What is it about the nature of the India-China conflict that defies resolution?

Sixty years on from 1962, having forged various peace settlements, the two countries are back to sporadic conflict on the border, still wrangling for every inch of land

November 21, 2022 12:28 pm | Updated 12:59 pm IST

In this 2012 photo, an Indian soldier keeps watch at Bumla Pass on the India-China border in Arunachal.

In this 2012 photo, an Indian soldier keeps watch at Bumla Pass on the India-China border in Arunachal. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sixty years ago, on November 21, 1962, China declared a unilateral ceasefire to end the India-China war. For much of the time since then, the two countries have tried to arrive at a lasting peace, but this has eluded them. Today, the India-China relationship is once again at a new low, avoiding war but regrettably inventing new ways of confrontation.

Most recently, on June 15, 2020, 20 Indian soldiers, including an officer of the rank of colonel, died at the hands of soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Galwan sector in eastern Ladakh. The Indian soldiers were patrolling the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to maintain their claim on the boundary. This was the first armed clash between the two militaries since 1975 and underscored the fragility of the peace that had prevailed.

Such a long history

The first ever armed clash between the PLA and Indian armed forces took place in August 1959, when two personnel of 9 Assam Rifles were killed at Longju in the Subansiri Frontier Division in Arunachal Pradesh while patrolling the boundary to establish claim lines. 

Also read | Explained | The disengagement plan between India and China along the LAC

This disputed boundary has remained at the heart of India-China relations since then. And the convention of marking the territory through physical presence has been the trigger for violent clashes.

The escalating spiral of border clashes after Longju led India and China to fight a border war in 1962. A period of quiet following the war created the climate for boundary talks. However, differing perceptions of the LAC meant the border remained contested, with patrols repeatedly jostling over metres of territory. Through the years of dialogue, intermittent skirmishes at Tulung La and Sumdorong Chu (both in Arunachal Pradesh) have shattered the peace.

After China’s intrusion across Sumdorong Chu valley  in 1986-87, soldiers from both armies stood eyeball to eyeball for months. That episode, it seemed, made both sides realise the importance of ensuring a stable border. As a consequence, in December 1988, Rajiv Gandhi became the first Indian Prime Minister in 34 years to travel to Beijing for talks with China. 

Over the decades, India and China have negotiated and signed five major confidence-building agreements aimed at holding the peace on the border. These include the September 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas. This was followed by the November 1996 Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas. In April 2005 there was another agreement, Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas .

These were followed by two agreements in the area of border management: the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, signed in January 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, signed in October 2013.

While India and China have not actually gone to war, these agreements have failed to keep the LAC calm. In April 2013 there was a three-week-long standoff at Depsang, Ladakh. This was followed by a 16-day face-off at Chumar, Ladakh in September 2014; and then by a tense 73-day confrontation at Doklam, in Bhutan, in June-August 2017.

In the 1990s, the Indian Army had identified 12 places on the Ladakh stretch of the LAC where the two sides have differing perceptions of its alignment. These are: Samar Lungpa, Depsang bulge, Point 6556, Changlung Nala, Kongka La, Pangong Tso north bank, Spanggur Tso, Mount Sajun, Dumchele, Chumar, Demchok and Trig Heights.

Resistance to Chinese expansionism 

Since then, underscoring India’s resistance to China’s growing expansionism, five more such points have been added to the list. These are the areas around Kilometer-120 in the Galwan Valley, Patrolling Point (PP) 15 in Hot Springs, Patrolling Point 17A in the Gogra area (both PPs are north of Pangong Tso), and Rechin La and Rezang La on the south bank of Pangong Tso.

Also read | What explains China’s actions at the Line of Actual Control? | In Focus podcast

Yet, through decades of talks, peace has not been sustained. The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs has held 25 meetings. The Special Representatives-level border mechanism has held 22 rounds of talks. The current stalemate in ending the standoff in eastern Ladakh continues even after 16 rounds of talks between senior military commanders.

The most recent (July 17, 2022)  joint statement after the 16th round of talks, which lasted over 12 hours, at the Chushul-Moldo border said: “The two sides agreed to stay in close contact and maintain dialogue through military and diplomatic channels and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest.”

Nature of the conflict

It is difficult to pinpoint what it is about the nature of the conflict that it defies resolution. Is it because neither side believes there is a rationale for a settlement given the political capital required to reach a settlement, the give-and-take? Or is it that the existing format of negotiations between nations doesn’t cater for the unique conflict India and China have? 

Unique because it consists of not just territorial claims, but elements of diverging historical legacy. Some analysts believe that Beijing deliberately avoids a settlement in order to keep India off balance and preoccupied with the border, so as to divert its attention from a vulnerable Tibet.

For India, after Independence, the entrenched British legacy for consolidation of territories meant defining borders as they were inherited. China, on the other hand, was rejecting colonial borders and harking back to periods in its history in which it exercised control over Tibet, albeit episodically. This was a far from peaceful process and was, in fact, actively resisted through rebellions and uprisings and the process continues to this day. The McMahon Line, as the British demarcated the India-China border, has been a casualty of this diversion.

Also read | What explains the India-China border flare-up?

That China became a Communist state and India followed the path of democracy further deepened the divide. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali this month during the G20 summit, it had taken the two leaders three years to even acknowledge each other publicly. In September 2022 in Samarkand the two leaders stood next to each other without exchanging a word. They last held a bilateral summit in 2019 in Brazil on the sidelines of a BRICS summit. The ongoing Ladakh standoff on the LAC that began in April 2020 and led to the carnage in Galwan has brought the ties between India and China to a stalemate.

The more things change

India-China ties today appear to be following a path predicted by Vallabhbhai Patel in a November 7, 1950 letter to Jawaharlal Nehru. Referring to the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Patel said, “That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements,” on which India had been functioning and acting for the half century before that. 

The Galwan clashes have shattered the complacency between the two sides that disputed boundaries can be maintained peacefully in perpetuity through mechanisms of one sort or another. 

At the end of 60 years, having tried all these peace settlements that have not worked, we are back to conflict on the border, with the two sides still wrangling for every inch of land. This simmering territorial conflict is reminiscent of that cold November in 1962. As we mark another anniversary of the end of hostilities, if nothing gives, we could be looking at another 60 years of a fraught peace.

Sonia Trikha Shukla is Professor of Practice at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

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