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India – China Border Row at Ladakh – An Appreciation ; By Subramanyam Sridharan

Updated: Jun 21, 2023


Image Courtesy: SCMP

Article 64/2021


What are the issues? Roughly 38,000 Sq. Kms of Indian Land in Eastern Ladakh plus 5,180 Sq. Kms of Gilgit-Baltistan (ceded by Pakistan) is occupied by China, as per the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in the Parliament. What he did not say was that in the Central Sector of Himachal Pradesh, China occupies roughly 2100 Sq Kms (Barahoti, Shipkila, Pulam etc.), totalling therefore 45,280 Sq. Kms. For its part, China claims 90,000 Sq Kms in Arunachal Pradesh on the Northern banks of the Brahmaputra.  Increasingly it has looked likely that the Chinese claim of Arunachal Pradesh *was* or *has been* to hedge against Ladakh and extract concessions on Tibet and Ladakh from us and to drive a wedge at Tawang for its future strategic use. China’s primary concern was Ladakh because in the 1950s, it was Tibet and Sinkiang that were the major headaches as they had not been properly incorporated into Greater China. I use the term Greater China to include these peripheral areas (including Inner Mongolia and Manchuria) that were annexed by the ‘Core Han China’ in the 20th Century. That both these regions (now called Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR & Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or XUAR respectively) continue to be headaches for China is another matter.


Why did/does China have so many border problems with every one of its eighteen neighbours? While some border dispute is inevitable, the Chinese problem has been that it has been an Empire. Unlike the British Empire, for example, which colonized far-away lands (it being an island), the Chinese have been colonizing and Sinicizing peripheral areas. Unlike a nation-state, an Empire does not have a definite boundary as it is constantly on the process of accumulating more and more territories. There is no wonder therefore that the Chinese Empire’s boundaries are frayed at the edges. In the Westphalian setup, this causes friction unless and until the involved parties are normal nation-states.


The Chinese had to build the G219 Highway linking Tibet and the then Sinkiang while Nehru’s government, in my opinion, quietly acquiesced in that. My conclusion is based on the fact that when an IB team that had disguised itself as Yak herders in the far-flung eastern periphery of Eastern Ladakh found out and reported to GoI about the progress of the Highway, GoI ignored that most important and great discovery. The GoI should have foreseen this development because China had asked for GoI’s permission in c. 1951 to build a road through Soda Plains, but GoI kept quiet. There have been dozens of reports from various Government sources themselves about the Highway building activity to the GoI, without any action by it [1]. Then, the famous ‘not a blade of grass grows’ defence was offered to justify the deliberate negligence. The seriousness of the issue dawned on Nehru and his Cabinet only when the Chinese slowly and surely expanded westwards in order to provide a buffer to G219 and as a result, the border situation began to deteriorate. Then we have the ridiculous 1959 claim line by Zhou-en-Lai (we will limit ourselves to Ladakh here) which left India with no option but to robustly counter the strident westward expansion of China and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that resulted due to the 1962 October/November war. The Chinese had planned their objectives very well by enticing India first into Panchsheel, lulling us into complacency and then using the provisions of the Treaty to beat us with – all done with an eye to covet Ladakh.


A bit of geography here. There are six great mountain ranges of interest in the India-China Ladakh border issue. They are, from east to west, Kun Lun Shan which just touches the northern and north-eastern parts of Eastern Ladakh, the Karakoram Range which goes across Eastern Ladakh (with Siachen in its northern stretches), the Ladakh Range, the Zanskar Range near which is located Chumar in the southern edge of Ladakh, the Great Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas (of which Pir Panjal is a spur with the valley of Srinagar close to it) and then the Siwalik (Poonch & Jammu). The Ladakh Range and the Karakoram are the ranges of interest in the Ladakh sector while among the rivers it is the Indus, Shyok and some of its tributaries like Chip-Chap or Galwan or Chang Chenmo or Nubra. All these tributaries originate in the Aksai Chin area and flow westwards except Nubra which originates at the spout of the Siachen glacier and flows North-to-South to join Shyok at Deskit village. The Ladakh Range is ~400 Kms long and starts near the confluence of the Indus and the Shyok in GB and runs all the way to the southern tip of Ladakh. The two passes that have to be crossed on the Ladakh Range to reach SSN (Sub Sector North, that is the Daulat Beg Oldie or DBO area) are the Khardung La or the Wari La. To reach eastern parts of Ladakh, like Pangong Tso, the pass to be crossed is Chang La. On the Karakoram Range, the only pass available is the Sasser La. The area between Sasser La and the Shaksgam Valley further the north is the Rimo Muztag (Muztag in Ladakhi language means ice mountain).


