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India in Transition

Resolving the Sino-Indian Boundary Dispute

Srinath Raghavan
July 5, 2009

As India’s new foreign minister settles into office, a major issue demanding his attention will be the boundary negotiations with China. These negotiations began with the appointment of Special Representatives in 2003 and two years later, the two sides agreed on “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles” for settling the dispute. Despite thirteen rounds of discussions, an agreement seems as elusive as ever. The key point of contention is China’s claim to the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh. The parameters agreed upon in 2005 state that the final settlement “shall safeguard due interest of their settled populations in the border areas.” This suggests that populated areas such as Tawang would not be up for bargaining, and yet, Beijing persists with its claims on Tawang.

What then, are the prospects for the resolution of this dispute – one that poses the greatest obstacle to normalization of relations between the Asian giants? To understand China’s stance, it would be useful to view the dispute from a historical perspective.

In April 1960, the prime ministers of China and India met in New Delhi to discuss the boundary issue. Zhou Enlai indicated that if India accepted China’s claims in the western sector (Ladakh and Aksai Chin), they would adopt a reasonable stance on the McMahon Line boundary in the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh). Beijing, he clarified, could not accept the McMahon Line, but could agree to a slightly different boundary.

China’s position in this sector stemmed from two factors. Having earlier denounced the McMahon Line as a relic of British imperialism, the Chinese government faced considerable domestic opposition to accepting it. More importantly, the McMahon Line was the product of the Simla Convention of 1914, where Tibetan delegates had participated alongside British Indian and Chinese representatives. Accepting the McMahon Line would be tantamount to acknowledging that Tibet had then enjoyed some sort of independent status – a point that would buttress the Dalai Lama’s case for an independent Tibet.

The parts of the eastern sector where the Chinese evinced interest were “grey areas.” These lay north of the McMahon Line as marked in the maps of 1914, but were actually south of the highest range of mountains (watershed) in the sector. The Indian government insisted that the McMahon Line was meant to follow the watershed and should be interpreted as such.

Jawaharlal Nehru rejected Zhou’s attempt to club together the eastern and western sectors and called for a sector-by-sector examination of claims. In the western sector, Beijing not only claimed Aksai Chin but also areas south and south-west of the region. Although the Chinese had moved forward and occupied some of these parts in 1959, they were not in control of the entire area they had claimed. Indeed, China occupied all of this area only after the war of October to November 1962. 

When talks on the dispute were revived in the 1980s, New Delhi stuck to the position of sector-wise negotiations. The assumption was that once China acceded to India's position in the east, it would politically be easier for the Indian government to make concessions in the west. Domestic politics also mandated that India should secure China’s withdrawal from the three thousand square miles in Ladakh, annexed in 1962, as the government could not afford to be seen as acquiescing in the gains of war.

China agreed to this approach, but began emphasizing its claims over Arunachal Pradesh, particularly the Tawang area. Although this area lay south of the McMahon Line, it had not been controlled by the British Raj and continued to have ecclesiastical ties with Tibet. It was only in 1951 that the Indian government extended its administrative reach to Tawang.

In laying claim to this area, Beijing’s calculations were straightforward. If concessions in one sector would not be linked to gains in another, it made sense to adopt a maximalist negotiating position on each sector. Besides, the earlier considerations persisted as the Dalai Lama’s campaign for independence seemed to have gathered momentum; the Tibetan leader was increasingly active on international forums.

The negotiations that commenced in 2003 departed from the previous attempts in important respects. India assented to the idea of a comprehensive package settlement, encompassing all the sectors. Further, the two sides agreed to work towards a political agreement, eschewing excessive focus on historical claims. The parameters of 2005 took into account the positions of both parties and sought to reconcile them. Delhi needed a Chinese withdrawal by at least three thousand square miles in the western sector; Beijing sought some concessions in the eastern sector. Indian leaders have repeatedly stated that uprooting settled populations would be unacceptable.

China’s continued claims to Tawang reflect two considerations: First, Tawang is its strongest bargaining chip for territorial adjustments. Beijing seeks not only to obtain some concessions south of the watershed in this sector, but also to avoid having to forsake too much in the western sector. Second, in exchange for giving up their claims to Tawang, the Chinese evidently want India to provide some tangible reassurance vis-à-vis Tibet.

China’s hardening stance on Tawang mirrors its increasing concern about Tibet. The protests in the run up to the Olympics heightened these concerns. The Defense White Paper released last year notes that Tibetan separatism is a major challenge for China. In tackling this problem, the Chinese believe that time is their best ally. Once the Dalai Lama passes on, Beijing will be in a position to appoint his successor, and so neutralize the Tibetan problem. But their success in this attempt also hinges on their ability to cut to size the Tibetan émigré movement, with the most important target in this regard being the Tibetan government-in-exile operating out of India.

Established in the early 1960s, the government-in-exile has ramified into a sizeable organization. The Indian government has not recognized the government-in-exile and has declared that it does not permit the organization to undertake political activities. But the Chinese are not convinced of New Delhi’s sincerity. As Premier Wen Jiabao stated last year, Tibet remains a “sensitive” issue in China’s relationship with India.

In fact, China’s suspicion of India’s support to Tibetan dissidents goes back to the late 1950s. The evidence now emerging from Chinese archives shows that this misperception was a crucial factor in China’s decision to go to war in 1962. Thus, as part of a settlement, China appears to seek some move by India to curb the Tibetan émigrés – possibly by dissolving the parliament-in-exile.

Notwithstanding the current impasse, the dispute can be resolved if both sides are willing to make sensible compromises. India has space to make concessions in the unpopulated areas in the east; China can relinquish some territory in the west. Similarly, New Delhi can provide robust reassurances on Tibet without having to entirely fulfill Beijing’s desires.

Striking an accord on these lines will take time. Furthermore, selling the agreement in the domestic political market is unlikely to be simple. A boundary agreement will require a constitutional amendment, which will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and by at least half the state legislatures.

The present government has the requisite political clout to settle this decades-old dispute. The question remains: does it have the will?      

Srinath Raghavan is Associate Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.He can be reached at


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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