India v. China: Border Games

India is now the belle of the ball, as most of the world and Asian regional powers make pilgrimages to New Delhi to flatter and flirt with India’s dynamic Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Modi and India come with a certain amount of unpleasant baggage, which their suitors do their best to ignore.  Modi himself is an unrepentant Hindutva cultural chauvinist  whose attitudes toward Muslims (and convincing circumstantial evidence of his involvement in an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat—so convincing, in fact, he was previously banned from the United States) trend toward the fascistic.

In regional affairs, India has not been a particularly responsible or constructive actor, having mixed it up with Pakistan (assisted the split-off of East Pakistan a.ka. Bangladesh in 1971), Nepal (opened the door to the Nepalese Maoists with its ineptly executed deposition of King Gyanendra in 2008), and Sikkim (Sikkim, in case you noticed, doesn’t exist anymore; it was annexed by India in 1975), and has presided over a bloody insurgency and brutal counterinsurgency in Kashmir that has claimed the lives of at least 60,000 people.  India birthed the horrific Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka  and its intelligence services played what may have been a decisive role in organizing and executing the successful electoral challenge, on January 8, 2015, which ended the rule of the pro-Chinese (now-ex) president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

And there’s the People’s Republic of China, and the contested borderlands of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast and Ladakh/Aksai Chin in the northwest.

Japan’s Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, got himself tangled up in the Arunachal Pradesh issue during his recent visit to India.

China today lodged a protest with Tokyo after Japan’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that Arunachal Pradesh was “India’s territory”.

Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, a conservative daily, quoted Fumio Kishida as having made the remarks in New Delhi on Saturday.

Japan played down the issue today, saying it could not confirm Kishida’s reported remarks. It added that it hoped India and China could resolve their border dispute peacefully.

Kishida’s reported remarks drew an angry response from China, which called on Tokyo to “understand the sensitivity of the Sino-India boundary issue”.

A Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson said “the statement was made considering the reality that Arunachal Pradesh state is basically in reality controlled by India and that China and India are continuing negotiations over the border dispute”.

China disputes the entire territory of Arunachal, calling it south Tibet, especially Tawang, a key site for Tibetan Buddhism. The historic town briefly fell into Chinese hands during their 1962 war before Beijing retreated.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry backtracked expeditiously, indicating that Kishida’s remarks were perhaps a slip of the tongue and not meant to inject Japan into the Arunachal Pradesh issue.

Ever since Prime Minister Abe returned to office with an India-centric Asian policy, yearnings have been expressed that Japan might openly side with India on the Arunachal Pradesh issue.  The PRC, was extremely leery of previous PM Manmohan Singh and his overt diplomatic and emotional tilt toward Japan and, with good reason, has expected the current officeholder, Narendra Modi, to play off China, Russia, and the United States in a more pragmatic manner.

Modi will certainly keep the PRC off balance. President Obama’s decision to accept Prime Minister Modhi’s invitation to attend the Republic Day extravaganza further buttressed Modi’s prestige and popularity within India and elicited a wave of “Mobama” triumphalism in the press, much to China’s discomfiture.

Modi averred to President Obama that he was angry and disappointed with the PRC over alleged border perfidy in Ladakh in 2014 at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit, and Modi endorsed the US position on the South China Sea and efforts to upgrade the US-Japan-India-Australia security quadrilateral.

In the matter of the “border” incident (there is no accepted border or even a mutually understood Line of Control; there is an overlapping 20-kilometer wide band in which Indian and PRC local forces work within ill-defined “Lines of Perception” and engage in persistent envelope-pushing, patrolling, hut construction, and road-building that make it easy for either side to foment an incident) in the barren wastes of Ladakh, perhaps Xi Jinping thought he could get Sino-Indian relations on a solid footing by humiliating Modi before his army and his nation with a gratuitous provocation.

An equally plausible explanation for the otherwise inexplicable PRC affront–which recapitulated a previous incident in Ladakh that similarly overshadowed the decidedly unmartial technocrat Li Keqiang’s state visit in 2013–was that it was engineered by hardliners in the Indian security establishment (who exhaustively backgrounded, briefed, and ballyhoo’d the incident to the receptive Indian press during Xi’s visit) to balk PRC attempts to improve relations and negotiate the borders issue, and Modi grasped the opportunity to wrongfoot the economically and strategically overbearing PRC in order to advance his strategic agenda

In this case, perhaps Modi was putting the incident to further good use to tell President Obama exactly what he wanted to hear, provide a compelling narrative to underpin the important Sino-US relationship, and help extract various economic and security benefits, including the heightened intelligence cooperation that advocates of the US-Indian security alliance are promoting.

