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India-China Border Dispute: Does China have a Case?

Updated on July 28, 2020
emge profile image

The is a keen political observer and commentator who has a ringside seat to the turbulent years of the present political scenario


India claims a border with China of 3300 km but the Chinese say the border is only 2000 km. This is because the Chinese only recognize the line of actual control in claim there is no border in Ladakh and the entire area is Chinese territory. They tacitly only accept the MacMohan line in the east as a boundary.

A look at Indian history for the last 2000 years is quite illuminating. One fact that emerges is, that the most powerful of the Indian emperors and rulers never had any control over Aksai Chin or the far east Arunachal Pradesh.

Two of the mightiest Emperors of India, Emperor Asoka, and the Moghul Shahenshah Aurangzeb ruled over the entire subcontinent including parts of Central Asia, yet they had no control over Aksai Chin, Ladakh and the Northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh. None of the other Indian kings or empires during this long period of 2000 years had any control over these remote regions that remained part of Tibet.

A change was perceptible after the British took control of the subcontinent as part of the British Empire and the adage was coined; " the sun never sets on the British Empire."

British India 1900
British India 1900

Britsh rule and expansion of borders.

By 1858, the Crown had taken complete control of the subcontinent and Queen Victoria was christened as Malika-e- Hind ( Empress of India). The representative of the crown became the Viceroy who was referred to as the 'Laat Sahib'. During the late 19th century the British were worried about the expansion of Russia under the Tsars. The Russian Empire conquered entire Central Asia and the British suspected that they would try to take control of Tibet. It was decided to bring Tibet into the fold of British influence.

During the period 1865- 1899 the British sent various parties to explore Tibet which at that time was a forbidden land. Two of the most famous explorers of the time were Indian school teachers Chain Singh and Nain Singh who explored the length and breadth of Tibet and mapped areas for the British. In 1865 another explorer Henry Johnson explored the entire Aksai Chin and Turkmenistan. He proposed a line in Aksai Chin which came to be known as the Johnson Line as the extent of Imperial rule in the north.

Keeping the Russian threat in mind the British wanted to redraw the borders in the north of India. Lord Curzon the Viceroy, 1899-1905 authorized an invasion of Tibet. In 1903, Brigadier YoungHusband mounted on an invasion of Tibet with Sikh troops of the Indian Army. The professional Indian Army in a campaign of six months reached Lhasa. Many Tibetan soldiers were killed when they were told to wear amulets by the Lamas who told them they would protect them from the Sikh regiments bullets.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet and he was stripped of his powers by the Chinese. China itself was weak at that time as it had just been defeated in the opium wars where again the Indian Army had played a pivotal role.

The fruits of the YoungHusband expedition needed to be codified and the British held a conference at Shimla in 1913, where the representatives of Tibet and China attended. The conference mapped out a new line in both the northern and eastern sectors. The line was arbitrarily marked on the map with no relation to the ground reality but as Britain was the omnipotent power in Asia, the Chinese and Tibetan had no choice but to sign on the dotted line.

The British earmarked the border in the eastern sector by the name of the MacMohan line. This was named after Henry MacMohan who was the chief secretary of India at that time and had taken part in the negotiations. It was an arbitrary line and entire Southern Tibet was made part of India including the second holiest Buddhist shrine in the world at Tawang. The sixth Dalai Lama was born here.

In the north, the British drew the Johnson line which had been marked by Johnson and insisted that it be the northern border. The entire Aksai Chin and Ladakh were incorporated in the Indian state.

By virtue of the Lhasa agreement, the British were also allowed to maintain troops at 6 places in Tibet. The new maps of India were now published but the British never set up any administration in Aksai Chin and also made no attempt to occupy the northeastern area and Tawang continued to pay tribute to the Dalai lama right up to 1949.

1947 to the Present

In 1947, after the Pyrrhic victory over Germany, the British were in dire straits. The Indian Army through which they had ruled India became suspect as thousands of soldiers deserted and joined the Indian National Army led by Subash Chandra Bose. The British relinquished their rule over India and the Indian National Congress party led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru came to power.

