Border Disputes in Sino-Indian Relations: Past, Present and Prospects

Simi Mehta

Sino-Indian border disputes are not new, and in the post-independent India, the two countries have fought a major war and had engaged in several skirmishes. Both countries are bound by a mutual agreement to not use firearms in the inhospitable and contested Himalayan region along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, India received a jolt when 20 Indian personnel were killed at the hands of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the Galwan valley.

No Indian soldier was killed at the hands of the PLA since 1975. As a result, the hardening of Chinese positions in the region since April this year and the causalities in the Ladakh territory of the Indian subcontinent have raised several questions on the political relations between India and China and even strengthened the spirit of nationalism in India. In fact China has sought to simultaneously interfere with the status quo at different points along the border, namely at the Galwan Valley, Demchok, Daulat Beg Oldie, Host Springs, Four Fingers of the Pangong Tso and Nathu La.


These were the introductory remarks made by Dr Simi Mehta, CEO of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI). The survival competition and various dimensions of the Sino-Indian border disputes through historical, contemporary and futuristic lenses were discussed at an international webinar hosted by the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies, (IMPRI), New Delhi in collaboration with the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

This webinar brought together a distinguished panel of experts on India-China relations and included Dr Kyle Gardner, Associate, McLarty Associates and Non-Resident Scholar at Sigur Centre for Asian Studies, The George Washington University, USA; Dr Deep Pal, Non-Resident Fellow, The National Bureau of Asian Research, USADr Anit Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, South Asia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Ambassador Nirupama Rao, Former Foreign Secretary of India; Former Indian Ambassador to China, the US, and Sri Lanka.

Dr Gardner explained the historical context of Sino-India borders and highlighted two important points- missing borders and the complications brought by the claims of the other states. He believed that Sino-India border is not the mutually agreed demarcated line which caused the tragic violence on June 15 in Galwan Valley of Ladakh. He reviewed how Britishers had spent an entire century in Indian subcontinent developing mapping principles and building roads due to the fear of Russian encroachment.

They tried to insulate India from Russia and Ladakh being at crossroads lacked front role while mapping. They used limits of watersheds to map Ladakh but the process was tedious thus, historically Ladakh never had defined borders. The need for a borderline emerged when encroaching empires started demanding maps. These phenomena of historically missing borders continue till date and gave rise to second problem of continuity of claims by prior states over the territory of Ladakh. He also pointed out that India has carried the British legacy with itself as evident from the practices of road making, restrictive access to borders and surveying.

Dr. Deep Pal pointed that President of China has a couple of centenary goals to deliver to the people of China to realise the Chinese Dream. The first centenary envisages that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as emerging as a prosperous democratic society by 2021 and also the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party. By 2049, they are determined to be strong democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country under the leadership of Xi Jinping. He highlighted due to pandemic, China is being cornered by large number of countries making the achievement of China dream questionable.

China wanted to be the unquestionable leader in the current scenario. He also highlighted the strained relations between China and USA. On one hand USA has retreated from WHO and China is advancing for multilateral arrangement of Silk Road and Belt and Roads Initiative.

He warned that the PRC is spreading itself far across from its neighbourhoods and developing relations with Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives which enclosed the Indian subcontinent. In future incidence, it is possible that China may be present in all the problems India may have with its neighbours which may not in line with India interests. After the Galwan incident, India and China relations have been changed.

He also questioned the talks taking place between China and India to settle the border disputes and said India must make strong decisions. He called for policymakers to look around the world to strengthen the partnerships as evidenced by Australia in the Malabar Coast exercise. He highlighted that China had no interest in solving border issues with India and they will try to solve it in a way which works to their advantage.

Dr. Anit Mukherjee highlighted that the revocation of Article 370 had created a lot of turmoil in Beijing. He opined that China wanted to create fuss on the borders to deal with its domestic turmoil going post COVID-19. He raised several questions as whether there should a military response to the Galwan attack to restore status quo and have tit-for-tat operations?

While these could be plausible options, but escalation of the conflict remains a consistent risk. The strategic and diplomatic costs must be weighed it. India must work with the countries who share apprehensions with China. India must utilise this crises and address the system deficiencies on the borders and also speculated that India’s Infrastructure Development along the borders may have led China to deploy the troops on a large scale on Chinese borders. Perhaps setting up of a comprehensive Committee of Inquiry to address the nuances of the border conflict is the best way forward.

Ambassador Nirupama Rao highlighted that the hitherto espoused Asian Century with India and China at the core, could be a reality if these two giants of Asia would have stuck together. China has used India’s infrastructure development and excuse of India violating the border commitments along the borders as an interpretation to stir up tensions, though they themselves have engaged in expansion of their own infrastructure along the borders. Galwan situation has not been witnessed on Line of Actual control for 45 years before June 15.

Since 1993, we have using terms such as mutual and equal security, peace along the borders but these principles have been violated by China recently. She highlighted that in 1996, Article 10 of the Agreement of Confidence Building Measures posed by China talking about speeding up the clarification and confirmation on the line of actual control still remains unclarified from China as was evident by the meeting that took place in 2003 to decide the line of actual control between China and India, China jinxed up the meet and deliberations never come to fruition.

India-China is one is the longest land border in the world remains an unsettled border. The attitude of Chinese towards border disputes has always displayed negligence. They have a bloated sense of self that China has, is hurting the interests of India and India needs resistance to the advances made by China. She underscored that a war with China is not the solution but internal and external peace is to be maintained.

Ladakh comes is under the close vicinity of the areas under the activities of China. The wrong interpretation of revocation of Article 370 by Government of India have led them to create ruckus on the borders. China has improved relations with Pakistan as its ‘iron brother’ and converged their interests in targeting India. She suggested that India should continue to stand up to China as was evident by the Doklam incident in 2017.

Mutual adjustments and mutual negotiations would definitely improve the situation on the border, but it might remain a dream during Xi Jinping’s rule, as China is unrelenting and does not play by any rule. This certainly remains a cause of worry for India.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director of IMPRI and China India Visiting Scholar (CIVS) Fellow, Ashoka University and Tongji University raised questions on how India could match up to the infrastructure and economic expansion and the panellists mentioned that the strengthening relations with friends in the QUAD and also through the Blue Dot Network could prove to be very opportune. India needs to be less subtle and less hesitant in proclaiming where India’s interests lie and it can definitely afford multiple alignments to establish its rightful place in the world.

YouTube Video of Border Disputes in Sino-Indian Relations: Past, Present and Prospects

Picture Courtesy: Outlook


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

    View all posts