Per the Indian Express (which also revealed in passing that, in addition to the canonical “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangement, the US has also midwifed “Nine Eyes” and “Fourteen Eyes” intel clubs in Europe in addition to pacts with Japan and South Korea), Indian intelligence priorities will include a) Pakistan b) China c) keeping the US at arms-length, not necessarily in that order:

The pact would enable India access to encrypted digital traffic its intelligence services are now unable to decipher.  It would also make state-of-the-art western espionage technology available to the Directorate of Military Intelligence and the National Technical Research Organization…The US has provided a growing volume of information on planned attacks by Pakistan-based groups–helping India pre-empt at least two attacks on diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan.


There are, sources said, several formidable challenges to be overcome before India can begin purchasing cutting edge digital intelligence technologies from the US. For example, fearful that equipment can be used to eavesdrop on sensitive information, India insists on domestic security certification for purchases.  However, no Indian firm currently certifies EAL7+, the most stringent standard for digital security.

Fears also exist that an intelligence-sharing agreement might allow penetration of its own secrets.  The Vajpayee government (the first BJP national government–ed.) which saw the first warming in ties with the US, was deeply embarrassed by the disclosure that the US had recruited Research and Analysis Wing officer Rabinder Sing…

It remains to be seen who comes out ahead in the US-India tango and, in particular, how deep Modi is willing to follow the US down the China-containment rabbit hole.  Modi’s statements on China policy are, for the time being, cost-free lip service and in the end, Modi played true to independent form in the matter of climate change by publicly and bluntly rejecting President Obama’s call to limit India’s greenhouse gas emissions.

For the PRC, an important area of anxiety is Arunachal Pradesh and the threat that India might “internationalize” the bilateral border dispute by canvassing its actual and would-be allies for support on the issue, perhaps even to the extent of going tit-for-tat with Japan i.e. India backing Japan on the issue of Senkaku sovereignty in return for Japanese aid and comfort on AP.

However, for the time being it looks like Japan—like the Asian Development Bank, which ran into a PRC buzzsaw when it tried to put an Arunachal Pradesh hydropower project on its agenda in 2009—is not quite ready to mix it up on AP.

Let’s unpack the Arunachal Pradesh issue.

Arunachal Pradesh is a region controlled by India in its northeast quadrant, between Bhutan and Burma, home to a variety of ethnic groups.  One of those groups is Tibetan, centered on the town and district of Tawang in the western end of AP at the border with Bhutan.

The Arunachal Pradesh dispute is bookended with Aksai Chin, a blasted desert between India and the PRC in the northwest that is controlled by the PRC.  The Indian claim to Aksai Chin is not terribly robust, since it is based on an internal British Indian survey—the Johnson Line—which was never discussed or agreed with China.  The PRC built a strategic road across Aksai Chin in the 1950s, and it took several years for the Indian government to even find out it was there.

There is a third slice of disputed territory, the “Trans-Karakorum Tract” bordering Kashmir, geographically distinct from Aksai Chin, which India claims Pakistan illegally ceded to the PRC in a land swap.  For some reason, the PRC and India aren’t arguing about this piece.

Both Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin territories have been openly disputed since before the 1962 Sino-Indian war.  The PRC has at times offered a grand bargain in which the two sides acknowledge each other’s regions of effective control, by which India got AP and the PRC gets AC.

The official Indian response has been Nothing Doing and all territory it lost in the 1962 war must be recovered i.e. Aksai Chin is not negotiable.  It has decoupled the two issues, and has focused its diplomacy on the insistence that its sovereignty over AP be confirmed.

India’s claim to AP is complicated in an interesting way.

In 1914, Great Britain was interested in creating an autonomous Tibetan buffer—“Outer Tibet”—between British India and Russia/China.  To this end, Sir Henry McMahon, the Foreign Minister of British India, invited Tibetan and Republic of China delegates to the Indian town of Simla.

Tibet, eager to be acknowledged as an autonomous power with its own rights to negotiate directly with foreign powers (and not just through China), generously conceded a delineation of Lhasa’s sphere of control—the McMahon Line–alienating Tawang, a market town that interested the Raj, to British India.

However, the Simla Agreement was negotiated between the Tibetan and British representatives in a provisional sort of way after the Chinese representatives had packed up and left.  Since Britain’s Foreign Office was protective of its China diplomacy and not interested in encouraging Tibetan pretensions to negotiate as an independent sovereign power, the absence of the Chinese representatives—and without a Chinese endorsement of the border arrangement accepted by the Tibetan authorities–was a dealbreaker.

The Simla Agreement was apparently treated as an aspirational document and was recorded in the most authoritative compendium of British Indian treaties, Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads, with the notation that neither Great Britain nor China had ratified the treaty.  China, indeed, never accepted the McMahon Line.  Since Tibet wasn’t recognized as a sovereign power, whatever it hoped to achieve with the Simla Accord—and what it had tried to give away, namely Tawang– was, in the eyes of the British, moot.

