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The author, a retired Lieutenant-General of the Indian army who has served extensively in India’s North East and in Arunachal Pradesh, explains the causes of the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations, and he recommends a slate of measures both sides can take to restore normalcy. Both nations must harmonise their foreign policies, to the extent feasible, so as to avoid belligerency and to facilitate a resolution of their territorial dispute. India would have to be prepared to follow a policy of give and take in reference to the actual dispute while bearing in mind the sentiment of the Indian people, particularly those of Arunachal. Notwithstanding the pursuit of a more accommodative foreign policy, India must be in a position to negotiate with China from a position of strength, i.e. military strength backed by adequate border infrastructure.

Chinese claims in the Eastern Sector, of about 90,000 sq. km, encompass most of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies to the north of the rivers Brahmaputra/Lohit, with the general limits of the claim being the entire area south of the McMahon Line upto the approximate alignment of the Arunachal/Assam border. The Chinese claim this predominantly mountainous area as South Eastern Tibet and have so depicted it on their maps.[1]

Whilst the present author has no intention of going into the historical details of the Chinese and Indian claims, and counter claims, as these aspects have been extensively covered, I would confine my paper to the lesser known aspects, based on a fairly intimate knowledge of most of the claimed area and the people, and from having studied China over the last fifty years. I will offer my own assessment and advice, with a view to assist in attempts at problem resolution.

The Chinese Claims in Nutshell

The Chinese argue that their entire claimed area of Arunachal Pradesh is a part of Tibet (South Eastern Tibet) as they have exercised undisturbed rule over Tibet for over 700 years and as Tibet is an integral part of China, and hence the entire claimed area in Arunachal belongs to them. The Chinese, in addition to claiming the entire area, state that they do not recognise the McMahon Line (inspite of the fact that after the 1962 war they themselves withdrew back across the line/border). India’s claims are backed by recorded history such as the chronicles of the Ahom Burunjis, British historians, the Tibetans, and local folklore.[2]

The Tibetan Counterclaims in Brief

The Tibetan Government in Exile counters the Chinese claim by giving evidence that they were a totally independent state since 1913 and prior to that, and that they have at no stage in history been part of the Middle Kingdom. Their relationship with the Mongolian rulers of China was one of priest and patron—the priests of the Mongol Royal Family and hence they had their political patronage from time to time. There was never any structured Chinese rule or formal suzerainty over Tibet.[3]

The Indian Claims

In 1914, the Tibetan Government signed the Simla Accord with the British rulers of India, demarcating the border between India and Tibet under the name, the McMahon Line. India’s claim is based on this line, as India was the inheriting state from the British and was accepted by the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Further, the people of Arunachal have always been fiercely independent, and Tibet also at no stage had control over Arunachal. The interaction with Tibet was invariably only cultural and commercial, and was only in limited areas where the common point was Buddhism which had originally spread from India.

Specific Chinese Claims related to the McMahon Line

Even though the Chinese do not recognise the McMahon Line, on the grounds that it was a colonial imposition, they differ with the interpretation of the alignment of the McMahon Line on the ground, as it has only been delineated on a large-scale map. There is also an issue of interpretation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), marking the border between the two countries. While India interprets the LAC to be based on the limits of control over areas physically held by the opposing forces of India and China, the Chinese interpretation is different. The Chinese interpretation, while not elaborated on by them in recent years, as far as the Eastern Sector is concerned, appears to be related to their interpretation on the basis of the alignment of the McMahon Line. This analysis is drawn from a letter from the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai to the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dated September 8, 1959, wherein he refers to the forward location of troops of both sides as in 1959 and the Chinese interpretation of the McMahon line. The LAC is again referred to by the Chinese in their comments to the Colombo Proposals of December 1962 in the same light. This now needs to be specified by China in concrete geographical terms and an understanding between both governments reached on the subject, as this is the initial issue of dispute. From the above facts, if presumed correct, the following areas of further disagreement emerge in relation to the Eastern Sector:[4]

  • The location of the Sino-Indian (Sikkim)-Bhutan tri-junction of the border: the Chinese claim it to be much further south than that claimed by India. The effect of this claim is that, if accepted, it would facilitate the Chinese outflanking the existing Indian defences in Sikkim and Bhutan. The recent standoff at the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army was a result of the Chinese claiming Doklam.
  • The location of the Sino-Indian (Arunachal)-Bhutanese tri-junction: here again the Chinese claim it to be much farther south of what India claims. India claims the alignment to be in the Tawang Sector—hence the Chinese claims to the Thagla Ridge, Khinzemane and other locations in the sector and parallel claims in Eastern Bhutan. This would also facilitate the Chinese outflanking the Indian defences in the Tawang sector.