Simply put, the Johnson Line and the later Johnson-Ardagh Boundary line (we will see these boundary lines in the next section) both use Kun Lun watershed as the boundary of Eastern Ladakh. It appears that the Chinese want to push the boundary to the west, along the Karakoram Watershed (they have also done similarly in Pakistan taking over Shaksgam Valley which is the northern slopes of the Karakoram) and even beyond in most places of Ladakh.


India’s Case

What are the evidence supporting India’s case for the Johnson-Ardagh boundary alignment? India has presented solid and voluminous evidence to the Chinese as far back as 1954 and that is available in the “Report of the Officials of the Government of India and the People’s Republic of China on the Boundary Question – Part 3” [2]. One of the most recent historic facts of our claim to the entire eastern Ladakh is Gen. Zorawar Singh’s establishment of the Dogra/Sikh rule (though Zorawar Singh was the Chief of Dogra ruler Gulab Singh’s Army, Gulab Singh himself was a feudatory of Maharajah Ranjit Singh) in 1835 there. In c. 1842 a Ladakhi rebellion backed by Tibet was also crushed, the Treaty of Chushul was signed maintaining status quo ante bellum and Ladakh remained firmly incorporated into J&K with the Namgyal of Ladakh pensioned off at Stok, in Leh District. The 1842 ‘Letters of Agreement’ between Ladakh and Kashmir and between Tibet and Kashmir and the 1852 Agreement between Tibet and Kashmir establish the sovereignty of the Maharajah of Kashmir over Ladakh.


In c. 1865, the British Surveyor W.H.Johnson surveyed the land boundaries of J&K as part of which he surveyed Ladakh. He went south-east from Ladakh along the Indus gorge up until Thiksey where he took to westwards crossing the Ladakh Range through the Chang La Pass, touched Tangtse (Tanksi) in the Phobrang Plains which is just north of Pangong Tso, went west towards Pangong Tso, crossed Marsimik La pass in the Chang Chenmo Range, travelled along the Chang Chenmo to the east, then sharply went north-east through Nischu, Mapothang of the Linzithang Plains crossed the Kun Lun through the Yangi Diwan Pass (also known as Ilchi Diwan Pass) to reach Ilchi, Shahidullah and back through the Karakoram Pass [3]. [See Map 1 below] These were some of the places that the then Wazir of Ladakh was collecting taxes from people and exercising his sovereignty. The Johnson Survey is particularly important because it showed the extent of Kashmir’s Ladakh boundary in the east up to the western fringes of the Soda Plains and in the North up to Ilaich and Shahidullah, well north of the Karakoram Pass. Clearly, the Indian claim extends beyond even the Kun Lun. (See Map 1 below). In 1866, the British Indian Government notified this as a new trade route and with Yarkand. Otherwise, the older trade route was across the Shyok, Daulat Beg Oldi and the Karakoram Pass. The Ladakh Wazarat had exercised rights of pasture and salt collection in Lingzithang Plains and Soda Plains in the far east of Ladakh. The Changthang Plateau fringes of Soda Plains have very harsh living conditions, even by Ladakhi standards and human habitation was non-existent except for the hardy Changpa nomads here and there herding their goats for the Pashmina wool.


However, this survey, as we know now, was clearly incomplete, not inaccurate. Though some doubts have been expressed regarding Johnson’s survey of Ladakh, he was a very professional military man and surveyor having participated in the Great Triangulation Survey of India for several years. His Ladakh survey indeed was well received by the Royal Geographic Society but not by the British Government because he crossed the British-India boundary at Kun Lun and was therefore rebuked. An aggrieved Johnson joined the services of the Maharajah of J&K. That being said, the incomplete survey had to be fixed because the revenue records and other irrefutable evidence showed the area of Ladakh to be larger.


In c. 1897, Sir John Ardagh proposed a boundary line along the crest of the Kun Lun north of the Yarkand River (The Yarkand River originates in the Karakoram very near Siachen Glacier. This proposal fixed the gap between Pangong Tso and Shahidullah through the Karakoram Pass. These lines together became known as the Johnson-Ardagh Boundary Line. The Johnson-Ardagh Boundary line which follows the Kun Lun watershed establishes this boundary. This is the boundary line which Independent India largely follows because that was the line in existence on August 15, 1947. In c. 1899, Britain re-drew the boundary in Ladakh as China and Britain became friends and the boundary was re-fixed along the Karakoram rather than Kun Lun further east as the Johnson-Ardagh line did. This new line was known as McCartney-McDonald Line. The Chinese never replied to this British proposal. This is the usual tactic of the Chinese. Never commit to anything and keep everything vague and twist it later to suit Chinese claims. Thereafter, Britain used both boundaries according to the exigencies of circumstances. For example, as the Russian presence increased in Sinkinag (Xinjiang) and the Manchu (Qing) dynasty weakened in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the British Indian government went back to the Johnson-Ardagh line in order to have a greater buffer. Historically, there is no recorded border dispute ever between the Ladakhis on the one hand and those of Sinkiang and Tibet on the other hand. The issue has been raised only by the Chinese. China has therefore absolutely no claim on Eastern Ladakh.

