Chinese infrastructure as recently has been observed, shows that China continues to hold positions in areas within India’s perception of the Line of Actual Control.
Since early May, thousands of Chinese and Indian troops have been in a standoff in the Ladakh region high in the Himalayas. After reaching an agreement to de-escalate on 6 June, the mutual withdrawal of troops from the Galwan Valley went dramatically wrong on June 15, with Indian army officials reporting clashes that resulted in twenty deaths. China’s government and media have not provided casualty figures for Chinese troops, but unconfirmed Indian media reports indicated that more than forty died.
Both countries’ troops have patrolled this region for decades, as the contested 2,200-mile border is a long-standing subject of competing claims and tensions.
The Ladakh region is especially complex, with particularly unusual features. First, there is Aksai Chin, a territory that India has long claimed, but China occupies. China began building a road through the area in 1956, linking Tibet to Xinjiang, and has occupied it since 1962. There is also a territory that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963. Surveying and mapping the region’s terrain historically, as we have seen, proved immensely challenging.
Due to two books that where published in 2020, a closer look has been presented about what moved the final decision for China to attack India.
About The North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), as one of the political divisions in British India and later the Republic of India until 20 January 1972, when it became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh and some parts of Assam.
Bertil Lintner in China's India War: Collision Course
on the Roof of the World (2020), clarified why the nature of the
dispute over the NEFA is very different and distinct from that of the Ladakh
sector. Even when New Delhi extended its political and administrative hold on
this region as early as 1950, Peking did not contest these steps, other
than questioning the validity of accepting the McMahon Line. Since Peking had
never stepped into this territory beyond the Himalayas before 1962, except for
a short span of time in 1910-1911, Chinese arguments regarding the NEFA were
null and void. It seems that, in the early years, China was particularly
concerned only with dismantling the colonial tag of the
Simla Agreement (the McMahon Line of 1914) and was not interested in
staking any claim to the territory beyond the south of the Himalayas. And that
China had not proposed any arguments until the Tibet issue became strong.
Ismail Vengasseri, in his book 1962 Border War: Sino-Indian Territorial Disputes and Beyond (2020), similarly points to the Tibet issue.
Throughout the early 1950s, Peking pursued a vigorous phase of validating processes to reiterate its claim to the area by secretly constructing a road. But it was only after 1958 when the Chinese road report in Aksai Chin came to the public knowledge. The government of India's opposition pressure became stronger that New Delhi began to protest Peking’s claim to Aksai Chin. So once the conflict became apparent in this sector, China began to propose an extended territorial claim in the eastern sector (the NEFA), which was a balancing act of sorts to win a better bargain at the negotiation table. Thus, we can see a connection to China’s extended claim in the NEFA with the developments for and against Aksai Chin in the post-1958 period.
New Delhi’s efforts to make cartographic changes in its maps in the western sector had not invited any counteroffensive from the opposite side. Similarly, when China announced the opening of the Aksai Chin road (1958) and showed a significant portion of Ladakh and the NEFA as Chinese territory (1958), New Delhi’s response was limited a protest note.1
By and large, New Delhi did not emphatically stake a claim in the western sector until 1959, and Peking’s anticipated move in the NEFA was also not different. But after 1959, there was a change in the dynamics between nations. It was apparent that a strong external factor had played a role since 1955.
The larger Geostrategic contest
Particularly Vengasseri is keen to point out that the shadow presence of the CIA in the troubled Indo-China border regions and support to the Tibetan rebels in the form of money, materials, and other logistics, in addition to arms training for the rebels, are facts that have been well documented2 by reliable sources who had worked for the same objective. The CIA had already crept into the political and bureaucratic veins of India and had established itself as a determining factor within native politics3 and, as it had desired, played a role in the border dispute as well. This, naturally, was a major concern for Peking, while it did not much perturb New Delhi. In this context, the border dispute must be seen rather than a mere tussle between New Delhi and Peking. Chinese officials said, ‘China can only concentrate its main attention eastward of China, but not south- westwards of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so.’4 What does this actually mean, and what was the real context of such a statement.
