The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between China and India remains the longest disputed land on earth. The longevity of the clash gets reflected once again as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament on Tuesday (13 December) that the Indian Army has withstood China’s attempt to change the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh, pushing back People’s Liberation Army forces involved in the incursion attempt. The standoff between both armies escalates very frequently and the precursor lies in the history of border demarcation.
The conflict stretches back to at least 1914, when representatives from Britain, and the Republic of China gathered in Shimla to negotiate a treaty that would effectively settle the borders between China and India. In the meanwhile, Tibet delegates were also present in determining the autonomy of their own state. However, Chinese walking out of the proposed terms, India and Tibet signed a treaty establishing what would be called the McMahon Line, named after a British colonial official, Henry MacMohan, who proposed the border. The McMahon Line, a 550-mile border that runs through the Himalayas, is maintained by India as the recognised legal border between China and India, but China has never accepted it.
After independence both the country signed the Panchsheel agreement in 1954 which remained a guiding principle for both nations in order to enforce friendly relations. Despite this, a brief war in 1962 broke out due to the same border issues after which both nations again signed several bilateral agreements. However, the status quo of the LAC remains disputed which is divided into three segments; the western sector from the Karakorampass to Mount Gya, along Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin; the middle sector from Mount Gya to the border with Nepal, which is the least contested part of the border; the eastern sector, also known as the McMahon line, along the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the Indian side. This sector also includes the border between Sikkim and Tibet.
Formally, both countries claim substantial territory held by the opposing party. The Indian claim to Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin, a 40,000-square-kilometer highland, was a key cause of the 1962 brief conflict. This almost deserted plateau serves as a critical link between the Chinese autonomous areas of Tibet and Xinjiang. In turn, China claims 80,000 square kilometres of Arunachal Pradesh, which it temporarily held during the 1962 conflict. Some predict that if India waives or significantly changes its claim to Aksai Chin, China will recognise the McMahon line as its border. Other commentators feel that India intends to maintain the status quo, a position that China does not share.
The Siliguri corridor is 130 kilometres from the Sikkim border in the eastern sector. This short swath of territory connects India’s North-Eastern states with the rest of the country. The Doklam stalemate in 2017 was prompted by planned Chinese road projects, which India saw as a danger to this corridor.
The borderland is rich in mineral reserves, and various mines are being developed or investigated. The Aksai Chin has one of the world’s greatest zinc-lead deposits, which is currently being readied for extraction. China began large-scale gold and silver mining investments in Lhünzê County, fifty kilometres north of the McMahon line. Another consideration is the usage of hydroelectric electricity in the future. The McMahon line passes across the Brahmaputra river valley, where both China and India intend to build big hydropower plants.
China and India also have tight economic links and would profit from a border settlement, but they are also the region’s two biggest nations and political competitors. The debate is characterised by a dynamic of collaboration and conflict, which is typical of competitor nations’ political relations. In recent years, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping have developed close personal ties. Following the Galwan standoff in 2020. However, the Tawang incident has been a political blow for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most committed to India’s territorial unity. The responses from the Home Minister and Defence Minister clearly show that India remains clear on its historical demarcation of the borderline which will again provide a setback for China this time too.