Map 1: Map of Ladakh

Historical Perspectives on Resolution

In c. 2005, the Indian Prime Minister, Man Mohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao almost came to an agreement on the resolution of the border dispute when they agreed that “The two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”. According to India, this meant that existing locations along the border where there were ‘settled populations’ would be taken as the border between the two countries and that “settled populations would not be disturbed”. However, the Chinese later went back on this agreement and claimed that safeguarding ‘settled populations’ did not mean accepting the status-quo as a legitimate border and that there were other connotations to the phrase ’safeguarding settled populations’. The 2005 Agreement, though tentative, had already revealed the Indian stance that India was more or less willing to accept the border in an ‘as is where is’ condition with practical adjustments wherever needed.


We have conceded that Tibet was a part of China. We have acquiesced to the ‘One China’ policy. In early July 2018, after the Wuhan summit of April 2018 between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, Air India, the national carrier, started listing Taiwan as ‘Taipei, Taoyuan International Airport, TPE, Chinese Taipei’ on its website. On being questioned, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “The decision of Air India is consistent with international norms and our own position on Taiwan since 1949”. While China has been openly against India, by allying with Pakistan, defending its terrorist leaders in the UNSC, its terrorism in FATF, denying us our rightful place in international fora, threatening to launch a two-front war against India along with Pakistan and transferring its nuclear weapons, missiles and their technologies that can only be used against us, we have been deferential to China.


The Chinese Methodology

China has historically displayed a few characteristic behaviour.

The first among these is that China demands other countries to be subservient to it. This demand flows from the self-bestowed ‘Mandate of the Heaven’ for the Chinese Emperor, an idea in vogue for three millennia now. Intricately linked with this overarching proposition is the concept of China being the ‘Middle Kingdom’. Therefore, China is loathed to see an unsubmissive and a potential competitor in India though the ‘Vasudhaiva Khutumbakam’ or ‘Sarvajana Sukhino Bhavanthu’ concepts of India are diametrically opposite to the Chinese practice of international relations and statecraft. The second is the Chinese habit of grabbing territories and resources in peripheral areas based on flimsy, unsustainable and many a time patently untrue grounds. It would do so through all means at its disposal and largely through coercion thereby avoiding a costly war as far as possible. While irredentism has become passé and nation-states have become status-quoist, China is the only major power that is still pursuing revisionism. The third is the general untrustworthiness of their words and/or deeds.


How does China enforce its will on others? It starts from subtle ways and then builds up the crescendo which finally assumes threatening and alarming proportions. The cycle goes along the following lines:

  1. Claim a piece of territory citing vague historical references

  2. At first, take some mild action while carefully watching the response of the other country.

  3. If the response is mild or none, then coerce the other country by probing constantly, surreptitiously occupying, showing force but not actually fighting, using irregular force like militia or maritime militia, keep objecting to other side’s activities and harassing them even within their own areas and generally very carefully ratcheting up tensions.

  4. If the response is strong, avoid further conflict, assess the situation and wait for a more opportune time without ever giving up the goal.

  5. Never sign an agreement, but give only oral promises that could be twisted later. That also helps China in irredentism under the garb of ‘disputed or undefined territory’.

  6. Engage with the other country individually, not as part of a bloc.

  7. Make the other country take measures to avoid a war or a conflict in fear of China

  8. Extract concession

  9. If a war is to be fought, make it short, swift and massive at the most opportune time

  10. Start the cycle from Point 1.

What does it mean for India? Initially, when China published maps that showed large parts of India under it, the Indian objections were brushed aside by China as ‘It is just a matter of maps’. Slowly, the true dimensions of its machinations were apparent. The 1959 claim line of China gobbles up almost three-quarters of Eastern Ladakh. Since 1962, when China realized that large parts of Ladakh cannot be occupied effectively because of the severe winter with the concomitant issues of logistics especially as Hotan or Lhasa were very far away, they have been incrementally occupying and slowly enlarging their presence. This has been particularly so after the 1990s when their gross national wealth and infrastructure facilities leapfrogged. With an intimidating approach both militarily and diplomatically, they have so far ensured that India did not reclaim its lost territories in Eastern Ladakh.


What is the Solution

However, the current Ladakh situation is qualitatively very different from whatever has happened earlier as it is not simple salami-slicing but a calculated assault on Indian positions with deep reserves behind the frontline PLA units and amassing of heavy weaponry and air assets. This is also a strategic move across the entire length of the LAC in Ladakh. India can no longer claim the usual excuse that it is differences in perception of LAC that causes occasional friction and local commander-level talks have always resolved them. So, India has mobilized its army and weaponry as well in equal measures, if not more, and has executed some daring operations that would make the further westward movement of the Chinese forces impossible without a full-fledged war. Future holds what is in store for both nations along the LAC after the latest events.


Whatever happens tactically, a practical solution needs to be found. The world over, border disputes have been resolved only with a sense of ‘give-and-take’. Even India is no longer standing rigidly on the Johnson-Ardagh boundary alignment in Ladakh, as Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government had indicated when it set up the Special Representatives (SRs) for the resolution of the border dispute in c. 2003.


It is in this context that India will have to seek a solution for the border problem with China.

The one solution that had not gained much appreciation is the bifurcation of Eastern Ladakh. The far-eastern fringes of Eastern Ladakh, the Soda Plains, are inhospitable. The Chinese G219 passes along this stretch. As shown in the map above, the Laktsang (or Loqzung) Range, a spur of the Karakoram, further divides Eastern Ladakh leaving largely the Linzithang Plains to its West, South-west and the Soda Plains to its East, North-east. The Laktsang Range is also a lofty mountain range which is nearly 150 Kms long, 20 Kms wide with peaks rising to 20,000 Ft. The watershed of this range could be a boundary marker that would leave most part of Ladakh with India and the necessary real-estate with China to allow unimpeded access to the G219 Highway.


There are two issues with this division if accepted by both governments. One, fixing the gap between the northern tip if Laktsang and the Karakoram Pass and the southern tip so that G219 falls within the Chinese side.


What are the Impediments

Firstly, there is absolutely no reason for India to offer this solution because all evidence are strongly in India’s favour of its rights over the entire Eastern Ladakh as defined by the Johnson-Ardagh Line. The solution is certainly a loss of territory for India if agreed to. It is being done by India in the larger interests of peace.


Secondly, in the present circumstances, this would be misconstrued as appeasement by China, History shows that at no time appeasement has stopped the ‘appeased’ from further demands or warring. China’s unacceptable claims with eighteen neighbours and its claim of the entire South China Sea (also known as the Indo-China Sea) show its insatiable appetite for lebensraum. Will China stop with this and change its behaviour? Evidence shows that it would not. A border settlement would neither stop China from its cyberattacks on India or supporting terrorists in the North East nor stop meddling within India through Pakistan and its terrorists. Nor would it stop its opposition to India’s inclusion or elevation of world bodies that a country of the size and capacity of India deserves. Therefore, India will continue to view China with legitimate suspicion across the new border and Indian military expenditure would not reduce as a result of the border settlement. India’s gains are simply non-existent.


Thirdly, China is currently in possession of a much larger area than what the solution offers. The 1959 claim line by China is also much further to the west of the proposed solution.  China would most probably not agree to resile from that position.

The Chinese paranoia of a huge buffer for its strategic G219 Highway which is an ostensible reason for the ever-increasing salami-slicing of Ladakh by China is not at all served by the solution because the buffer would get much reduced.


Fourthly, there are huge problems for both the Leaders of India and China to sell this proposition, provided they themselves agree in the first place, to their citizens. The nationalistic fervour of both countries makes it a difficult proposition. There could also be local laws standing in the way. Any decision must be timed properly and until such time, there must be a complete freeze but China has not been able to stick to the provisions of the various CBMs so far.


India has to be particularly conscious and mindful of the concessions that it is making to China because similar concessions maybe then demanded by Pakistan.

The Indian demand for this concession in Ladakh must include the following as a quid-pro-quo:

  1. Demarcation and delineation of the entire length of the border.

  2. Complete acceptance by China of India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang and Sikkim.

  3. Annulment of the 1963 border agreement between Pakistan and China

  4. Handing over of Indian terrorists staying in China and a solemn promise not to support them in future.

  5. Stoppage of CPEC through Gilgit-Baltistan

  6. Withdraw Chinese opposition to India becoming a permanent member of the UNSC and joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG)

The Chinese demand could include the following:

  1. Resolution of the Tawang issue.

  2. Expulsion of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile from India.

  3. Disbanding the SFF from the Indian military.

  4. Quitting from the QUAD.

These are formidable hurdles to the resolution of the Ladakh border issue. China is not interested in a piecemeal resolution. It had always wanted a package deal that included swapping at one place with another. It has employed the same tactic with most of the countries with which it had resolved the border issues.


(Mr. Subramanyam Sridharan is a Computer Scientist by profession and a member, C3S. His areas of interest include strategic and security studies, analysis of Indian Foreign Policy and has expertise in China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The views expressed are personal and does not necessarily reflect the views of the C3S.)

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