20th Century Britain sought to advance its line of control and establish buffer zones around its colony in South Asia. In 1913-1914 representatives of China, Tibet and Britain negotiated a treaty in India: the Simla Convention. Sir Henry McMahon, the foreign secretary of British India at the time, drew up the 550 mile (890 km) McMahon Line as the border between British India and Tibet during the Simla Conference. The so-called McMahon Line, drawn primarily on the highest watershed principle, demarcated what had previously been unclaimed or undefined borders between Britain and Tibet. The McMahon line moved British control substantially northwards. The Tibetan and British representatives at the conference agreed to the line, which ceded Tawang and other Tibetan areas to the imperial British Empire. However the Chinese representative refused to accept the line. Peking claimed territory in this far north down to the border of the plain of Assam.
The land is mostly mountainous with Himalayan ranges along the northern borders criss-crossed with mountain ranges running north-south. These divide the state into five river valleys: the Kameng, the Subansiri, the Siang, the Lohit and the Tirap. High mountains and dense forests have prevented intercommunication between tribes living in different river valleys. The geographical isolation thus imposed has led different tribes to elove their own dialects and grow with their distinct identities. Nature has endowed the Arunachal people with a deep sense of beauty which finds delightful expression in their songs, dances and crafts.
A slow forward move towards the McMahon Line was begun on the ground, to establish a new de facto boundary. The McMahon Line was then forgotten until about 1935 when the British government decided to publish the documents in the 1937 edition of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties. The NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) was created in 1954. On 7 November 1959, Chou En-lai proposed that both sides should withdraw their troops twenty kilometres from the McMahon line. The issue was quiet during the decade of cordial Sino-Indian relations, but erupted again during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. During the 1962 war, the PRC captured most of the NEFA. However, China soon declared victory and voluntarily withdrew back to the McMahon Line.
China is in occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. kms of Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, under the so-called China-Pakistan “Boundary Agreement” of 1963, Pakistan ceded 5,180 sq. kms. of Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China. China claims approximately 90,000 sq. kms. of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and about 2000 sq. kms. in the Middle Sector of the India-China boundary. Beijing has stated that it does not recognise Arunachal Pradesh.
The border between China and India has never been officially delimited. China’s position on the eastern part of the border between the two countries is consistent. Not a single Chinese government recognizes the “illegal” McMahon Line. For China, the McMahon Line, stands as a symbol of imperialist aggression on the country. The so-called “Arunachal Pradesh” dispute is China’s most intractable border issue. Because the gap between the positions of China and India is wide, it is difficult for both nations to reach consensus. The area of this disputed region is three times that of Taiwan, six times that of Beijing and ten times that of the Malvenas islands, disputed by Britain and Argentina. It is flat and rich in water and forest resources.
Arunachal Pradesh is the only issue which has a potential for conflict between India and China. If ever, India and China go to war one day, it will be on this issue. India considers recurring Sino-Indian border clashes a potential threat to its security. Since the war, each side continued to improve its military and logistics capabilities in the disputed regions. China has continued its occupation of the Aksai Chin area, through which it built a strategic highway linking Xizang and Xinjiang autonomous regions. China had a vital military interest in maintaining control over this region, whereas India’s primary interest lay in Arunachal Pradesh, its state in the northeast bordering Xizang Autonomous Region.
Barring an armed clash at Nathu La in eastern Sikkim in 1967, the border between India and China (Tibet) – and specifically the ill-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh/Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh – had remained free of any major incidents through the 1970s and the early 1980s. While relations between the two countries remained cool,, official statements from Beijing and New Delhi professed a desire to solve the border tangle peacefully through mutual consultations. Beginning in December 1981, officials from both countries held yearly talks on the border issue.
With the improvement of logistics on the Indian side, the Indian Army sought to reinforce and strengthen forward areas in Arunachal Pradesh in the early 1980s. Patrols resumed in 1981 and by the summer of 1984 India had established an observation post on the bank of the Sumdorong Chu [referred to as Sangduoluo He in the Chinese media].
In July 1986 there were reports in the Indian media of Chinese incursions into the Sumdorong Chu [S-C] rivervalley in Arunachal Pradesh. By September-October, an brigade of the Indian Army 5 Mountain Division was airlifted to Zimithang, a helipad very close to the S-C valley. Referred to as Operation Falcon, this involved the occupation of ridges overlooking the S-C valley, including Langrola and the Hathung La ridge across the Namka Chu rivulet.
This was followed by reports of large-scale troop movements on both sides of the border in early 1987, and grave concerns about a possible military clash over the border. In February 1987, India established the so-called Arunachal Pradesh in its ["illegally occupied"] Chinese-claimed territories south of the McMahon Line. The Chinese side made solemn statements on many occasions that China never recognizes the “illegal” McMahon Line and the “so-called” Arunachal Pradesh. After these events, and India’s conversion of Arunachal Pradesh from union territory to state, tensions between China and India escalated. Both sides moved to reinforce their capabilities in the area, but neither ruled out further negotiations of their dispute.
