The seas of East Asia are the centre of today’s global territorial disputes. Whether it be the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea – where China, Japan and Taiwan claim sovereignty – or the South China Sea – where a myriad of overlapping claims lead to regular diplomatic spats – it is this region that seemingly threatens to embroil China in a conflict with its neighbours.
The news, then, that India has protested at an incursion of Chinese troops across a disputed border in Ladakh province, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a timely reminder of one of the Chinese’s most incendiary border disputes.
There are two main border disputes between China and India. Aksai Chin is the first, forming a mountainous buffer zone between the neighbouring giants and which India claims is a part of the Ladakh province encroached upon in the past few days by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
The inhospitable nature of Aksai Chin did not stop a Chinese invasion force crossing into the disputed territory in October 1962 to inflict a swift rout upon the defending Indian forces, whose death toll climbed quickly amidst the harshness of winter. After India provided the Dalai Lama with sanctuary in 1959, Sino-Indian relations deteriorated rapidly and the border dispute was both a convenient excuse for conflict, whilst also providing a potentially beneficial strategic outcome for the Chinese. The Chinese extended their tentative claim line into what Indians considered their territory, before declaring a unilateral ceasefire.
Simultaneously, the PLA had advanced into the other disputed border zone. This territory forms the northern part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, formerly the North East Frontier Agency of British India. As is so often the case, it is the former colonial authorities who lie at the heart of this particular dispute. During their 19th century incursions into the depths of India, the British claimed the region of Arunachal Pradesh and negotiated a border – known as the McMahon Line after its proponent – with Tibet, negating to inform the Chinese, who laid claim to part of the territory.
Even deep into the 20th century, and under communist rule, the Chinese were still rankled by what they saw as a deep territorial injustice as the McMahon Line was retained as an international boundary for a newly independent India.
On the 1st October 1967, almost exactly five years after the Sino-Indian War, the Chola Incident occurred. This one-day skirmish stemmed from PLA troops crossing the McMahon Line into the province of Sikkim, resulting in ten Chinese and four Indian deaths.
In mid-1987 a less intense skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops took place in the very far northeast of India in the Sumdorong Chu Valley. A restrained affair, it resulted in no fatalities but was confirmation once again of the fragile peace existing across the former British dominion border.
In exchange for recognising Sikkim as a province in 1993, India officially accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China and a ‘line of actual control’ was agreed across their disputed borders. The passage of time, coupled with the economic importance of the Sino-Indian trading relationship, has seen the preservation of the line of actual control, despite Indian claims that the Chinese have violated it 500 times since 2010.
This accusation, coupled with China’s recent serious incursion, It is testament to the forces of nationalism, history and the vast size of both countries and a reminder that such events are always likely to reoccur. Removed from their political masters, the army generals on the Himalayan frontier between China and India can act with a degree of impunity, aware that the quashing of their ambitions will take at the very least time if not great resources and political persuasion.
Whilst wary eyes are cast towards the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula for the potential flashpoints of regional conflict, a thought should be spared for the precarious balance of power along the old McMahon Line. It would only take a slight miscalculation of judgement for Asia’s two biggest powers to be brought to the brink of war. Whatever economic interdependence may exist between the two states could be dashed by the wants of sovereignty and nationalism.