India-China Conflict – Background

On assuming power in 1949, the People‘s Republic of China (PRC) renounced all prior foreign agreements as unequal treaties imposed upon it during the “century of humiliation” and demanded renegotiation of all borders. The Sino-India border remains the only major territorial dispute, other than South China Sea disputes, that China has not resolved. China‘s growing assertiveness in its territorial claims, especially on Arunachal Pradesh, and its relentless development of infrastructure in Tibet will shape the prospects of Sino-India relations.

The territory stretching from the jungles of northern Myanmar, westward to the Karakoram Range, and northward to the edge of the Tibetan plateau can be seen as a single geopolitical system referred to as the Himalayan-Tibetan massif. The ruggedness of this terrain makes movement of men and materiel extremely difficult, thus preventing Indian and Chinese civilizations from intermingling or projecting military power in these remote areas effectively. Not until 1962 did the Chinese and Indian armies fight each other over these desolate heights, thus altering the geopolitics of the region significantly.

The McMahon Line boundary dispute is at the heart of relations between China and India. China has land and sea boundary issues with 14 neighbors, mostly for historical reasons. The Chinese have two major claims on what India deems its own territory. One claim, in the western sector, is on Aksai Chin in the northeastern section of Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir. The other claim is in the eastern sector over a region included in the British-designated North-East Frontier Agency, the disputed part of which India renamed Arunachal Pradesh and made a state. In the fight over these areas in 1962, the well-trained and well-armed troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army overpowered the ill-equipped Indian troops, who had not been properly acclimatized to fighting at high altitudes.

In the early 20th Century Britain sought to advance its line of control and establish buffer zones around its colony in South Asia. In 1913-1914 representatives of China, Tibet and Britain negotiated a treaty in India: the Simla Convention. Sir Henry McMahon, the foreign secretary of British India at the time, drew up the 550 mile (890 km) McMahon Line as the border between British India and Tibet during the Simla Conference. The so-called McMahon Line, drawn primarily on the highest watershed principle, demarcated what had previously been unclaimed or undefined borders between Britain and Tibet. The McMahon line moved British control substantially northwards. The Tibetan and British representatives at the conference agreed to the line, which ceded Tawang and other Tibetan areas to the imperial British Empire. However the Chinese representative refused to accept the line. Peking claimed territory in this far north down to the border of the plain of Assam.

The land is mostly mountainous with Himalayan ranges along the northern borders criss-crossed with mountain ranges running north-south. These divide the state into five river valleys: the Kameng, the Subansiri, the Siang, the Lohit and the Tirap. High mountains and dense forests have prevented intercommunication between tribes living in different river valleys. The geographical isolation thus imposed has led different tribes to elove their own dialects and grow with their distinct identities. Nature has endowed the Arunachal people with a deep sense of beauty which finds delightful expression in their songs, dances and crafts.

A slow forward move towards the McMahon Line was begun on the ground, to establish a new de facto boundary. The McMahon Line was then forgotten until about 1935 when the British government decided to publish the documents in the 1937 edition of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties. The NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) was created in 1954. On 7 November 1959, Chou En-lai proposed that both sides should withdraw their troops twenty kilometers from the McMahon line. The issue was quiet during the decade of cordial Sino-Indian relations, but erupted again during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. During the 1962 war, the PRC captured most of the NEFA. However, China soon declared victory and voluntarily withdrew back to the McMahon Line.

China is in occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. kms of Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, under the so-called China-Pakistan “Boundary Agreement” of 1963, Pakistan ceded 5,180 sq. kms. of Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China. China claims approximately 90,000 sq. kms. of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and about 2000 sq. kms. in the Middle Sector of the India-China boundary. Beijing has stated that it does not recognise Arunachal Pradesh.

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