The tectonic changes in Sino- Indian relations in the post-1959 period emanated not solely from their boundaries. Such a drastic change would neither be confined to minor skirmishes on the frontiers alone.
No doubt, the Panchsheel Agreement was a milestone in Sino-Indian bonhomie, and the world looked at it with great hope and admiration and had been considered Nehru's success in the Third World. However, in the Cold War's backdrop, this move was not admired in the Western world. When the World War changed global power equations, Great Britain’s weakness provided a space for the USA to position itself as a hegemonic power in the Asian continent. While the unity of the Third-World nations brought with it hope and aspirations for the newly independent colonies of Asia and Africa, Washington was against the US hegemonic aspirations in Asia. The USA's continued efforts to reach out to New Delhi were still not successful due to Nehru's policy of non-alignment. In the context of an existing post-World War Red Scare in the USA called ‘McCarthyism’ and intense indignation of Washington against Peking out of the Korean crisis brought the US attention to the Himalayas. The Tibet issue, a creation of imperialist Britain, was taken up by the USA as the potential ‘weapon’ to strike Communist China. It was tactically placed between India and China to play a larger game in the region. Washington found an existing border dispute between India and China as the entry point to intervene in the region. The USA wished to target India and China, the two most powerful nations in Asia. After signing the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement with China, Nehru focused his attention on the Non-Aligned Movement.
The 1954 treaty that had asserted mutual respect between China and India on territorial integrity issues and sovereignty wrongly assumed that both sides shared the same idea of those territories. That same year the Government of India revised its official maps that showed “undemarcated” or “undefined” borders in Ladakh to show a definite border, a composite line of the Johnson Line of 1865 and the 1899 Macartney-MacDonald Line based on no additional surveying or demarcation.5 This was, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s estimate, the simplest way of dealing with the continued borderlessness inherited from the British across much of the Himalaya. But when Bakula Rinpoche visited western Tibet in the summer of 1957, he reported to the Indian government that the Chinese military had been constructing a road across the uninhabited Aksai Chin plateau Xinjiang and Tibet. Sino-Indian relations were made even worse when, in 1959, India received the Dalai Lama, who had fled an uprising in Lhasa and was subsequently followed into exile by nearly one hundred thousand Tibetans. And a series of incidents between Indian and Chinese soldiers and officials in the northwestern and northeastern Himalaya began to push Indian public opinion against China. In 1960, Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai held meetings in an attempt to de-escalate tensions. They ended when China and India disagreed on the major watershed that defined the boundary in the western sector. Indian claims clung to the major watersheds of the Himalayas, while China’s did not.6 War broke out in October 1962.7
According to Bertil Lintner, rather than India provoking China, it could be argued that China's new communist leaders who had behaved aggressively after they seized power in 1949. In 1950, they sent thousands of troops to invade Tibet, a de facto independent nation. And argues that long before the 1962 war, China had hardened its position against Nehru and prepared itself militarily.
Today frequently quoted the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report written after the war is said to have noted that the Army General Staff had failed to apprise the government of the inability to effectively support a “forward policy” in Ladakh and the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA)—a policy largely inherited from the British.8 Whereby Lintner writes that: 'In essence, the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report states little more than that India was ill-prepared for the war and therefore unable to withstand the Chinese assault over the Himalayas. It also points out weaknesses in India’s command structure, and the lack of effective cooperation between the government and the military. It certainly does not say that India was responsible for the war, nor does it question the Forward Policy per se.'
Two months after the war’s end, on Republic Day 1963, Lata Mangeshkar brought Nehru and many others to tears singing for the first time “Aye Mere Watan Ke Lōgõ” (“Oh, People of My Country”): When the Himalaya was injured and our freedom was threatened, they fought right to the end and then they laid down their bodies … some were Sikh, some Jath, and some Maratha, some were Gurkhas and some Madrasi. But each brave man who died on the border was an Indian, the bloodshed on the mountains, that blood was Indian.