There were momentous changes in China also and the Communist party won a decisive victory in the civil war against the American supported Chang kai Shek. The Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung had a very clear vision to restore the glory of China of yore. He ordered the invasion of Tibet and in 1950 the People's Liberation Army occupied Tibet with the Indian Prime Minister a spectator as he had withdrawn Indian troops from Tibet.

India continued to publish the maps of the British era which showed Aksai Chin and NEFA as part of India. At the same time, it did not occur to him to physically take control of Aksai Chin or set up any administration there. This was a blunder of monumental proportions. Unknown to Nehru the Chinese occupied the entire Aksai chin and 37,000 mi.² came under Chinese control. In 1955 Nehru came to know about it but he did precious little as he wanted to avoid a conflict with China.

The Chinese repeatedly made it clear that they did not recognize the borders as demarcated by the English rulers of India and considered them to be a relic of imperialism. Despite all this, there was a silver lining in the east where two platoons of the Gorkha rifles went and captured Tawang and extended India's border to the Mac Mohan line.

Nehru however was not prepared to accept the Chinese demand. In 1960, the Chinese Prime Minister Chou-En -Lai came to Delhi and stayed for seven days. He brought a packet for a border settlement with India. His proposal was that India accepts Aksai China as a part of China as it is a fait accompli and China would recognize the MacMohan line as a border in the east. It must be brought out that China had already accepted the MacMohan line as a border with Burma and had made a border settlement there.

Nehru had a lot of opposition in the Congress party and somehow he could not accept the proposal and rejected it. He insisted on the Johnson Line as a border and the handing over of Aksai Chin back to India. It was like a pipedream as he had neglected to build up the military. Even in 2020 the Indian home Minister Amit Shah made a statement in Parliament that India would take back Aksai Chin even if we have to give our life for it. Shah showed poor strategic sense while making this statement without realizing the effect of his words on China.

Nehru's lack of strategic vision came to the fore when without building up the army to face China, he ordered the Indian Army to throw the Chinese out. Maybe it was just a statement of the cuff but the Chinese took it seriously and 80,000 Chinese attacked Indian positions all along the northern border. Facing them were a mere 22,000 Indian soldiers with outdated Enfield .303 rifles of first world war vintage.

The Chinese defeated the Indian Army and made deep incursions into Ladakh and also occupied almost the entire Northeast frontier agency as well as the town of Twang.

After a month of fighting and the humiliation of Pandit Nehru, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire. They withdrew from almost all areas which they had occupied and also handed over Tawang back to India.

The situation is now at a point of no return as India still insists that the Johanson Line is a part of India and at the same time does not have the wherewithal to recapture the area. China has grown phenomenally and is now the second biggest power in the world with an economy that is five times the size of India and obviously it is no longer interested in any settlement. They now claim the entire Arunachal Pradesh and large areas in Ladakh and Aksai Chin as part of China.

What I have stated here are the bare facts and it is for the reader to judge. Nehru failed to realize and that includes leaders right up to Narendra Modi who met President Xi 19 times that there is no substitute to becoming self-reliant and having a strong military. Modi thought he had the measure of President Xi but he like Nehru failed to gauge the Chinese mind. China wants to be the number one power and to match China the Indian leadership should have thought of it 60 years back. Alas, time is not a friend of anybody.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      8 weeks ago from Singapore

      Denise, thank you for reading and commenting

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      8 weeks ago from Fresno CA

      I didn't know about most of this. It must be awful for those people living in that border area. War could come upon them without warning and how do they know what country they belong to?



    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      8 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thank you Flourish for your comment.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 months ago from USA

      I hate to say it, but China did speak early and often, saying they disagreed with the haphazardly drawn border, although disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegitimate. There should have been more effort when drawing the lines obviously and gaining acknowledgement of all parties, but that is long ago. Excellent article. I’m learning a lot from you.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      2 months ago from Singapore

      Lt Col, my pleasure

    • profile image

      Lt Col Parduman Singh 

      2 months ago

      I am impressed with this article. You, sir, have brought out certain unpalatable facts and it's about time the 3 and 4-star generals coming on TV spoke about some historical facts.


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