TIC Brief l

China’s territorial disputes with India in Ladakh date back to the modern founding of the two countries. Beijing’s claim lines have shifted west on at least two occasions, each involving demands (based on historical facts) for additional territory amounting to many thousands of square kilometers. Since at least the late 1980s, Chinese intrusions on claimed Indian possessions in Ladakh have intensified. The current standoff seems to be the product of the brewing tensions emanating from conflicting perceptions of boundaries especially in Ladakh region. This brief aims to examine the origins of disputed territory in western sector of Sino-Indian border from a neutral perspective.

  1. Trifurcation of Sino-Indian Border

The India–China boundary is usually trifurcated intro three segments – the Western Sector; the Middle sector; and the Eastern sector.

  • The Eastern sector includes the McMahon Line which runs from the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan from the west to Brahmaputra River in the east, largely along the crest of the Himalayas. This sector is now called the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh. It occupies about an area of 90,000km2 and has a population of over a million people.
  • The Middle sector starts from the tri-junction between the Southwestern of Ngari Prefecture, Tibet, La dwags and Punjab to the tri-junction between China, India and Nepal. Its border is about 450 km long, with about 2,000 km2 of land under dispute. The disputed area in the middle sector on the other hand is much smaller, involving only several pockets.
  • The Western sector starts with the pass of Karakoram in the North to the tri-junction between Tibet’s Ngari Prefecture, La dwags and Himachal Pradesh, running along 600 km. The disputed area, known as Aksai Chin to the outsiders, occupies about 33,500 km2 of land and is now controlled by China.
  1. Lines on the Western Sector

Aksai Chin is a high altitude desert – desolate and devoid of any human importance. It is located in what is considered by India within Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir, or what China considers Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Karakoram Mountains form part of the region; the Karakash River originates in its northern slopes and flows through these lands. Below is a summary of how lines in the western sector were drawn and changed over time:

  • Kashmir played a critical role in the British strategy for securing the northern frontiers of India. The British had annexed Kashmir in 1846, by the Treaty of Amritsar. The ‘Johnson Line’ then determined British India’s border with China.[1]
  • In the late 1890s Johnson Line was supported and enhanced by what is popularly known as the ‘Johnson-Ardagh Line’.[2] A British military officer – Sir John Ardagh proposed a borderline along the Kun Lun Mountains, which is north of the Yarkand River.
  • Yet there remained space for more lines. The British again attempted to redraw the borders for better clarity and to gain acceptance from China, which until now had never been officially sought. In 1899 the ‘McCartney-MacDonald Line’[3] was drawn, it modified the existing line.
  • The British used the MacDonald Line, until the collapse of power in China in 1911 after the Xinhai Revolution. When the Chinese power weakened the British resumed using the Johnson line as the official border.[4]
  1. Examining The Dispute From Historical Lens

In March 1899 Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Minister at Peking, delivered a note to the Chinese Government in which was outlined a proposed definition of the Sino-Indian border from the Pamirs to Western Tibet at a point in the general region of longitude 80°E and latitude 34°30’N. This document, dated 14 March 1899, was, the published evidence would suggest, the only formal detailed statement of the alignment of the boundary in this quarter which an Indian Government ever caused to be communicated to a Chinese Government until the outbreak of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute in the 1950s. As such, it is clearly a document of some considerable interest and hence would be central in examining the border dispute in western sector. It concerns only a portion of the total length of the disputed border in Ladakh, but it is a section which includes the Aksai Chin region through which the Chinese have constructed a motor road linking Sinkiang to Tibet.

  • British note (cited above) to the Chinese Government of 14 March 1899, far from declaring that Aksai Chin was British, actually admitted in precise terms that most of what is known as Aksai Chin in the terminology of the present Sino-Indian boundary dispute, including the territory through which the main Chinese road between Sinkiang (Chinese Turkestan) and Tibet runs, should belong to China.
  • This fact was first revealed by three American authors, Margaret W. Fisher, Leo E. Rose, and Robert A. Huttenback, who note in their Himalayan Battleground: Sino-Indian rivalry in Ladakh that by the boundary proposed in 1899 ‘most of the territory currently in dispute between Delhi and Peking [in Ladakh] would have been conceded to China’.
  • The 1899 note was part of an attempt by Lord Elgin’s Administration in India to secure an agreed Anglo-Chinese boundary from Afghanistan to Tibet. The 1899 note was based on a description of the boundary alignment which Lord Elgin sent to Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India, on 27 October 1898, and which gave the following alignment from the Karakoram Pass eastwards:

“from the Karakoram Pass the crests of the range run nearly east for about half a degree, and then turn south to a little below the 35th parallel of North Latitude. Rounding then what in our m aps is shown as the source of the Karakash, the line of hills to be followed runs north-east to a point east of Kizil Jilga and from there, in a south-easterly direction, follows the Lak Tsung Range until that meets a spur running south from the Kuen Lun Range which has hitherto been shown on our maps as the eastern boundary of Ladakh. This is a little east of 80° East Longitude. We regret that we have no map to show the whole line either accurately or on a large scale.”

