The imperial roots of the India-China row
At the heart of border dispute is the larger historical challenge of fitting the Ladakh region into a territorial model ill-suited to it
January witnessed the failure of the 14th round of corps commander-level talks along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Put simply, sustained border tension between India and China may well be a geopolitical “new normal.” But while the bloody clash at Galwan in June 2020 may have opened this new chapter, the problems at the root of the dispute are centuries old.
In my book, The Frontier Complex, I examine the imperial roots of the border dispute in Ladakh. While the proximal causes of today’s tension are tied to the decisive 13 years that preceded the war in 1962, the deeper causes of the border dispute stretch back to the century between the British creation of Jammu and Kashmir and India’s Independence, when colonial officials attempted to configure a precise, “scientific” border along the Himalayas. And they failed.
The British developed and deployed a range of practices to better define the territorial limits of their empire in South Asia. For instance, they utilised the limits of the watersheds of the Indus and Brahmaputra as guiding lines for mappable borderlines. This “water-parting principle” reflected a broader transformation in geography driven by advances in surveying and hydrology, as well as imperial expansion and the need to show rival empires who owned what. By utilising the limits of the Indus watershed system for the political boundary of northern India, the British believed they were using nature to define their territory.
While the Himalayas were long assumed to be an unbroken chain of mountains, after closer surveying this neat wall revealed a complex topography, particularly in eastern Ladakh. In the region known as Aksai Chin, bisected today by LAC, there is no linear mountain range to follow. Instead, the rolling edges of the Tibetan Plateau and the converging Karakoram and Great Himalayan ranges form a massive topographical knot hundreds of miles wide. The Aksai Chin does not offer a clear natural line for a border to follow.
Beyond the topographical challenge of uncooperative watersheds, British administrators also faced the challenge of an absence of historical borderlines. As in the plains of India, British officials sought out Ladakh’s customary boundaries. But while Ladakh had long-standing border points, it had no complete borderline. This made sense in a mountainous region largely accessed by passes (the name Ladakh translates as “land of passes”). But it proved unsatisfactory to imperial administrators whose view of territory was increasingly defined by the two-dimensional space of a political map.
Some of the points of conflict in eastern Ladakh today are centuries-old border points. Demchok, where Indian and Chinese soldiers frequently face off, is referenced in the Royal Chronicles of Ladakh, dating back to the Treaty of Tingmosgang in 1684. This town was a border point along the main route between Leh and Lhasa. Routes like these, whether to Tibet, Central Asia, Kashmir, or southward to Kullu and the plains of India, reflected Ladakh’s historical nexus as a “crossroads of high Asia”. But elsewhere in eastern Ladakh, there were no such historical borderlines. And why would there be? The arid plateau east of Ladakh was effectively a “no man’s land” — sometimes crossed by traders, pilgrims, and nomadic herders, but never permanently occupied.
After 1857, security concerns gradually eclipsed commercial aspirations beyond Ladakh and the imperial government sent waves of surveyors and administrators to better understand and control their Himalayan periphery. But the vast, harsh landscape produced a sketchy and incomplete image: A border that was never fully demarcated despite general descriptions in memorandums, maps, and notes to the Tibetan and Qing governments. When India won its Independence in 1947, it also inherited maps that frequently failed to show any political borderline in eastern Ladakh.
The victory of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949 and the subsequent march on Tibet in 1950 brought the two Asian giants to each other’s ill-defined doorsteps. Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision not to forcefully raise the border issue with Zhou Enlai in the early 1950s, and his decision to have the undemarcated borderlines on India’s political maps solidified in 1954, restricted diplomatic options to resolve the dispute at a time when India had more leverage over China than at any time since.
Besides recounting the failure to craft a precise Himalayan border, this history also reveals a broader revolution in political conceptions of space. British attempts to configure Ladakh as part of a modern system of interlocking territories overlooked a history of complex political relations between Himalayan polities. Borders — disputed or not — are so ubiquitous in our modern world as to make them appear almost natural. But at the heart of India and China’s disputed border is the larger historical challenge of fitting this region into a territorial model ill-suited to it.
The brief war in 1962 imposed the first effective complete borderline in the region. But in truth, unlike India’s Line of Control with Pakistan, LAC still functions more in practice as a colonial-era frontier, open to shifting and ambiguity over who occupies what. While overlapping patrols were the accepted practice for decades, these are increasingly viewed as incursions. Positions have solidified along LAC, even if a mutually accepted borderline has not.
It is no small irony that the single greatest bone of contention between the two most populous countries on earth is an uninhabited wasteland with little economic, strategic, or cultural value. Geography is apparently not without a sense of humour.
Kyle Gardner is a non-resident scholar at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University, and the author of The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and the Making of the India-China Border, 1846-1962The views expressed are personal