Consequent to the dispute regarding the tri-junction at both locations, the Chinese also have claims to Bhutanese territory in Central and Eastern Bhutan. The defence of Bhutan is an Indian responsibility and a treaty obligation with Bhutan. This consequently has a major bearing on the defence of both Sikkim and Arunachal. These claims coincide with the Chinese claims in Sikkim/Arunachal Pradesh, which are to threatening to the Indian defences.

In the Subansiri sector, the Chinese claim that Longju is in Tibet and not in India.

  • In the Anini/Dembuen sectors, the claims are still to emerge, there being little Chinese activity opposite these sectors currently, as they are extremely rugged and difficult.

In the Dibang Sector there are claims to a fairly large area which is currently under Indian occupation near Kaila Pass.

In the Lohit Sector the claim is again in relation to the Sino-Indian (Arunachal)-Myanmar Tri-junction. Here again, the Chinese claim it to be much farther south, but if that were the case the entire area up to Walong would fall in Chinese Tibet.

While there has been no previous evidence of specific Chinese claims in the Siang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh, the very recent intrusion and attempts at road construction near Bishing village in this sector is indicative of the fact that the Chinese have now raked up a fresh claim in this sector.

In addition to the above, I have no doubt that if and when the LAC is physically demarcated between the two countries, more disputes are bound to arise.

  • There are in addition other major differences in both the Western (Aksai Chin in Ladakh) and Central Sectors (Barahoti - Uttaranchal).

Other Specific Chinese Claims

Notwithstanding the dispute related to the LAC and the general claim to most of Arunachal, China has indicated certain specific claims based on alleged past direct control over Tibet, and religious or cultural affinity over specific areas in Arunachal including the Tawang Tracts. These are broadly as follows:[5]

  • The Tawang Tracts,which correspond to Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh: the significance of this area lies in the fact that the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang in the seventeenth century, and the Tawang Tract with Se La as the dividing line is claimed to be the fiefdom of the Dzongpens (high officials) of the Tsona district in Tibet. Notwithstanding the specific Chinese claim to this huge chunk of Western Arunachal, like a dagger jutting down to the Assam plains, it must be noted that the entire Tawang Tract, being south of the McMahon Line, is clearly part of India; and that the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama have publicly declared that Tawang is a part of India.
  • In the Subansiri Valley, Asafila, an all-weather pass (just south of the alignment of the Indian perception of the McMahon Line) along the Subansiri River; and the Portrang Ridge, which is part of the Takpa Siri Mountain, also known as the “Crystal Mountain,” a place bearing religious significance not only to the Tibetans, but also to Monpas and Tagins of Arunachal Pradesh, a site of pilgrimage since ancient times, is specifically claimed by China. The ridge in the shape of a dagger, ending opposite Taksing, is bounded by the Subansiri River and the Yume Chu stream. A pilgrimage used to be undertaken every twelve years, starting from Chosam in Tibet. It followed the Tsari Chu valley till its junction with the Subansiri River and then up the Subansiri River valley till Taksing. From here the route turned north up the Ridge or along the Yume Chu. The pilgrimage would end at the holy Yume Gompa (monastery). This longer version of pilgrimage, called ‘Ringkor,’ was undertaken over a three month period and several thousand pilgrims passed on this route, staying in caves and bamboo shelters, which were called “Tsukang.” The local people stocked these shelters with food and wood. The pilgrims passed through this challenging and difficult route. The Tagins, who live in the Upper Subansiri valley, were paid yearly tribute by the Tibetans of Longju and a special large tribute to help this pilgrimage. Today, the pilgrimage has stopped as the McMahon Line divides Takpa Siri and the valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. In case this area is granted to China it would compromise the Indian positions along both streams up to and including Taksing.
  • In the Siang Sector, whilst not yet specifically claimed as Tawang has been, the entire Siyom valley including Mechuka and Manigong, and from the border upto Gelling in the Siang Valley, has some population of Tibetan origin similar to Tawang and are again considered by the Chinese to be fiefdoms of Tibet. The Gompa at Mechuka is also considered a holy shrine to people of Monpa/Tibetan origin, Adis and Sikhs as it is claimed to have been a resting place of Guru Nanak during his visit to Tibet. In fact a gurdwara has also been set up near Nishangong/Tongkhorlaen route to Yorlung which was also considered to have been a resting place of the Guru and has other folklore attached to this Shrine. In my view, I have little doubt that these areas would ultimately be specifically claimed by China on the same grounds as Tawang. Here again, the Tibetans accept these areas to be a part of India and are well south of the McMahon Line.
  • Longju, which is south of the McMahon Line, has been illegally occupied by the Chinese up to and including the area of the Bisa Cane Bridge a few kilometres to its south, on grounds that the population is of Tibetan descent.
  • The Dibang Sector has the roughest and least inhabited area of Arunachal Pradesh, where on account of cartographic errors the Chinese have specific claim to a fairly large area astride Kaila Pass.
  • In the Lohit Sector the specific Chinese claim, besides the claim up to Walong, is to the Dichu pass itself on the watershed. This is disputed by India and is under Indian occupation. In addition, the area from the border up to Walong also has some population of Tibetan origin and would in all probability be claimed by China at some stage, on the lines of Tawang.

