The clash between China and India along the disputed border in the harsh Himalayan terrain of Galwan Valley on 15 June was the most violent encounter in decades. The high-altitude melee is part of an old dispute between the two nuclear powers over their Himalayan borders, of which there is no mutual recognition. The two governments have different and conflicting ideas about the location of their ‘historic’ borders as well as of the Line of Actual Control, namely a demarcation line created after the 1962 war to supposedly ease tensions.
While the immediate causes of the recent frictions are border infrastructure projects developed at different levels by both China and India, the long-term reasons why the borders remain contested today can be better appreciated by looking at the Sino-Indian war and at the events that led up to it.
The relations between independent India and the People’s Republic of China were formally very friendly since their beginning. India did not object to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and officially recognised as legitimate the Chinese claims over the Himalayan region through a bilateral treaty. Delhi, being one of the main promotors of the Non-Aligned Movement, also played an active role in inviting China to the Bandung Conference in 1955.
A major problem, however, loomed large over these seemingly good relations. The two Asian countries in fact shared undefined and unmarked frontiers along the Indo-Tibetan frontier, inherited by India when it attained independence from the British Raj.
The colonial rulers had tried, unsuccessfully, to fix the borders in the impervious region. Their efforts concerned two sectors of the frontier between India and Tibet. In the western sector, where Ladakh borders Tibet and Xinjiang, the intention to set a border near the Karakoram range was never formalised. In the eastern sector, the so-called McMahon line, running from Bhutan to Burma and separating the Tibetan plateau from India’s northeast, was proposed by British officers in 1914 but refused by both Tibetan and Chinese authorities. Nevertheless, by the 1930s, it started appearing as the official border in several English maps of colonial India, even though the terrain was unmarked and therefore the border line remained legally disputable. Such colonial-bureaucratic assignment of territory influenced the geographical conceptualization of the national space in post-independence India.
In the 1950s, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made very expansive claims to the newly formed nation’s borders in both the eastern and western sectors. Consequently, official maps of India included not only the territory encompassed by the McMahon line, but also most part of the Aksai Chin. This plateau, surrounded on three sides by Ladakh but strategically vital for China’s access to Tibet, was never clearly claimed even by the British colonialists. India’s territorial claims, which according to Nehru were based on ‘historical’ justifications, were made unilaterally by Delhi, despite the fact that previous agreements with Beijing established that border disputes had to be settled bilaterally.
While keeping an overall accommodating stand towards Delhi’s assertions, Beijing started to consolidate its position in the Aksai Chin through the development of a road that was of crucial importance for control over Tibet. When, in 1958, the Indian government became aware of the Chinese project, it reacted with an increasingly provocative and aggressive patrolling along the contested border in both the western and eastern sectors. Although the Chinese authorities took a fence-sitting attitude and offered a diplomatic resolution of the dispute, Indians continued to adamantly carry out their patrol policy. Without realising the dangerousness of his actions, Nehru failed to adequately prepare for war both from a military point of view and from that of foreign policy. When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army eventually decided to respond in October 1962, it took them little more than a month to deal the Indian army a humiliating defeat, which remains to date a painful humiliation in India’s collective memory.
The end of the war, after Zhou Enlai’s unilateral ceasefire, established that India possessed the disputed eastern sector and China the disputed western one. Albeit not ratified by any official joint agreement, this status quo has been in place ever since 1962, with tensions ratcheting up from time to time, especially when the broader relationship between the two countries deteriorates.
Besides border uncertainty, another noteworthy legacy of the Sino-Indian conflict is the conviction, firmly espoused and popularised by Nehru, that since India has existed as a nation for millennia, its borders are immutable and unquestionably valid. This conviction, which can be traced back to the initial stages of the anticolonial movement at the end of the nineteenth century, has become a deep-rooted principle in Delhi’s foreign policy and keeps on influencing the political discourse while making it difficult to critically assess the official narrative of ‘historical’ national borders. Moreover, it has flowed from the political to the cultural level. In fact, people in India have been easily mobilised around the view of borders as inviolable safeguards to protect the integrity of the ‘sacred’ national territory, whereas China – like India’s sworn enemy Pakistan – has been depicted as a constant threat by Indian media, a country whose word cannot be trusted, something which has been seen also after the latest clash.
All this considered, and against the backdrop of the current health and economic crisis, it remains to be seen whether India’s political leaders will brave the deep anti-Chinese sentiments and work towards building a constructive relationship with Beijing or whether they will stoke nationalism and raise tensions in the name of short-term political gains. In case of doubts, the significant military power gap with China should provide the right answer. But it is still too early to judge whether the Sino-Indian war stands as a lesson.