Viktor A. Burlakov

Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok
Far Eastern Law Institute of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation (Vladivostok branch), Vladivostok

Abstract: The article deals with the current state of the territorial dispute between India and China. Despite the extreme degree of confusion, inconsistency and conflict potential of  Sino-Indian territorial dispute, the parties take rather restrained positions, focused primarily on maintaining the status-quo. Both countries demonstrate a clear desire to prevent territorial conflict from escalating into full-scale war.Keywords: India, China, Sino-Indian relations, territorial dispute, border, line of actual control  

Modern relations between China and India are largely determined by the existing territorial disputes between the countries. Despite the fact that trade relations between the countries are actively developing, a political settlement is still quite far away. This circumstance creates tension in the region and prevents building full-fledged Indo-Chinese ties.

The purpose of this article is to consider the current state of the territorial dispute between India and China and to determine the possible prospects for its development.

The key thesis is that, despite the extreme degree of confusion, inconsistency and conflict potential of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute, the parties take a rather restrained position, focused primarily on maintaining the status quo. This does not mean that India and China are close to ending the problem. Moreover, both countries are making vigorous efforts to increase the level of defense capabilities on their territory in the disputed areas. However, both countries demonstrate a clear desire to prevent the territorial conflict from escalating into a full-scale war.

Although any territorial dispute in the world is a difficult problem to resolve, Sino-Indian territorial contradictions should be considered among the most difficult because of the following main features.

Firstly, the territorial dispute between India and China is a complex one. It is impossible to resolve it in a bilateral format and without linking it to a whole range of other problems in Sino – Indian relations.

Of paramount importance is the question of Tibet Autonomous Region of the PRC. Most of the disputed sections on the border divide the territory of India and Tibet, which at the beginning of the 20th century took part in its establishment. Although New Delhi recognizes Tibet as an integral part of the PRC, however, anti-Chinese-minded Tibetan refugees continue to remain in India, led by the 14th Dalai Lama [7, p. 290].

Another significant problem is the Kashmir factor, which inevitably draws Pakistan into the Sino-Indian territorial dispute. At the same time, Beijing, referring to Resolution No. 47 (1948) of the UN Security Council, considers the status of Kashmir as undetermined, this circumstance greatly narrows the possibilities for finding compromise on the territorial dispute.

A third related problem is the uncertainty about the status of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The latter has been a state of India (since 1987), and the PRC officially claims most of it, which it calls Southern Tibet. Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975, and before that it had remained an independent state under an Indian protectorate. Beijing de-facto recognized the entry of the territory into India only in 2003 [4, p. 60-61].

Secondly, the border between the countries runs through mountainous difficult terrain. This greatly complicates the process of its demarcation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in most cases, neither side bothered to draw the border actually, limiting itself to coordinating the lines on the map. Since the border passes through practically uninhabited areas, there was no urgent need for this.

An interesting illustration of this circumstance is the Siachen conflict of 1987-1989. Although the conflict took place between India and Pakistan, but the Siachen Glacier (located in Kashmir) is closely adjacent to the Indian-Chinese border. In 1977, India discovered that Islamabad had unilaterally taken control of the glacier based on maps made nine years earlier. In other words, the fact of Pakistani occupation of Siachen territory was not known to Delhi for nine years. The ongoing diplomatic efforts were fruitless. India began to build up its military presence in Siachen, which led to an armed conflict [6, p. 85-97].

Thirdly, the territorial dispute has a high degree of conflict potential. To this day the Indian-Chinese border remains one of the most tense in the world. The dispute had already become the reason for 1962 border war. Subsequently, fighting continued from time to time, although they did not have such a scope. The tense situation on the border has persisted to the present day.

And, fourthly, for both sides, the territorial dispute has an increased degree of sensitivity. This is due to the fact that the disputed border is recognized as a legacy of colonialism, and any concessions in this case will inevitably be perceived as a national humiliation. So, for example, New Delhi perceives the expansion of buffer zones at patrol points as a refusal to control its territory [1, p. 33]. On the other hand, visits by senior Indian officials to the state Arunachal Pradesh are constantly condemned by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The sensitivity of disputed territories is also determined by their military-strategic nature. For example, changing the status of Sikkim drastically worsens India’s ability to defend its northeastern states. In addition, there are few convenient areas in the highlands for the creation of transport infrastructure, which is vital for ensuring communication between different parts of the country. Thus, in the Aksai Chin region, there is a Chinese highway connecting Xinjiang with Tibet. A different route makes it much less attractive to use.

Another touchstone is the Tawang Monastery (located in Arunachal Pradesh in the Tawangchu Valley near the Chinese border), which is the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Lhasa. This makes it the most important spiritual center for Tibetans living in India. In addition, the current 14th Dalai Lama is already old enough, and it is possible that in the near future the monastery authorities may seriously affect the search for the next Tibetan leader [7, p. 302-303].

Most of the current Sino-Indian border is represented by the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC) (Figure 1). In general, its configuration was determined at the end of the Sino-Indian border war in 1962. During the active phase of the war from October 20 to November 21, the People’s Liberation Army of China managed to take control of all disputed areas in the territory. After the end of the fighting, China withdrew its troops from the territory of current Indian state Arunachal Pradesh beyond the so-called McMahon Line, but retained control over the Aksai Chin area. Official Chinese claims to the territory of Southern Tibet (the north part of the state Arunachal Pradesh) were not withdrawn.

Figure 1 – Sino-Indian territorial disputes

Source: Graphic News //

In 1975, China Study Group (CSG) was formed by the Indian government, during which Patrol points (PP) were identified. These are hard-to-reach sections of the border, in the area of which military patrols are carried out sporadically. Most often, PPs were tied to well-recognized geographical features, but some were simply designated by numbers. The Chinese side also patrolled the border, matching the Indian scheme, and since the Patrol points did not always coincide with the LAC, this provoked conflict situations.    (End of introductory fragment)