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Indo-China Conflict – A Slippery Slope


The enduring border disputes between India and China have been a source of tension for decades, punctuated by occasional flare-ups that have resulted in loss of life on both sides. These conflicts, rooted in territorial claims and historical complexities, underscore a deeper struggle for control and influence in the region.

One of the key factors driving this conflict is China’s covert support of militant groups, such as the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), a Naxalite group. PGLA subscribes to Maoist ideology and operate along the borders, particularly in regions like Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. This support serves China’s strategic interests in destabilizing the region and exerting pressure on India.

Historical Context:

The roots of the territorial dispute between India, Tibet, and China can be traced back over a century, to the annexation of Ladakh by the Sikh Empire in 1834. Subsequent events, such as the Sikhs’ incursion into Tibet in 1841 and the signing of a treaty in 1842 to prevent further conflicts, highlight the early complexities of the region. In 1846, following the British victory in the first Anglo-Sikh war, Ladakh was conceded to the British. They subsequently engaged in negotiations with China to delineate borders based on geographical features.

While most of the border was clearly defined, the region of Aksai Chin remained a point of contention. Initially assigned to Jammu & Kashmir, Aksai Chin was not under full Chinese sovereignty at the time. The demarcation, known as the ‘Johnson Line’, attempted to clarify the boundary but left Aksai Chin in a grey area.

After India gained independence, China contested India’s jurisdiction over Aksai Chin. China clandestinely constructed a road in 1950 that penetrated deep into the region. India came of know of this as late as 1957. This move, aimed at bolstering China’s strategic interests, notably sparked tensions and contributed to the outbreak of the Sino-Indian war in 1962.

Despite the passage of time, skirmishes and disputes persist in the Aksai Chin region, underscoring its continued significance and the unresolved nature of the territorial dispute between India and China.

There was also dispute around North Front. The McMahon Line, established through an agreement between British India and Tibet in 1914, delineated the border in certain regions. China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950s disrupted this arrangement.

The historical context of the Indo-China border will need its own post.

Territorial Disputes:

Indo-China border can be divided into three sectors. The first sector, encompassing the region where India, China, and Pakistan converge, extends all the way to Nepal. It is also referred to as the Western Sector. Aksai Chin, a part of Ladakh under Chinese control, is a focal point of contention here, with India asserting its claim over the territory. Meanwhile, the middle sector, which runs along the border of Tibet with Indian states like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, appears to maintain a status quo without significant disputes.

However, it’s the third sector that stands out as the most fiercely contested. It is also called the Western Sector. Stretching from the India-Bhutan-China frontier to the borders of India-China-Bhutan, this sector includes Indian states such as Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh is particularly contentious, with India citing the Tibet-British India 1914 Shimla Convention as the basis for its territorial rights. Conversely, China rejects this claim, arguing that Tibet lacked sovereign power to enter into such agreements and asserting that Arunachal Pradesh rightfully belongs to Tibet.

Strategic Significance of Arunachal Pradesh:

The strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh cannot be overstated. Firstly, the region of Tawang serves as a critical entry point into India’s northwestern region. It also hosts the second-largest monastery for Tibetan Buddhism. Given the ongoing cultural suppression in Tibet by the Chinese government, Tawang’s deep cultural and religious connections to Tibetans make it a potential flashpoint for dissent and pro-democracy movements. Notably, Tawang holds historical significance as the point through which His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama entered India while fleeing Chinese aggression.

Secondly, Arunachal Pradesh holds significant military value for India. Its proximity to the Chinese mainland makes it a strategic location for missile deployment in the event of a conflict. Additionally, the region plays a crucial role in India’s air defense strategy against potential Chinese aggression. Losing control over Arunachal Pradesh would undermine India’s strategic advantage and security posture in the region.

The third and arguably the most critical aspect is the control of freshwater rivers. The Yarlung Tsangpo River, originating from the Kailash Mountain ranges of the Himalayas in Tibet and known as the Siang in Arunachal Pradesh, has its primary catchment area in Arunachal Pradesh. As it flows downstream, it transforms into the Brahmaputra River, traversing through the state of Assam and into Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Annexing Arunachal Pradesh would grant China significant leverage over this vital river system.

Controlling the Brahmaputra offers several strategic advantages for China. Firstly, it provides immense influence over water resources, crucial for sustaining agriculture, industry, and livelihoods in downstream regions. Secondly, it grants China the ability to regulate water flow, potentially impacting the water supply to neighboring countries like India and Bangladesh. Thirdly, it facilitates hydroelectric power generation, enhancing China’s energy security and economic prowess.

The Brahmaputra’s significance extends beyond geopolitical considerations to environmental and humanitarian concerns. Changes in water flow due to upstream activities could disrupt ecosystems, jeopardize biodiversity, and threaten the livelihoods of millions dependent on the river for sustenance.

Therefore, the control of Arunachal Pradesh holds strategic importance for China, not only in terms of territorial expansion but also in asserting dominance over critical freshwater resources. This aspect adds another layer of complexity to the India-China border dispute and underscores the multifaceted nature of the conflict. Efforts to resolve these issues must consider the broader implications for regional stability, environmental sustainability, and the well-being of affected communities.

Arunachal Pradesh, in particular, holds immense strategic significance for both countries. Its proximity to Tibet, coupled with its military importance and control over freshwater resources, makes it a focal point of contention. The region’s access to vital rivers, including the Brahmaputra, underscores its value in the context of water security—a growing concern in a world grappling with climate change and population growth.

Control of Freshwater Resources:

China’s strategic calculus extends beyond immediate territorial gains, encompassing long-term objectives such as securing access to freshwater resources. The annexation of Tibet, with its vast glaciers and major river systems, aligns with China’s ambitions to control critical water sources that sustain billions of people across Asia.


In essence, the border conflict between India and China is a complex interplay of historical grievances, territorial ambitions, and strategic calculations. Resolving this conflict requires nuanced diplomacy, mutual respect for sovereignty, and a commitment to addressing underlying issues such as water security in the region. Only through dialogue and cooperation can both countries achieve lasting peace and stability along their borders.

Picture from BedexpStock

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