Things puttered along until 1935, when the detention of a British spy in Tawang by Tibetan authorities awakened the cupidity of a diplomat in the Foreign Office of British India, Olaf Caroe.

Caroe checked the files, found that Great Britain had no ratified claims on Tawang, and decided to amend and improve the record.

He arranged for the relevant original volume of the 1929 Aitchison compendium to be withdrawn from the various libraries in which it was filed, discarded, and replaced with a new version—but one that still claimed to be compiled in 1929, thereby removing the need for awkward explanations or documentation concerning why the switch had happened.  The spurious version claimed that Tibet and Britain had accepted the treaty.  Thereby, the unsurveyed McMahon Line was repurposed as a sacrosanct British imperial border.

The deception was only discovered in 1964, when a researcher was able to compare one of the last three surviving copies of the original compendium, at Harvard University, with the spurious replacement.

Unfortunately, that was too late for Nehru, who staked his security strategy and his diplomatic exchanges with China to a significant extent on the fallacy that he had inherited from British India a clear and unequivocal claim to its borders.

In 1962 Nehru decided to move up military units to assert India’s claim to contested territory in Ladakh/Aksai Chin and in Arunachal Pradesh under a gambit optimistically named The Forward Policy.  Unluckily for Nehru, Chairman Mao was itching to stick it to India’s patron, Nikita Khrushchev, and the PLA attacked with overwhelming force on both fronts.   India’s entire strategy had been predicated on the assumption that the PRC would not respond (shades, I think, of Western confidence that Vladimir Putin would stay his hand in eastern Ukraine out of fear of sanctions and the wrath of his impoverished and disgruntled oligarchs) and the Indian Army, outnumbered, undersupplied, and disorganized, was completely unprepared for a desperate fight on the remote, high altitude battlefields.

India suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the PLA.  After its victory, the PRC decided to take the high ground, diplomatically as well as geographically. It withdrew its forces to behind the McMahon Line and offered negotiations of the boundaries based on the status quo, in other words a de facto swap of AP for AC.

No dice, as we have seen.  India clearly does not see any need to credit Arunachal Pradesh—territory that the PRC abandoned—as any kind of bargaining chip concerning Aksai Chin.  This is, perhaps, a cautionary tale to the PRC as to the geostrategic minuses as well as pluses of trying to behave like Mr. Nice Guy.

This history is officially persona non grata in India.  The report the Indian government commissioned on the 1962 war—the Henderson Brooks Report–was so devastating to India’s position and its legal, military, and diplomatic pretensions it was promptly banned and publication is forbidden to this day.  In an ironic recapitulation of the case of the Aitchison compendium, it was assumed that there were only two typewritten copies and they were securely buttoned up in safes in New Delhi.  However, the Times of London correspondent, Neville Maxwell, promptly got his hands on a copy and used it to write an expose on the tragedy of errors in 1962, India’s China War, thereby earning himself the fierce hatred of generations of Indian nationalists.

Maxwell tried several times to put the report into the public domain.

As quoted in Outlook India, Maxwell provided an interesting account of how the freedom of expression sausage gets made when the information involved is not necessarily a matter of national security (the report is classified Top Secret, but its content—the minutiae of military decisions and movements fifty years ago–has no current strategic or tactical significance) but is a matter of supreme political embarrassment (to Nehru, the Congress Party, the Gandhi political dynasty, and to the army).

My first attempt to put the Report itself on the public record was indirect and low-key: after I retired from the University I donated my copy to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where, I thought, it could be studied in a setting of scholarly calm. The Library initially welcomed it as a valuable contribution in that “grey area” between actions and printed books, in which I had given them material previously. But after some months the librarian to whom I had entrusted it warned me that, under a new regulation, before the Report was put on to the shelves and opened to the public it would have to be cleared by the British government with the government which might be adversely interested! Shocked by that admission of a secret process of censorship to which the Bodleian had supinely acceded I protested to the head Librarian, then an American, but received no response. Fortunately I was able to retrieve my donation before the Indian High Commission in London was alerted in the Bodleian’s procedures and was perhaps given the Report.

In 2002, noting that all attempts in India to make the government release the Report had failed, I decided on a more direct approach and made the text available to the editors of three of India’s leading publications, asking that they observe the usual journalistic practice of keeping their source to themselves. … To my surprise the editors concerned decided, unanimously, not to publish… Later I gave the text to a fourth editor and offered it to a fifth, with the same nil result.

Narendra Modi, a determined foe of the Congress Party and the Gandhis (I had to chuckle when I read these fawning articles about President Obama bonding with Prime Minister Modi over their shared Gandhi love, despite the awkward fact that Modi’s Hindutva movement was and apparently still is the spiritual home of Gandhi’s assassin), came to power promising to release the report…but didn’t.  And when Maxwell finally posted part of the report on his website in 2014, the site was symbolically blocked.

