Home Commentaries & Articles India-China relations: Understanding the territorial dispute

India-China relations: Understanding the territorial dispute

On 15 June 2020, when India was amidst of global pandemic and whole country was fighting COVID-19, there was a different fight going on in the far eastern Ladakh. As the news started building up about India-China standoff, announcement by Ministry of Defence about the death of 20 Indian soldiers after a skirmish with Chinese PLA in the Pangong Ladakh region confirmed that something very disturbing was brewing in the borders of Ladakh (Muhsin & Mufsin, 2020). Both India and China blamed each other of interfering into the borders and of violating the Sino-Indian agreements signed during 1993 and 1996 and Border Defence Cooperation Agreement between India and China signed in 2013. Post this standoff, series of talks and discussions have taken place both at military and diplomatic levels, yet these talks failed fully to break the deadlock.

Historically, there have been many instances of India China conflict over ill defined 3,440 km long border as also compiled in article “India-China dispute,” (2020). Yet, both the countries have been able to keep their diplomatic relations afloat for long. However, what is more concerning for India is the bi-fold threat that China is posing, one being the national security issue and secondly the regional imbalance it is creating in these places be it Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. It is noteworthy that the involvement of Pakistan in the Indo- Sino relations and India’s stand for Independence of Tibet has always put India-China relations to a litmus test. 

Historical background 

India and china are most populated countries in the Asian subcontinent. Being one of the oldest civilizations, separated by the Himalayan range and huge border, these nations share centuries of cultural and economic relationship largely due to shared corridors of erstwhile Silk route. However, it was the armed war of 1962, between India and China that strained the bilateral relations to its peak. 

Since then, both the countries have engaged vis-a-vis several track one and track two diplomatic channels to ease the tension. First such attempt was made during the Colombo Conference, 10-12 December 1962. The engagements during this conference proved too little to be constructive and the efforts of six non-alignment Afro-Asian countries went into vain. Another round of talks came up in 1964 when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to negotiate talks with the Chinese government. However, the Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai refused all the solutions and made negotiation talk difficult. In 1965, China provided all the logistical support to Pakistan during the war with India and constructed road on the disputed area. The Indian policy took a U turn during the tenure of Indira Gandhi as a Prime Minister in 1975. Indian Special Frontier Force drew back ten kilometres from the original position along the border. Further, an Indian ambassador was sent to China to hold further talks in July 1976. This worked as a positive step to restore the relations (Amit Rajan, 2016).

In 1988, Joint Working Group (JWG) was established by the two countries to resolve the border issue. To give proper direction to JWG, Special Representatives (SR) were appointed in 2003. In 1996, the two armies signed agreement to limit the number of soldiers along the LAC, held regular talks and exchanged information time to time with the main purpose of establishing peace and harmony at the border (Jagannath, 2015). 

However, in 2007, China refused to grant Visa to a Government official from the Arunachal Pradesh and insisted upon its claim of Arunachal as its own territory. This event provided to be an evidence of negotiation failure even after years of efforts to give a new direction and fill in the age-old faults among these nations (Malone & Mukherjee, 2010).   Again in 2013, another border defence agreement was signed to ensure that the patrolling along the border does not lead to exchange of fire. 

Subsequently, in 2015, 7th Annual Defence and Security Dialogue were held at Beijing. Agreements like ‘Working Mechanism for Consultations and Coordination of India-China Border Affairs’ and the signing of the ‘Border Defence Cooperation Agreement’ were signed between the two countries.

Current situation

Both India and China are putting all the strategic resources in place not only for raising regional powers but also are establishing their dominance in the world order. China has been working strategically to build up its economic and military strength. The activities in the East China Sea, China-India border, South China Sea and on the freedom of navigation with US advocates in this direction. 

The 2017 Doklam standoff refreshed the border conflict between India and China. The standoff began after India stopped the construction of a road by China on the Bhutanese side of the territory. As per the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, 2007, Article 2, India must protect Bhutanese national interest and also protect its territory from being used for harming the national security of one another.  On 28 August 2017, India and China announced that they had agreed to pull their troops back from the face-off in Doklam (Raju, 2020).

Since April 2020, series of border conflicts and confrontation have taken place between India and China. The major incident took place on the evening of June 15, 2020 which is also regarded as the deadliest border clash since 1975 by many reports (H.T. Correspondent, 2020).  During late July and early August, reports emerged of PLA strengthening positions and accumulating troops at more locations other than Ladakh such as Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass, parts of north Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. It was only after these incidents that India stationed its warship to the South China Sea.  

