Aksai Chin

From Johnson Line to Macdonald Line

Bishaldeep Kakati & Bagmita Borthakur

India-China border dispute traces its roots to the colonial period in India. And the major reason behind the continuing conflict is regarding areas covering the borders of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

According to the treaty of Amritsar (1846), the British recognised Raja Gulab Singh as the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir including the area of Ladakh. William Johnson, a British surveyor, surveyed the region and incorporated Aksai Chin into the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This demarcated boundary line was later came to be known as the Johnson line. However, the British revised the borders again and this time they put Aksai Chin on the Chinese side, and this line came to be known as the Macartney Macdonald line.

The exit of British from India marked the end of the colonial rule leading to the formation of two new independent nations in the form of India and Pakistan and this led to the start of a fresh dispute between the newly formed sovereign countries as both of them asserted their claim of whole of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. India’s claim in relation to the princely state was based on the accession pact which was signed by its last ruler with New Delhi while Pakistan’s claim was based on the Muslim majority population in the state. After all India was divided on the basis of religious-communal basis. However, China’s dispute regarding this matter was distinctively different as China insisted on the Macartney-Macdonald line to be the ‘legitimate’ border while India would like to stick to the Johnson line that marked India’s border with China in that region as per the first survey conducted by the British authorities. Thus Aksai Chin remains a bone of contention and it will likely to remain so indefinitely unless both sides show flexibility in demarcating the contentious border.

 Meanwhile, a significant event that took place was the border agreement between China and Pakistan and border issues between Pakistan and China were resolved as both the countries regarded Macartney-Macdonald line to be the legitimate border, and this allowed Pakistan to agree to the concept of Chinese sovereignty over the disputed territories, including Aksai Chin. India refused to recognise the de facto Chinese control and rule in that area and Pakistan’s right to negotiate with China by virtue of its illegal occupation part of Kashmir–POK or what the Pakistanis call Azad Kashmir. There have been repeated border skirmishes between India and China over the years as both sides continue to claim Aksai Chin to be theirs.

After invasion of Tibet by PLA, China built a road in that particular jurisdiction, leading to protests in India and with the Dalai Lama taking refuge in India and forming a Tibetan Government in exile headquartered in Shimla, China blamed it on India for anti-China activities which ultimately culminated in India-China war of 1962 and the consequence of that particular war was India losing some of its territories to China while China strengthened its control in Aksai Chin. In truth India was not aware of the hard reality that China was engaged in all-weather road construction in that region since the fifties when Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai slogan was in the air!

History speaks loud that the base of India-China conflict is still the unclear demarcation of borders, while China’s expansionist governance and India’s political instability in the initial post-independence years, complicated the boundary question. Competition still exists between both the countries in building infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the construction made by India of a new road at high altitude can be regarded as one of the major factors behind the deadly confrontation between the two countries in 2020. Another face off was recorded in January 2021 which resulted in injuries of soldiers from both the countries and the event occurred in the state of Sikkim, adjacent to Bhutan and Nepal borders. A lot of deliberation and talks ensured that both sides did not engage into any clash for more than a year till another clash very recently happened near the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh.

Engagement in clashes can be deadly and catastrophic as both are established nuclear powers and a fall-out would also mean economic degradation for China because India still remains one of the biggest trading partners of China despite strained bilateral relations.

De-escalation of confrontation is a notion that countries across the globe accept to follow to normalise ties and the same should apply for India and China as well. And as such, both the countries need to operate with a new modus operandi to solve the border dispute-- a legacy left by history. To bring in normalcy it is desirable that a new set of rules must be established to manage the LAC. In this regard, a few radical steps may be adopted in the form of No Patrol Zones. They basically mean disengagement of troops in areas where both sides have been in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation since 1962. In fact no patrolling zones have already been established in Galwan and Pangong Tso and additionally, more such zones can be established in areas such as Depsang and Kugrang where the Chinese frequently block the access of the Indians, to ward off the threat of war. Since no patrolling zone means disallowing troops from either side, for a certain length of time, it can come handy in the case of India and China where both the countries are struggling with a shifting boundary called LAC. Another solution to the escalating border dispute between India and China can be found in the statement given by a Chinese Scholar Qian Feng in FORCE. Feng commented about replacing the concept of the line of actual control with the concept of zone of control and adopt the method of delimiting the disputed 'border belt' in question which does not involve population adjustment, and thereby going beyond the traditional concept of a 'border line'.

Some kind of normalcy can also be expected regarding the border dispute if the Chinese government does not resort to their expansionist mind-set in an exaggerated manner and not look at their ties with India through the prism of its relations with third countries. This idea of asking China not to look at their ties with India keeping in mind third country relations was forwarded by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar at a meeting between him and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the sidelines of the SCO Ministerial meeting at Dushnabe.

As much as it is difficult to predict China’s way forward, keeping in mind its opaque geo-political strategies as an Asian power, it is high time for India, as a growing counterpart to tackle the issue diplomatically by moving ahead with non-traditional approach of controlling the borders. In the present context, one cannot also deny the co-existing nature of India-China relations in terms of trading as well as balance of power in Asian sub-continent. Thus, India-China conflicts can never be solved through war, but only through mutual negotiations, and if required even by going astray from the conventional ways of solving border disputes.

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 30, Jan 22 - 28, 2023