Early Chinese proposals for Dispute Resolution

Notwithstanding all the above specific claims, China was prepared in 1959, and even till as late as the 1980s, to do a swap of their Western claimed area of Aksai Chin, which was strategically more important to Beijing, with the claimed area of Arunachal to resolve the dispute. The Indian government, however, did not agree to the proposal on the grounds that China had illegally occupied the area and that such an act amounted to gifting Indian territory which they were not authorised to do as the Indian public sentiment was strongly against it. Thereafter, a series of meetings between officials of both countries were held with no worthwhile results.

Notwithstanding this, consequent to meetings between the heads of state of both countries, several treaties related to ensuring peace and tranquillity along the borders have been signed between the two countries, starting with the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement in 1993, and the last of them having been signed in 2005. Relations actually improved and in the early period of 2003/4 it was believed that a resolution of the dispute was in sight. In 2005, a meeting between the two prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh, was seen as a turning point in relations when it was agreed to resolve the border dispute without displacing settled populations.[6]

Deterioration of Relations

Unfortunately from 2006 onwards, just prior to Hu’s visit to India when China reactivated her claim to Arunachal, something which had been more or less accepted as settled, there were also increased intrusions andrelations between both countries deteriorated, with China becoming more belligerent and assertive towards India, with consequent strong reiteration of its entire claim. Visas to Arunachalis were also denied on grounds that Arunachal was claimed to be part of China. Accusations were also levied in relation to Kashmir and PLA troops inducted into Pakistan-held Kashmir (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir).

This state of affairs continued, almost reaching sabre-rattling dimensions by both sides during the Lhasa rebellion of 2008, and erupted in incidents thereafter such as the Doklam intrusion. Both countries reinforced troop deployment on the borders, China speeded up her emphasis on building warlike infrastructure in Tibet towards the Indian border, so did India and India commenced raising additional divisions of troops besides reinforcing air force deployments in the North East.

 It was only during a meeting at Hun Hua, when Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference on September 24, 2008 that the two premiers reached an understanding—that the two countries would build a strategic partnership for regional peace and stability and narrow differences on the border issue through dialogue based on the political principles already agreed upon. Both premiers agreed to ensure peace and stability in border areas and to improve cooperation on bilateral issues. Consequently relations between India and China and trade improved. Unfortunately incidents in Tibet recurred in 2010 and 2011 and relations again deteriorated. Relations plummeted to an extreme low from 2014 onwards.

Reasons for Non-Resolution

The question is why are relations worsening? It is important to find out the reasons as herein lies the path to problem resolution of the dispute. In the opinion of the author, the roots of the problem remain largely unchanged since 1962, the same reasons for which China attacked India.[7]

As it was then and also now, the issue remains primarily focused on Tibet and the Chinese failure to quell the Tibetan rebellion and to assimilate the Tibetans into the Chinese mainstream civilisation and politics.[8] In the pre-1962 war period, China considered it an act of war when India supported the Tibetan rebellion by providing training and arms from Indian soil. Consequently, current Indian support to the Tibetans and relations with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees is looked upon with great suspicion.

It must not be forgotten that in 1909, the then Dalai Lama fled to India when the Manchus invaded Tibet and he returned to Tibet after three years to push the Chinese out of Tibet and declare Tibet independent. This is an issue that China has never forgotten particularly since India has given the Dalai Lama and more than a 100,000 Tibetans asylum. India has also allowed the Tibetans to set up a Government in Exile at Dharamsala. India had upgraded the interaction with the Tibetans from the level of an under-secretary to that of a joint secretary and has arranged meetings between the Dalai Lama and the Indian foreign secretary. As far as China was concerned, this amounted to recognition to the Tibetan Government in Exile, a blatantly anti-Chinese act. India also allowed Tibetan leaders to stage a conclave at Dharamsala, where the Chinese claim the rebellion was plotted. According to Chinese claims, it is from here that the pro-independence movement and rebellion in Tibet is being plotted and coordinated over mobile phones and the internet. All this led to direct Chinese anti-India rhetoric particularly when the Dalai Lama and the Indian prime minister visited Arunachal in early 2008. China then reversed its previous agreement with India for resolution of the dispute without disturbing settled populations. The Tibetan rebellion in Sichuan and Lhasa in 2008 and demonstrations at Delhi, over the meeting between the two countries’ special representatives for the border talks, were reported adversely by China. China has now declared Tibet a core interest for full assimilation into the Middle Kingdom.

It must also be understood that the Dalai Lama has demanded autonomy not only for Tibet but also for all old Tibetan areas of Greater Tibet surrounding it, which includes a major part of Yunnan and adjacent regions—almost a quarter of China. The terms of autonomy demanded almost amount to independence, a status similar to what Bhutan enjoyed with India in the past. With all the international attention Tibet is now getting, China is most upset and is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent Tibet breaking away. This includes going to war if the need so arises.[9]

There are major irritants such as China’s support to Pakistan (including in the nuclear field), setting Pakistan up as a proxy to deal with India and her recent induction of large numbers of the PLA into the Northern Areas, thereby posing a further threat to the Western claimed area of Aksai Chin and Jammu and Kashmir, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative) and Beijing’s reiteration of her claims to Arunachal. Chinese continued support to Pakistan against India’s allegations of propagating terrorism in India, China blocking India’s entry into the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group has not helped matters. These have been further compounded by a perception that India is joining hands with the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Southeast Asia in a perceived strategic alliance against China. This perception started with the Indo-U.S. Nuclear deal and strategic partnership. Despite a surge in Sino-Indian trade, relations have been complicated over various issues such as India now Acting East, being part of the Quad to police the South China Sea, and becoming a trade and scarce natural resources competitor, as well as the disputes over the Chinese damming and thinking of diverting the Ganges and Brahmaputra River waters in Tibet.[10] There is also the fact that it is only recently being perceived that Arunachal has tremendous natural resources that China is now eyeing. All these issues have only added fuel to the fire in relations between India and China.

Chinese realisation of their growing confidence, their internationally enhanced position, economic and military strength and that the balance of power is shifting from the West to the East is also a recent phenomenon which has given the Chinese added belligerency and assertiveness.[11]

The reasons for China’s recent assertiveness over Arunachal and over other issues lie primarily within the scope of China’s and India’s foreign and economic policies. These policies need to be harmonised to the extent feasible so as to avoid belligerency and to facilitate a resolution of the dispute.

In case India wishes to find a resolution of the border dispute, I am strongly of the view that India would need to rein in the activities of the Tibetans in India and, for that matter, the Dalai Lama. India would have to be prepared to follow a policy of give and take in reference to the actual dispute while bearing in mind the sentiment of the Indian people, particularly those of Arunachal. Notwithstanding the pursuit of a more accommodative foreign policy, India must be in a position to negotiate with China from a position of strength, i.e. military strength backed by adequate border infrastructure to support countermeasures against China, and most importantly by developing Arunachal adequately.

 Lt.-Gen. John Ranjan Mukherjee (PVSM, AVSM, VSM) is a retired general of the Indian Army, and former General Officer Commanding, Kashmir (15 Corps), and Chief of Staff, Eastern Command. He is the author of An Insider’s Experience of Insurgency in India’s North East, and The Indomitable Rhino Warriors of India’s North East: History of the Assam Regiment. He belongs to the Assam Regiment, which recruits men only from the North Eastern Region of India. He has served twenty-six years in the North East, and has lived with the men of his regiment and people from the region almost all his life, and is married to a Mizo lady.


[1] Based on the author’s personal knowledge of the subject, the actual terrain, the people and articles on the subject taken from the Internet; and Prem Shankar Jha, ”A Shadow Over the Himalayas, India’s Tibet problem,” Asie Visions 28 (May 2010), The Institut français des relations internationals.