Following these incidents numerous talks among the Governments and military have taken place and plans have been formulated. China continues to build and construct roads, railways and infrastructure like military camps and helipads. China has not only increased their positions but has also installed cameras and motion sensors along the borders to strengthen their security check. On 6th December 2020, the latest set up of three villages nearly 5 kilometres from the Bum La pass which is also close to India, China and Bhutan in western Arunachal Pradesh, only shows that China is aggressively and consistently making claims for the disputed territory which strengthens the assertion that they are not ready to stop any time soon (Som, 2020).  

There are many reasons that can be cited to understand why China is being aggressive and non-interested in settling the territorial disputes.  

Firstly, India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and change the status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 and the separation of the state into the two UT’s was based on the decision to provide them with more autonomy into the decision making as well as to establish a better hold of the Government into the region (Fazily, 2020). 

Kashmir has been an international issue since 1947 and been extremely sensitive issue for India. China has been backing Pakistan with all the mischievous activities in the region to not let the peace settle among the people leading to violent unrest (Anik Joshi, 2020). Main reason for this support by China to Pakistan can be well understood as Ladakh was part of the J&K state before abrogation of article 370 which is considered strategically important for China from economic perspective. Ladakh has many great passes which also functioned to connect the Central Asia, South Asia, China, and Middle East in the past like the Silk route. Through these passes not only trade was conducted but also people to people connectivity was established. Also, Ladakh region is viewed as crucial for its initiative of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Adrija Roychowdhury, 2020). Therefore, unrest in one part of J&K state usually Kashmir has always gathered main attention and draining energy.

Secondly, it might be a reaction to India’s growing relations with the USA and the policy of “Pivot Asia”. This can be seen from the growth in the bilateral trade (U$ 160 billion in 2019), and increased purchase of US defence equipment’s ($20 billion worth in the last 2 decades). US supported India to balance China in South Asia and Indo-Pacific especially when Beijing’s relations with Moscow started getting warmer. US-Indo relations were further strengthened with greater armed force as well as counter terror collaborations and political cooperation in the region and beyond (C. Raja Mohan, 2020). 

Thirdly, amidst Tibet issue and its struggle for independence, India’s assistance to Dalai Lama and refugees has never been constructively taken by the Chinese. Dalai Lama’s visits have always been controversial, for instance, visit to Arunachal Pradesh on 4th April 2017 caused serious tension between the two countries and affected the bilateral relations (Varma, 2017). After this visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that the permission granted to Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh has put the bilateral relationship between the two countries into danger and urged India to put stop to it (“As Dalai Lama Visits,” 2017). 

Fourth, China won’t stop until it doesn’t achieve the status of superpower which also means gaining as much access to the land as they want. They are conquering to rule and add to their power. Developing better relationship with countries and undertaking major development project like CPEC, OBOR and BRI are few such strategies adopted by China in this direction.

As per few reports, this phenomenon is part of president Xi-Jingping’s ‘China dream’ which was introduced in 2013, describing a set of personal and national ethos and ideals of China (“What does Xi Jinping’s”, 2013). He has flagged this vision several times but specifically pressed upon it during his address to the nation in 2013, wherein he quoted: 

“We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,”     

-Xi-Jingping, President of China

Fifth, the world as well as the region sees India to be in direct competition to China as a rising power, therefore diverting India’s attention from growth and prosperity to war and instability can prove beneficial to China. To divert India from its focus on betterment of bilateral relations with the neighbouring countries and also to slow down the developmental projects, China is triggering incidents like Galwan (Karackattu, 2020). 

Last, but not the least china is displaying their power and strength to the world especially after its reputation got destroyed due to their internal economic failure and COVID-19 pandemic (Westcott, 2020).


China and India have so many things in common, that any rift between these two countries can only put the world in depilated and poor condition. Being one of the oldest civilizations, their role for global prosperity is inevitable. Since India’s independence in 1947 and China’s independence since 1949, a large number of agreements and talks have facilitated some sort of cautious optimism between these two nations. But over the years, change in the regional and world dynamics have led to strains into their relationship. China’s growing investment in Pakistan and the territorial disputes along the Himalayas for which neither country can find a panacea, has made the situation worse. The two countries need to muster all the wisdom and understand their regional and global responsibilities and build consensus in opposing conflicts and nurturing peace and development.  In the words of Robert Frost “Good fences make good neighbours”, mutual respect and by fixing the gaps and the borders where it’s crumbling, these two nations can be better neighbours.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed are of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of Diplomacy and Beyond Plus. The publication is not liable for the views expressed by authors.


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