The mountainous Himalayan border (sarhad) was made Indian by the spilling of blood on it. The border was now something for which one gave one’s life. This national consecration of India's frontline added to policies that sought to establish a fixed and inviolable sense of national territory. A year earlier, for instance, Nehru had “made it a crime to question the territorial integrity of India,” as the Indian state continued to shore up its territory through the annexation of the Portuguese colony of Goa.9
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 marked the point at which, for the first time, a border was effectively established on the ground in the northwestern (and the northeastern) Himalaya. This “Line of Actual Control”—distinguished from the “Line of Control” (LOC) to the west, running through Pakistan- and Indian-occupied Kashmir—has been a source of tension ever since. In the summer of 2017,mentioned above, a months-long standoff at the Doklam plateau in the central Himalaya and a particularly violent clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers along Pangong Lake banks in Ladakh threatened to escalate into a full-scale border war between the two nuclear powers. Uncertain borderlines and the insistence on “territorial inviolability” are once again to blame. The power held by these spatial-political ideas radiates far beyond the sparsely populated and mountainous regions involved. The Himalaya continues to play a two-fold role, both as a defensive wall and a potentially dangerous conduit at the center of a decades-long Sino-Indian stand-off. Indian representations of the border dispute often paint China as the aggressor, even while acknowledging possibilities of reconciliation between the two counties.
Unlike the newly minted postcolonial “lines of control,” the general acceptance of border points had long existed in the Himalayas. Typically located on established trade and pilgrimage routes, these points served as means for signaling seasonal customs duties to be paid, or corvée labor to be given. But a complete borderline through such mountainous country came into political play only when maps and geographically based logics began to hold greater authority as tools of territorial control. This authority can be seen in the evolving colonial concept of the ideal border: a concept based on “natural” principles, implemented by scientifically sound practices and represented on increasingly classified maps, as well as in systematic manuals of governance such as the district-level gazetteers. But these principles and geographical practices ultimately produced more confusion than solutions. Each proposed line failed to establish a border until the unilateral Chinese ceasefire on 21 November 1962.
The vast space of the uninhabited and inhospitable corner of the northwestern Tibetan Plateau now generally referred to as the Akai Chin was thus anything but empty. It has become an intimate part of the spatial self-conception of India. However, it has become a specific place only to the unfortunate soldiers tasked with maintaining a presence there. In this sense, then, the region remains a utopia (literally: “no place”), a spatial idea off-limits to all but a few military personnel, but highly visible in the geospatial imaginary of India.
Rendered on maps that no longer showed indeterminate borderlessness, the region that once formed the center of a vast cultural and commercial network was, by the end of 1962, a borderland by the imposition of a de facto borderline. Despite repeated attempts to articulate a scientific and precise rationale based on the Indus watershed, the “Line of Actual Control” fails to reflect any particular geographical principle. There was no linear path to producing this borderland, but instead a series of ideas of how peripheral political space ought to be organized through the region's natural features. While these ideas proved rather futile in shaping the Line of Actual Control, they were potent in shaping a worldview that viewed international politics as a competition between abutting territories determined by, and dependent on, geography. It is one of the great ironies of the history of frontiers and border making that the mountainous laboratory that seemed to offer such a clear means of defining a “natural” frontier should instead consistently fail to yield a legible border. Holdich’s “finest natural combination of boundary and barrier” had proven to be anything but.10
By placing mountainous, sparsely populated, and increased peripheral spaces like Ladakh and the North-East Frontier Agency on the frontline of government policy, the Indian government was following established imperial practices.
