A New View on Border Tensions between India and China

A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the areas outlined in red showing the disputed areas (Source: Creative Commons).
A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the disputed areas outlined in red (Source: Creative Commons).

Numerous disputes exist in remote regions of the world where the terrain makes it difficult to secure and manage borders. One well-known example is the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. Known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this line demarcating the frontier between Indian and Chinese-controlled territory is the longest disputed land border in the world. Natural, human and technological issues complicate the management of this disputed border, as explained by Iskander Rehman in a paper published in the most recent issue of the Naval War College Review.

The entire Sino-Indian border is 4056 km in length, with disputed areas found in Aksai Chin in the western part of the border and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern area. The disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh is sometimes referred to as the McMahon Line, which Britain and Tibet agreed to in 1914, but which has never been acknowledged by China. Both of these areas were taken over by the Chinese in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, and the two countries have remained in an uneasy coexistence since then.

This tweet from Japan offers a humorous take on the long standing border issue between the two countries, saying “The Indian Army and the China People’s Liberation Army intersect near the border. Tension is continuing.”

Several factors have influenced the dynamics of the border dispute since 1962, as highlighted by Rehman. Three relate to military activities: India has a greater military presence along the disputed areas of the LAC, while China possesses better communications infrastructure and a more unified command structure.

Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)
Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)

The fourth arises from the climate and terrain in the disputed regions. Due to the remoteness and large expanse of the Himalayas, multiple land border disputes are located within the mountain range. These can involve control of the region’s features, such as glaciers. For example, India and Pakistan have been involved in a stand-off over the Siachen Glacier in Karakoram in the northwestern part of the Himalayas since 1984.

In the case of the Sino-Indian border disputes, the climate and terrain can confer strategic advantages, while creating challenges for both sides. Rehman argues that the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau create advantages for the Chinese in terms of surveillance and the execution of artillery operations, while allowing troops stationed there to acclimatize to high-altitude warfare. Thick layers of frost and ice can also render regions of Aksai Chin more passable for heavy vehicles in winter, aiding the movement of troops and equipment. 

The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao / Creative Commons).
The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Creative Commons).

However, other mountain passes can become inaccessible during harsh winters, and steep slopes contribute to regular landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, disrupting traffic. The highly unpredictable climate of mountainous terrain also makes military operations much more difficult, with extreme changes in the weather creating problems for troops and equipment. The effects of these difficulties are all too evident in the dispute between India and Pakistan, with the vast majority of casualties on both sides attributed to exposure, frostbite and avalanches, according to Rehman.

Although hostilities ceased after 1962, and signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement emerged in the late 1970s, the issue of ‘gray-zone aggression’ (tactics adopted by revisionist powers that are coercive but do not cross established international red-lines) has created concern in India.

Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts)
Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts).

Rehman highlights the fact that India is particularly troubled by China’s use of infrastructure development to cement claims over contested territory. Construction is often undertaken during seasons when snow makes areas inaccessible to India’s military, increasing tension along the border. The Indian military is often unable to detect these in a timely manner, allowing the Chinese to encroach on Indian territory. Gray-zone aggression also occurs in the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is arguably more of an option in remote, inaccessible terrain.

The importance of these Himalayan territories to both countries is complex. “The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia and China. Chinese Communist Party core interests are first and foremost continued party rule and then territorial integrity,” Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, stated in an interview with GlacierHub. “The Belt and Road Initiative is the key Chinese strategic project and infrastructure project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan (or Chinese) controlled areas claimed by India in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is a key and very contentious part of this initiative.”

Climate change could also have implications on this and other border conflicts within the Himalayas. However, Karine Gagne, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology who has worked in Ladakh, explained that this is an important issue that has been poorly addressed so far. While military tactics and capabilities play a large role in such disputes, the role of natural factors like terrain and climate in regions like the Himalayas is undisputed and can create both advantages and challenges for different parties.