Sino-Indian Border Dispute (Part 1)

The Developments on the Ground that Led to One Conflict After Another

Sino-India border Dispute Part 1 Thumbnail Final

The Sino-Indian border dispute is not an easy issue to decode. To understand the reality, we have to get back to hundreds of years of history, treachery and back-stabbing (mostly by our British colonial masters). Here in this series of two articles, we will chart course to understand the genesis of Sino-Indian Border Dispute, often also referred to as Indian China conflict. This dispute is about two large pieces of land (Aksai Chin & Arunachal Pradesh, formerly known as North East Frontier Agency or NEFA) and several smaller regions.

For better understanding, Sino-Indian Border is divided into three sectors of (1) West, (2) Central/Middle, & (3) East. The Western Sectors ranges from west of Karakoram or Trans-Karakoram Tract and Shaksgam Valley to Demchok. The Central or Middle Sector Ranges from Demchok to India Nepal Border. The third or the Eastern Sector ranges from Sikkim to India-Myanmar Border. Here in this first part of the two articles series, we would be looking at the rise of the dispute in the Western Sector.

As the first disputed territory in the Western Sector, we are taking up Aksai Chin for discussion.

Aksai Chin Dispute

The story of Sino-Indian Border Dispute, in the Western Sector, starts at least some 185 years back. It was in 1834, the Dogra Raja of Jammu, Maharaja Gulab Singh (anointed by Maharaja Ranjeet Singhji of Sikh Confederacy, in 1822) would capture Ladakh, Zanskar and Baltistan with the help of his General, Zorawar Singh Kahluria. It is noteworthy here that these geographical regions were independent, previously. And so was Tibet, only to be captured by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, in 13th Century. However, by the time of Qing Dynasty, China had only suzerainty rights over Tibet, a nebulous concept, which meant many things to different people. And then again in 1912, post Xinhai Revolution (Kuomintang Party) of 1911 and the fall of Qing Dynasty, Tibet & Mongolia declared independence from China. On the other hand, Tarim Basin, today Xinjiang, was completely independent of China till 1750s. Rather initially, it was culturally close to Ladakh, with Leh being only 400 kms from Khotan and 600 kms from Kashgar, the two largest towns of Tarim basin (Xinjiang). Later to be inhabited by the Turks from Central Asia. It was only in 1750s the Qing Dynasty occupied this territory of Tarim Basin and made it a part of China.


By the time in 1819, Maharaja Ranjeet Singhji, would capture Kashmir valley from the Afghans. The Sikh army would be led by Misar Deewan Chand in this campaign. Hence, Kashmir valley was directly under the rule of the Sikhs, whereas, Jammu, Ladakh, Zanskar & Baltistan were under the rule of Dogras, vassals of the Sikh Confederacy, by 1834. However, things would start changing very fast. In 1839, with the untimely demise of Maharaja Ranjeet Singhji, the Sikh confederacy became leaderless and by 1945 they would get entangled in a battle for supremacy with the British, which would result in the defeat of the Sikhs in 1846.

Before the starting of the Anglo-Sikh war, in 1841, Maharaja Gulab Singh would send an expeditionary force to Tibet under the leadership of Zorawar Singh. This expeditionary force will advance up to Lhasa, where the combined force of the Tibetans and the Chinese would resist them. While retreating, Zorawar Singh would be killed in a snowstorm and so would a large part of his army. The combined force of Tibetans and Chinese would pursue the Dogra Army till Leh and would lay a siege of Leh, in Ladakh. The commander of the Dogra Forces in Leh, Mehta Basti Ram would resist them and with reinforcements coming under the command of Deewan Harichand and Wazeer Ratnu, the strengthened force would not only defeat the combined forces of the Tibetans and Chinese but would also pursue them for long. The commander of the Chinese force would be killed in the Battle of Chushul, in 1842 and the Tibetans and Chinese would enter into an agreement with the Dogras at Chushul, 1842, that neither of the sides would encroach upon each other’s territory. It was accepted that the traditional boundary between the two sides would be accepted and trade would continue as usual. It has to be admitted, that the imminent Anglo-Sikh War in India and the Opium War in China were bigger catalysts for the signing of this treaty, as both the sides realised the need to end hostility among themselves.