First, India's government maintained the importance of the idea of the border as a sine qua non of territory. The border, with its security risks and threats of foreign penetration, became a frontline. As the outline of the geo-body of the nascent independence state, the borders enclosing the territory claimed by India became quickly tied to swelling nationalism. Unlike the managed frontiers and borders of the British Empire—which tolerated a degree of ambiguity— the nation-state's borders were essential constitutive elements of the nation-state. Borders became something to die for. The violation of India's geo-body in its two remote Himalayan extremities in the Sino-Indian War had a deep impact on India’s sense of nation. It is an often-repeated saying that when Nehru died in 1964, he died of a broken heart over India’s humiliating defeat and loss of territory to China.
Second, the geopolitical calculus that brought Ladakh to Nehru’s attention was the product of decades of practices surrounding transforming frontiers into borders. By the end of the nineteenth century, individual frontiers had become integrated—in policy rhetoric at least— into a single “frontier policy.” Gazetteers continued to be one of the district's principal information tools- and state-level governance following independence. Border roads have become so explicitly tied to security concerns that the Border Roads Organization exclusively manages them, a branch of the Indian Ministry of Defense. And border maps are highly regulated. These practices rooted in the colonial era were bequeathed to India and have formed the basis of its approach to its borders for decades.
And so what about today?
Since 1962, both India and China have invested huge military resources in assuring that this desolate region once only crossed by traders and pilgrims is now occupied by thousands of soldiers facing off across a line whose only logic lies in an appeal to a vague colonial description from a series of equally vague maps. Today, taken as a fractured whole, Jammu and Kashmir State represents one of the most militarized spaces in the world—“the vulnerable neck and head of India,” as one political commentator recently put it.11 This body metaphor is particularly telling considering the frequency with which maps are conflated with bodies.
There is no clear reason exactly why tensions have escalated now to their worst in decades, with the first fatalities in forty-five years. And New Delhi and Beijing hold very different views of what happened the night of June 15. India pointed to “premeditated” Chinese action that “reflected an intent to change the facts on the ground in violation of all our agreements not to change the status quo.” China said that “Indian frontline border forces openly broke the consensus reached.”
China’s moves are hard to gauge, and as scholars have noted, India’s options are limited. Modi said in his 17 June 2020 address that India’s “sovereignty is supreme,” indicating that accepting a territorial shift in China’s favor likely will not be his next step. But looking for conflict at a time of economic downturn and still-rising coronavirus cases is not a good option, either. New Delhi will likely assess other nonmilitary policy options. The blanket calls to boycott Chinese products have gained some mass appeal in India. Still, the government may take further steps, such as increasing scrutiny on inbound investment from China, similar to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) review process. India recently announced review procedures for foreign investment from “neighboring” countries, and this net could expand further. China is a source of investment in some of India’s top start-ups. And press reports have already identified forthcoming restrictions on Chinese equipment in India’s large and growing telecom sector, including a likely ban on Chinese companies’ involvement in building 5G infrastructure.
Despite long-standing border tensions, the two giants have significant multilateral cooperation, including through alternate global institutions created over the past decade. The BRICS bloc, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in which India is the second-largest capital contributor; the New Development Bank; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which India recently joined, have all been arenas for cooperation despite the countries’ ongoing security competition. But with escalating security tensions, New Delhi may reexamine its level of interaction in other areas.
Nevertheless, the Chinese PLA incursions in eastern Ladakh and the massive military build-up by both sides currently resulted in the most explosive situation on the LAC in over 50 years.
There have been multiple attempts at disengagement and de-escalation on the disputed border, but the political and military talks—the last one was held on 6 Nov. —have been futile. The Chinese have refused to restore the pre-May status quo in Ladakh, where they now control an additional 600 square miles of territory.
Indian and Chinese battle tanks are positioned only a few yards apart at standoff sites, while more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies remain deployed at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 feet, where temperatures can dip to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, New Delhi has chosen a path of levying economic punishments, such as the banning of Chinese-origin apps and restricting Chinese participation in government procurement. But India’s limited economic leverage over China has rendered these measures relatively ineffective. Even though New Delhi made certain bold military moves on its side of the so-called Line of Actual Control—the de facto border—in late August, it has been careful to avoid any serious military escalation or initiate a limited war with Beijing. As South Asia’s worst-performing economy in 2020, India is not in a position to bear the cost of a military conflict. As South Asia’s worst-performing economy in 2020, India is not in a position to bear the cost of a military conflict. A war with China would also force India to discard its long-standing policy of strategic autonomy, as New Delhi would have to make the politically unpalatable choice of openly allying with Washington.