Here is a link to a scan of Maxwell’s copy of the Henderson Brooks report..

The Indian army, in particular, is wedded to a creation myth of PRC perfidy that is infinitely more utile than acknowledging that the PLA attack, rather than unprovoked, was a response to a strategically and diplomatically bankrupt Indian border gambit compounded by non-stop miscues by India’s civilian leadership and disastrous defeat for its military forces.  This default presumption of Chinese aggression against innocent India, which is still widely accepted in India and abroad, also makes it easy for India to impose its narrative on murky matters like the Ladakh incidents of 2013 and 2014–clashes which, when viewed through the lens of 1962, invite the speculation that India has not abandoned its border-pushing ways.

In 2005, the PRC and India started negotiations over the borders issue.  Here’s a nice explainer from the Daily Mail! in 2013 which signals that Aksai Chin might be on the table, but Tawang is off the table, and unfortunately omits the significant complication of the Caroe forgery.

India’s move into Arunachal Pradesh in the 1950s is less than a slam dunk according to international law, complicated in particular by the issue of Tawang.

Not only is there the problem of the shakiness of the McMahon line, highlighted by Olaf Caroe’s bibliographic hijinks, there is the awkward fact that India forcefully displaced Tibetan theocratic rule in Tawang—nominally rule from Lhasa, actually local rule by the immensely powerful monastery.

Lhasa had apparently experienced cartographic remorse over Simla and implored India to recognize Tawang as Tibetan territory in 1947.  Instead, India seized the district in 1951 in a quasi-official/quasi-military “liberating the Tibetan serfs” operation rather similar to what the PRC conducted in its part of Tibet.

In recent years, the Dalai Lama has been forced into the unpleasant position of affirming Indian sovereignty over Tawang, whose great monastery (the second largest in Tibetan Buddhism) first gave him shelter when he fled PRC control in 1959, and which had hosted the reincarnation of the 6th Dalai Lama way back when.

The Dalai Lama apparently verbally acknowledged, if not in writing, that AP and Tawang belonged to India on a couple occasions while he still served at the apex of power in the Tibetan government in exile (a position he relinquished in 2011).

However, I assume twisting the Dalai Lama’s arm to concede Indian sovereignty over Tawang falls a little bit short, since the Tibetan government-in-exile lacks international recognition (and with it the right to cede territory to India).

The PRC is happy to harp on Tawang’s role in the AP situation, since it serves as a continual reminder that India is occupying territory in AP that, however you slice it, is a core component of the Tibetan homeland, thereby keeping alive a non-Indian or, if you want, a PRC-cum-Tibet claim to at least part of the region and attempting to balk India’s attempt to claim full sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh under international law.

To understand how this relates to the Senkakus requires reflection on another piece of suppressed history—that the United States returned the Senkakus to Japanese administrative control not sovereignty in 1973 as part of the Okinawa package with the stated expectation that the sovereignty of the rocks would be negotiated between China and Japan.

My personal opinion is that the PRC is in no hurry to unfreeze the conflict over Arunachal Pradesh, and its insistence on sovereignty over Tawang—a district, I suspect, that has extremely limited interest in reunification with the Chinese motherland—is something of a pretext.

With the Simla Agreement tainted and no subsequent cession of Tawang by Tibet or China, the Indian position in Tawang is embarrassingly similar to that of the PRC in the matter of its seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 i.e. having expelled the previous rulers by conquest and achieved control of the territory without attaining international recognition of its sovereignty.  And it’s somewhat similar to the Senkakus, where the United States effectively surrendered its sovereignty over the islands when it returned Okinawa and the Ryukyus to Japan, but didn’t cede its claim to anybody else.

Maybe Arunachal Pradesh is another one of those Mexican-standoff situations like Kashmir vs. Tibet (a.k.a. the Indian temptation to make mischief in the ethnic-Tibetan areas of the PRC is inhibited by concern that the PRC, via Pakistan, might light the fuse in Kashmir).  The PRC keeps the Tawang/AP issue alive to forestall thoughts by India of giving aid and comfort to Japan on the Senkakus or, for that matter, Vietnam on the Paracels.

Both the PRC and India are bulking up their infrastructure and military on their respective sides of the de facto McMahon-Line-based border, making it a virtual certainty that India will never alienate any part of AP, including Tawang.

That’s good news for reduced actual tensions (as opposed to defense ministry posturing) at the shared border, but India’s heightened sense of security concerning Arunachal Pradesh may encourage it to be less tentative vis a vis the PRC in its Japanese and Vietnamese diplomacy.

So, paradoxically, greater security along the PRC-Indian border may lead to greater insecurity elsewhere.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and covers Asia for CounterPunch.


More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants