• Hamsini Hariharan

Ladakh's position in the Sino-India border issue

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on June 22, 2020 and can be accessed here.


It has been a week since 20 Indian soldiers died, 76 were injured and 10 captured by the Chinese forces. India currently stands at a unenviable position with its Himalayan borders. The Nepali Parliament has ratified new maps which means that the disputes over Lipulekh and Kalapani will not be solved any time soon but rather become a feature of the relationship. Across the Line of Control in Kashmir, cross-border firings by India and Pakistan have become a regular feature of the summer. And the death of soldiers in Galwan is no small matter - for the first time in forty years, that the LAC has seen mortalities arising from border tensions. How India handles it diplomatically will definitely shape the contours of Sino-Indian relations.

Chinese maps have differed with their representation of the border at different points in time. Much of this dissonance is the legacy of the Qing empire in the 18th century. At the peak of Chinese expansionism, the Qing Empire over decades expanded China’s western boundaries to conquer Xinjiang, parts of Mongolia and Tibet. During this period, Ladakh was part of the Himalayan landscape as a small kingdom, often working congruently with other kingdoms like Tibet and Bhutan. Ladakh and Tibet even fought a war between 1679 and 1684 after which Ladakh became a tributary of Tibet. 

In Matthew W Mosen’s book, “From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy”, he examines how the Qing empire changed its approach to foreign affairs to form an integrated world view from holding disparate frontier strategies. What jumps out of the book, is how central British India was to the Qing foreign policy - particularly as the Opium Wars disclosed how powerful the imperialists were. What’s interesting to note was the Ladakh (passingly mentioned in the book) served as one of the sources of intelligence for the Qing administration. Situated on the fringe of South and Central Asia, with Leh as one of the important cites on the trade routes connecting various regions, Ladakh was a secure listening post. Kung Ling-Wei further argues that Ladakh, as a tributary of Tibet, provided the Qing Dynasty with intelligence about development of powers not only in Mughal India and Durrani Afghanistan but further in Tsarist Russia and Afsharid Iran. 

Recent articles have pointed out that Galwan is named after a Ladakhi explorer Ghulam Rasool Galwan, who assisted and travelled with British explorers in the 19th and 20th century. This was after Ladakh was subsumed by a Dogra State in the 1840s with the aid of the British. Englishmen like Samuel Turner, Thomas Manning Godwin-Austen and Charles Murray were part of the crop of explorers who travelled through the Himalayas. Their information would shape the contours of British policy at various levels.

It was during the 19th century that the British government commissioned various cartographers to delineate the border between Tibet and the Kashmir. The Johnson-Ardagh Line and the Macartney-MacDonald Line were proposed before the 1914 Simla agreement was signed – the current basis for India’s claims on the border.

We now know of the differences between how the Chinese and the Indians viewed the border and the resulting tensions. One of the reasons for the current flare-up is the 2019 abrogation of Article 370, which puts Aksai Chin under the new union territory of Ladakh. However, a deep reading of other factors will prove that Ladakh is only one piece of the puzzle. If Chinese behaviour is anything to go by, they don’t want to return to the LAC but to what they had achieved during the 1962 war. What this means is that the border will continue to be a protracted, simmering affair – one that will continue to dominate India’s strategic calculus for a while yet.

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