China, which had always maintained a large military presence in Tibet, was said to have moved in 20,000 troops from the”53rd Army Corps in Chengdu and the 13th Army in Lanzhou by early 1987, along with heavy artillery and helicopters. By early April, it had moved 8 divisions to eastern Tibet as a prelude to possible belligerent action. Reinforcements on the Indian side began with Operation Falcon in late 1986, and continued through early 1987 under Exercise Chequerboard. This massive air-land exercise involved 10 Divisions of the Indian Army and several squadrons of the IAF. The Indian Army moved 3 divisions to positions around Wangdung, where they were supplied solely by air. These reinforcements were over and above the 50,000 troops already present across Arunachal Pradesh.
Although India enjoyed air superiority in 1987, rough parity on the ground existed between the two military forces, which had a combined total of nearly 400,000 troops near the border. The Indian Army deployed eleven divisions in the region, backed up by paramilitary forces, whereas the PLA had fifteen divisions available for operations on the border. Most observers believe that the mountainous terrain, high-altitude climate, and concomitant logistic difficulties made it unlikely that a protracted or larges-cale conflict would erupt on the Sino-Indian border.
That the Sino-Indian border has not suffered any major disruptions since 1986, as compared to the incessant firing incidents and infiltration on the Indo-Pak borders, made the Sino-Indian border an example of good neighbourly relations.
In December 1988, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. The Prime Ministers of the two countries agreed to settle the boundary questions through the guiding principle of “Mutual Understanding and Accommodation and Mutual Adjustment”. Agreement also reached that while seeking for the mutually acceptable solution to the boundary questions, the two countries should develop their relations in other fields and make efforts to create the atmosphere and conditions conducive to the settlement of the boundary questions. The two sides agreed to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary questions at the Vice-Foreign Ministerial level.
An Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas was signed on 7 September 1993. After more than thirty years of border tension and stalemate, high-level bilateral talks were held in New Delhi starting in February 1994 to foster “confidence-building measures” between the defense forces of India and China, and a new period of better relations began. In November 1995, the two sides dismantled the guard posts in close proximity to each other along the borderline in Wangdong area, making the situation in the border areas more stable. During President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India at the end of November 1996, the Governments of China and India signed the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas, which is an important step for the building of mutual trust between the two countries. These Agreements provide an institutional framework for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas.
Though lot had been done during the Sino-Indian official border talks, with number of border related CSBMs put in place, the border issue remains mired in various bilateral and domestic compulsions and contradictions on both sides. Border ‘encounters’ between India and China are not rare and arise from the very real disagreements that exist between the two sides in demarcating the LCA on the ground. Such incidents have usually been handled, not in full media glare, but by the two sides discreetly withdrawing to their earlier positions.
The two sides withdrew sentries along the eastern section that were considered to be too close to each other. During early 1990s, India unilaterally withdrew about 35,000 troops from its eastern sector. On the other hand, the PLA maintains a force between 180,000 and 300,000 soldiers and has directly ruled Tibet from 1950 to 1976, and indirectly thereafter. Tibet today is connected to other military regions through four-lane highways and strategic roads. And Beijing’s capability to airlift troops from its other neighbouring military regions has advanced very far from its comparative inability to use air force in 1962.
During the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China in June 2003 India and China signed a Memorandum on Expanding Border Trade, which adds Nathula as another pass on the India-China border for conducting border trade. The Indian side has agreed to designate Changgu of Sikkim state as the venue for border trade market, while the Chinese side has agreed to designate Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region as the venue for border trade market.
During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005, the two sides signed an agreement on political settlement of the boundary issue, setting guidelines and principles. In the agreement, China and India affirmed their readiness to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary issue through equal and friendly negotiations.
India after 1962 adopted a policy to not develop the border areas. The idea was that if India developed the border areas, the Chinese can easily use these facilities in the event of a war. This policy had changed by 2008. To redress the situation arising out of poor road connectivity which has hampered the operational capability of the Border Guarding Forces deployed along the India-China border, the Government has decided to undertake phase-wise construction of 27 road links totaling 608 Km in the border areas along the India-China border in the States of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh at an estimated cost of Rs.912.00 crores. The work of construction of 2 roads in Arunachal Pradesh has started. The construction of these roads was expected to start during 2008-09.
The two sides have differences in perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China border areas. Both sides carry out patrolling activity in the India-China border areas. Transgressions of the LAC are taken up through diplomatic channels and at Border Personnel Meetings/Flag Meetings. India and China seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary question through peaceful consultations.