[2] P.B. Sinha, A.A. Athale, and S.N. Prasad,“History of the Conflict with China, 1962,” History Division, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, 1992. Printed on line by the Times of India in December 2002.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Subhash Kapila, “India: The Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh,” Chennai Centre for China Studies, September 2009; Srikanth Kondapalli, “India-China: Protracted Talks, Contested Sovereignties,” Centre for Land Warfare Studies, February 8, 2012; and “White Paper 1992: Tibet—Its Ownership and Human Rights Situation,” Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, September 1992.

[5] Sinha, Athale, and Prasad, “History of the Conflict with China, 1962;” Kapila, “India: The Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh;” Kondapalli, “India-China: Protracted Talks, Contested Sovereignties;” Neville Maxwell, India's China War (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1972).

[6] Wang Hongwei, “Zhong yin bianjie wenti de lishi beijing yu 1962 nian zhong yin bianjie zhanzheng,” (Historical background of the Sino-Indian border problem and the 1962 Sino-Indian border war,Ya tai ziliao (Asia Pacific materials), No. 1, March 18, 1989, p. 1-13); Xu Yan, Zhong Yin bianjie zhizhan lishi zhenxiang (True history of the Sino-Indian border war), (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1993), 28, 29-30, 50, 53. This is the most important Chinese work thus far on the 1962 war; Zhong yin bianjiang ziweifanji zuozhanshi (History of the Sino-India border self-defensive war), (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 1994), 37-40. This is the official People’s Liberation Army history of the 1962 war; Zhao Weiwen, Yin Zhong guanxi fengyun lu (1949-1999) (Record of the vicissitudes of India-China relations, 1949-1999), (Beijing: Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan (Diplomatic documents of Zhou Enlai), Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1990), 268-276; Zorawar Daulet Singh, “The Himalayan Stalemate: Retracing the India-China Dispute,” Manekshaw Paper 21 (2011), Centre for Land Warfare Studies; Ramachandra Guha, “The Dalai Lama’s War,”The National Interest 115 (September/October 2011); A. Adityanjee, “Tales from the Dragon Kingdom,” Centre for Land Warfare Studies, February 7, 2012.; and Transcript of audio tapes,  speech by Wang Yiwei, associate professor, Fudan University Shanghai, at the Observer Research Foundation, 2007.

[7] Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, “Arab Spring in Tibet?” The Asian Age, November 29, 2011; B. Raman, “Curfew in Western Sichuan: 11 Tibetans die in Police Firing,” Defense Forum India, January 28, 2018; B. Raman,“China: Tibetan-Consciousness Movements Spread,” Sri Lanka Guardian, October 2011; and B. Raman, “China’s Guantanamo Bay: Tibetan Monks continue to Protest,” Sri Lanka Guardian, October 4, 2011.

[8] Tsering Sakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947 (London: Pimlico, 1999), 13, 26.

[9] Robert Barnett,“Why doesn’t China want to let the Dalai Lama resign,” Foreign Policy, March 21, 2011.

[10] Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 2 (March/April  2011): 68-79; Claude Arpi, “China’s Water War with India,”The Pioneer, June 26, 2011; Michael D. Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior on ‘Core Interests’,” China Leadership Monitor, February 2011; Dean Cheng and Lisa Curtis, “China’s Indian Provocations Part of Broader Trend,” Heritage Foundation, September 2010; Minxin Pei, “Dangerous Misperceptions: Chinese Views of India’s Rise,” Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, May 23, 2011; Bhashyam Kasturi, “Facts about Chinese presence in POK,” Indian Defence Review, February 12, 2012; John Garver, Protracted Contest, Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 79-86; Sujit Dutta, “Managing and Engaging Rising China: India’s Evolving Posture,” The Washington Quarterly 34, no.2 (March 2011): 127-144; Hari Bansh Jha, “Tibetan Waters: A Source of Cooperation or Conflict?” Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, September , 30, 2011; Tufail Ahmad, “Chinese Military Taking Over Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan Considering Proposal to Lease the Disputed Region to China for 50 Years,” Memri, Inquiry & Analysis Series, February 10, 2012; P.K. Vasudeva, “Waters of Tibet, China And its Damaging Dams,” Journal of the United Service Institution of India CXLI, no. 588 (April-June 2012).

[11] D. S. Rajan, “China: The Unfolding Asia-Pacific Strategy, Chennai Centre for China Studies, October 4, 2011.