Having ruled out a quick resolution through conflict, India’s only viable option has been to go for a long and drawn-out border standoff against the Chinese.
And according to a recent article in Foreign Policy: In off-the-record conversations, Indian officials accept that a diplomatic solution to the Ladakh crisis is unlikely because of how the two countries have different understandings of the status quo. These officials consider the army’s performance and sustenance through this winter as the critical factor for their plans to deal with Chinese aggression in Ladakh. They contend that if the Indian soldiers manage to get through the next few months relatively unscathed, New Delhi will have found an answer to its troubles with Beijing.
In part one we see how mapmaking by both the British and the Chinese showed the growing concerns over-penetration from beyond the frontier by transfrontier groups, the need to gather and restrict trans-frontier information, and the imperial preoccupation of determining the lines that would mark the imperial perimeter reflected a broader change in how geography and the state functioned together.
In part two we detail how the legacies of the 1962 war continue to shape our perceptions.
1. Note to the Counsellor of China in India by MEA, 21 August 1958 (White Paper, 1954-1959), 46.
2. Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet, 2002.
3. L Natarajan , American Shadow over India, 1956.
4. Statement Made by the Chinese Ambassador to the Foreign Secretary, 16 May 1959 (White Paper I, New Delhi: MEA).
5. Lamb, The Sino-Indian Border in Ladakh. 70.
6. See Woodman, Himalayan Frontiers: A Political Review of British, Chinese, Indian, and Russian Rivalries.
7. For the history leading up to the Sino-Indian War, see, for instance also: Lamb, The China-India Border: The Origins of the Disputed Boundaries., Asian Frontiers: Studies in a Continuing Problem (New York, Washington, and London: Frederick A. Raeger, 1968), and The Sino-Indian Border in Ladakh (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1973); Fisher, Rose, and Huttenback, Himalayan Battleground: Sino-Indian Rivalry in Ladakh; Woodman, Himalayan Frontiers: A Political Review of British, Chinese, Indian, and Russian Rivalries; Maxwell, India’s China War; John Lall, Aksaichin and Sino-Indian Conflict (Ahmedabad: Allied Publishers, 1989).
8. The first volume of the report was published on the personal website of the Australian journalist Neville Maxwell, who had used much of the leaked document to write his 1970 book, India’s China War. Whereby Lintner counters this by writing that: I came to realize that Maxwell’s version of the events leading up to the 1962 War did not stand up to any serious scrutiny. First of all, Nehru’s Forward Policy, which was designed to secure the entire Sino-Indian frontier from Ladakh in the west to the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA; an administrative unit under the government of Assam and now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) in the east, was decided upon at a meeting in New Delhi on 2 November 1961, less than a year before the war. Nehru chaired the session, which was also attended by Defence Minister Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, head of the Intelligence Bureau, Bhola Nath Mullik, Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai, and the then newly appointed Army Chief of Staff, General Pran Nath Thapar.
9. The quote is from Pankaj Mishra, “India at 70, and the Passing of Another Illusion,” The New York Times, August 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/11/opinion/india-70-partitionpankaj-mishra.html?_r=0.
10. Thomas Holdich, Political Frontiers and Boundary Making,1916, 280.
11. Saba Naqvi, “One Point Five/Two: Jharkhand Has Been Mined, Jammu-Kashmir Is Still a Prospect,” Outlook, January 12, 2015, 18. 57 As Joya Chatterji has noted regarding Partition, surgical metaphors are often invoked to describe the territorial changes to the “geobody” of the anthropomorphic nation.