  • The note which Sir Claude MacDonald presented to the Chinese Government on 14 March 1899 repeated this description.
  • The maps of the northern parts of Ladakh which were available to the Indian Government in 1898 or 1899 were not remarkable for their accuracy. The basic survey of Ladakh was the Kashmir survey of the 1860s, the results of which were published in the Kashmir Atlas of 1868. For the Aksai Chin portion the Kashmir survey depended almost entirely on the work of W. H. Johnson who made a traverse of this region on a north-south axis in 1865. Johnson’s survey, plane table not trigonometrical, was carried out in a hurry in extremely difficult conditions; and its defects are notorious.
  • The Indian Government, by 1907, were not too happy about the implications of the 1899 line, which, they felt, would permit Tsarist Russia, should that power ever take over Sinkiang, to come rather closer to the centers of Indian population than might be desirable on political and strategic grounds. Sir Louis Dane, the Indian Foreign Secretary, however, made it clear in a letter to R. T. W. Ritchie, Secretary to the Political Department of the India Office in London, dated 4 July 1907, that even if the Chinese could be excluded from Aksai Chin by a modification of the 1899 note, the best that could be hoped for would be that this tract could be confirmed in the possession of Tibet. Tibet, of course, with an Anglo-Russian settlement on it being then under negotiation, could be expected to serve as a reasonable buffer against Russian infiltration.
  • In 1912 the Indian Government, fearing that the outbreak of the Chinese Revolution would provide the occasion for the Russian occupation of Sinkiang, once more began to consider where the northern frontier of Kashmir should run. On 12 September 1912 the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, telegraphed the Secretary of State for India, Lord Crewe, to the effect that a more advanced boundary in this region would now be desirable; and he added that such a boundary should include ‘Aksai Chin plain in our territory’. The telegram is not entirely clear in its wording, but the implication seems to be that Aksai Chin was not at that moment formally British, an omission which should be rectified. Lord Hardinge’s proposals were not acted upon.
  • By 1914, still with the objective in mind of keeping the Russians as far away as possible, the Indian Government appears to have hit upon another solution to the Aksai Chin problem, one already indicated by Sir Louis Dane in 1907. During the Simla Conference, when the chief British Delegate, Sir Henry McMahon was busy drawing boundary lines on maps designed to create buffers between Chinese and British territory, a somewhat indirect attempt seems to have been made to obtain Chinese agreement that Aksai Chin was Tibetan rather than Chinese.
  • There is evidence to suggest that in 1927 the Indian Government, after a period of considering more advanced boundaries, returned once more to the 1899 alignment. This decision, however, did not then find expression on official Indian maps, which tended on the whole to mark the northern and northeastern boundaries of Kashmir as being ‘undefined’. While the 1899 alignment was in general adopted at this time, however, in the Aksai Chin region, it would seem that it was departed from so as to bring this desolate tract, still regarded as a potentially useful buffer between British India and a possible Russian dominated Sinkiang, into British India. Perhaps the Indian Government concluded that no one would notice.
  1. Conclusion

‘McCartney-MacDonald Line’ was the only western sector border proposed by British Indian rulers to Chinese officials. As such, it is clearly a document which should be used to analyze respective claims on border areas. Aksai Chin which is center of attention due to current faceoff clearly belongs to China.

[1] W.H Johnson, a civil servant attached with the Survey of India was sent to survey the area; the ‘advanced boundary line’ he drew was heavily criticized and still continues to be as controversial it was over a century ago. This line was based in the Kashmir Maharaja’s outpost at Shahidullah, making the Kuen Lun watershed as the divide and not the Karakoram Range.

[2] This line closed the gap between Pangong Lake and Karakoram pass and extended from Shahidullah, along the Keun Len Mountains.

[3] This line holds the specialty of being the only line formally notified to China by the British Empire, however it received no reply.

[4] Following the Russian revolution in 1917, the British Empire was no more concerned with Russian expansion in central Asia. With time, the complexities have only multiplied and the borders still remained undefined.


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