It is worth mentioning here that the traditional boundaries between the Sikh confederacy and Tibet-Chinese empire was well demarcated beyond Karakoram Pass and below Pangong Lake. But the area in between Karakoram Pass and Pangong Lake were very loosely defined.

Jammu Kashmir

Post 1846, the British accepted Maharaja Gulab Singh as the ruler of Jammu, Ladakh, Zanskar & Baltistan with the right of taxing Hunza, Nagar and other adjoining principalities. However, post the defeat of the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, two treaties were signed. At first, the accord of 9th of March 1846 was signed in which the Sikhs were forced to accept to pay Rs 1.5 Crore of the time (2 million pound of the time) as indemnity. Unable to arrange such a large amount, the Sikhs were forced to handover a large tract of land, which also included the Kashmir Valley. The Second accord was signed on 16th of March 1846, where by, on payment of Rs 75 lakh of the time (1 million pound), the Kashmir Valley was handed over to the Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh by the British.

We must warn you here, that, though we are continuously mentioning the ‘British’ but it was originally the East India Company, who were ruling the country in the name of the British. And by this time, already the rivalry between the British Empire and The Russians had started, there by marking the beginning of ‘the Great Game’.

Let us also clarify here, that the newly formed state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1846 had boundaries with two separate regions of Tibet on the east (with China being their suzerain) and Tarim Basin (Xinjiang) in the north, which was directly a part of the Chinese. On the other hand, the boundary, as claimed by the Jammu & Kashmir Princely State, included not only Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Baltistan, but also Trans-Karakoram Tract & Shaksgam Valley (a well demarcated region). Whereas the boundary in the Aksai Chin region was not well demarcated, and was grossly an uninhabited wasteland, where at times the Kirghiz nomadic tribes used to come for grazing purposes, but was understood to be a part of the Jammu & Kashmir Princely state by the virtue of the 1842 Chushul Treaty.

It was in 1865, a British Civil Servant W. H. Johnson surveyed the boundary and prepared a map on the basis of 1842 Chushul treaty, which put Aksai Chin firmly within the jurisdiction of Jammu & Kashmir princely state. W. H. Johnson also presented this map to the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Ranveer Singh, who actually claimed an area far north of this line as the boundary. Maharaja Ranveer Singh, would send his expeditionary force to the bordering area to establish control of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir over the territory. This expeditionary force would construct a fortress at Shahidullah (Xaidullah) some 60 kms north of Karakoram Pass and well beyond the Jonhson’s Line.

By the time, the British masters in India had their own design. They were busy in devising a strategy to create a buffer zone to keep the Tsarist Russian Empire at bay and defend their crown jewel, i.e., India. Resultant, not only W. H. Johnson was given a stricture for going out of his jurisdiction, conduct the survey and preparing the map, the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, Ranveer Singhji was also coerced to pull back his troops, leaving behind the fortress un-occupied.

Subsequently, in late 1880s, an exploration and survey were conducted under Francis Younghusband. The exploratory force found the fort abandoned and Shahidullah uninhabited. Only a few nomadic Kirghiz groups were spotted grazing their cattle in the region. Later on, by 1890s, the Chinese forces moved in and occupied Shahidullah.

On November 12th, 1893, The British Government in India would enter into an agreement with the Afghanistan, signed in Kabul. The agreement would create the Wakhan Handle as a buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British Indian Territory. Subsequently, on March 11th, 1895, Great Britain and Russia would exchange notes and finally on September 10th,1895, with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Commission Protocol, the arrangement would be finalised and the Great Game would come to an end.

By the time, in 1893, Hung Ta-chen, the Chinese Consul in St. Petersburg would meet Mr. George Macartney, the British resident at Kashgar, and would give him a map of the Tarim Basin, Aksai Chin, Ladakh and adjoining region, with the request for incorporation in the Great Game and protection of Chinese interest during the negotiation. The map coincided with the broader periphery proposed in 1842 Chushul treaty but was showing Aksai Chin as a part of the Chinese territory. Based on this map, George Macartney would draw a new boundary (Macartney Line) showing Aksai Chin completely a part of the Chinese territory and would propose this map to Lord Elgin, the then Viceroy of India. However, while drawing the boundary Mr. Macartney neither bothered to enquire about the Chushul Treaty of 1842, nor was he aware about the nitty gritties of the politics of the region.

In 1897, Major General John Ardagh, the chief of military intelligence, would modify the Johnson’s Line and propose Ardagh-Johnson Line as the boundary between Jammu & Kashmir and the Chinese territories & Tibet. This line proposed the crests of Kunlun Mountain, at the north of Yarkand river as the boundary and thereby considered Aksai Chin as part of Jammu & Kashmir Princely State.

While, all these claims and counter claims were being raised and the matter was continuously being muddied, the British Government in India, in 1899, would propose the map drawn by Macartney, to the Chinese, in a note prepared by Sir Claude McDonald, there by renaming the boundary as Macartney-McDonald Line. It is very difficult to say, what happened behind the curtains but the Chinese neither accepted nor rejected the British offer. Yet, till 1908, Macartney-McDonald Line was followed by the British as the boundary between India and China.

It was in 1899, during an expedition in Aksai Chin, the British expeditionary force got lost in the tracts of a river valley, only to be recovered by their guide Ghulam Rasool Galwan. Subsequently the river would be named after him as Galwan river.

In a complete U-turn, the British border Policy would change post 1911, Xinhai Revolution in China. Since then, the Ardagh-Johnson’s Line became the official boundary between India and China. However, it should be noted that the Ardagh-Johnson Line was never even proposed to the Chinese.

The situation would further be complicated in 1914, during the Simla Convention and Agreement between the independent Tibetan Government, British India and China. During the initial rounds of negotiation, an agreement would be reached and was initialled upon by the representatives of all the three sides, but immediately the Chinese representative (Plenipotentiary), Ivan Chen would repudiate the signature. Subsequently a modified agreement was signed by the representatives of Tibet and British India. In this agreement Ardagh-Johnson’s Line would be accepted as the boundary between Aksai Chin of India & Tibet.

Even the Chinese Postal Atlas from 1917 to 1933 showed Aksai Chin as part of Jammu & Kashmir. Additionally, the Peking University Atlas published in 1925 had shown Aksai Chin as part of India. But what is noteworthy is, that while the British kept on claiming the Ardagh-Johnson’s Line as the boundary on paper, they took no step on ground to exert the claim. Till 1947, not even for once the British Government sent any expeditionary force nor any outpost was created. They also didn’t allow the Government of Jammu & Kashmir to interfere in the affairs.

In 1947, when India became independent, India inherited this Ardagh-Johnson Line as the boundary, without being aware of the confusions created and compromises made by the British, in respect to India’s boundary.

It needs to be mentioned here that, Sino-Indian Border Dispute in the Western Sector is not only about Aksai Chin, we also have the issue of Trans-Karakoram Tract.

Trans-Karakoram Tract Dispute

Johnson’s Line was never extended beyond the Karakoram Pass to the west, as the area was well demarcated in the Peace Treaty of 1684, which was reaffirmed in the Chushul Treaty of 1842. The boundary in this area extended beyond Karakoram and up to Kunlun Mountain Range, thereby areas like Trans-Karakoram Tract and even Shaksgam Valley were all considered within the territoriality of Jammu & Kashmir Princely State. However, in 1927, the British Government in India made a unilateral move and there by rearranged the boundary along the Karakoram Mountain Range in this sector. 


Subsequently, in September-October 1947, the tribal invaders sent by Pakistan captured these areas along with Gilgit-Baltistan. Later on, since 13th of October 1962, Pakistan and China started negotiations in respect to these areas and finally in 1963, the boundary in the region was finalised on the basis of Macartney-McDonald Line, where by Pakistan handed over 5,180 KM2 (out of 5,800 KM2) of territory to China. This negotiation is subject to final settlement of Jammu & Kashmir, and is supposed to be renegotiated after that.

Today, with respect to Sino-Indian Border Dispute, the Government of Communist Party of China plays the victim card and claims that they have been victim of British imperialistic hegemony, whereas in reality, the Chinese have benefitted immensely because of the British effort of protecting their interest in India from Russian imperialism, even at the cost of Indians.

In the second article of the series, to be published next week, we will be looking into the Sino-Indian Border Disputes happening in the Eastern Sector.



  1. A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict – IDSA Brief
  2. The War That Wasn’t by Kunal Verma, New Delhi
  3. Events leading to the Sino-Indian Conflict – IDSA Monograph
  4. Understanding Sino-Indian Border Issues: An Analysis of Incidents Reported in the Indian Media – ORF Occassional Paper


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Deciphering the Indo-China Territorial Dispute


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