Home / Opinion / South Asia’s Borders |By A.G.Noorani
ON March 23, India and China began in New Delhi the 18th round of talks on their boundary dispute. China’s able Foreign Minister Wang Yi,

South Asia’s Borders |By A.G.Noorani

ON March 23, India and China began in New Delhi the 18th round of talks on their boundary dispute. China’s able Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a graduate of Georgetown University, said recently: “The dispute has been contained. At the moment, the boundary negotiation is in the process of building small positive developments.”

Baby steps are all that one can expect. After the 1962 war, talks were resumed in December 1981 at the secretary level. The result was six agreements, from 1993 to 2013, all to “contain” the dispute, not resolve it. That can be done only at a high political level which China has always preferred. While the dispute with India festers, the one with Pakistan was resolved in 1963 by an agreement which is very instructive.

The basic truth about the northern boundaries of the British Empire in South Asia is that they were completely undefined, except in parts. One was the Durand Line, the boundary with Afghanistan, and the other was the McMahon Line, the boundary with Tibet. From the tri-junction of Pakistan, Afghanistan and China in the west to the India, Nepal and China tri-junction in the east, the entire boundary was undefined.


The northern boundaries of the British Empire in South Asia were largely undefined.


Both India and Pakistan faced incursions across the undefined borders. President Ayub Khan describes in his memoirs how he went about tackling the problem. His enquiries centred on the past as well as the present. “Some attempts had been made by the British” to define the boundary, he says. A weak China did not respond. “I asked our experts to mark what from our point of view constituted the actual line of control on the map.” China did not respond to his offer of talks made “towards the end of December 1959.” In December 1961, he took up the matter personally with the Chinese ambassador.

China asked what the basis for the talks would be and was told that it would be on the basis of the line of actual control and in the light of history. The result was the agreement signed on March 2, 1963, at Beijing. Every single authority on the subject belies the version that Pakistan ceded land to China. During the Raj, people in Hunza would cross the Shimshal Pass with their flocks for grazing. A high Pakistani source informed this writer that the change to an agreed draft was readily agreed to by the then prime minister Zhou Enlai in a midnight meeting, once he was assured that there were no second thoughts on the agreed text.

Andrew Small’s masterly work The China-Pakistan Axis, published this year, holds that the settlement “was clearly favourable to Pakistan. China would transfer 1,942 square kilometres that it controlled to Pakistan. …”

An accord on similar lines was offered by Zhou to Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in their talks in New Delhi in April. He was prepared to accept the McMahon Line in return for India’s acceptance of the Line of Actual Control in the Aksai Chin area in the Ladakh province of Jammu & Kashmir. Nehru unwisely rejected it. He had the maps revised.

On July 1, 1954, he wrote a long memorandum laying down this line on the entire frontiers in the north. “This frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody.” There was a fixed line in the north-east the McMahon Line on which no Indian government could compromise. But Zhou did not seek one either in New Delhi. The dispute centred on Aksai Chin through which China had built the Xinjiang-Tibet highway and spread eastwards. A compromise here was certainly possible.

Every edition of Aitchison’s authoritative Treaties clearly stated: “The northern as well as the eastern boundary of the Kashmir state is still undefined.” This was the fundamental on which all deliberations rested from 1846 till 1947. As foreign secretary, he wrote: “As to the boundary of the Kashmir state on the Karakoram range, it has been officially declared to be undefined.” As late as Jan 10, 1924, Sir Arthur Hirtzl of the India Office held “so far as we know there is no officially recognised boundary.”

There emerged another problem with the 1963 agreement which India contested. But right from 1960, China had made it plain that the boundary west of the Karakoram Pass was not open to discussion with India.

This explains the deadlock in a dispute pre-eminently susceptible to a solution. Each has its vital non-negotiable interest securely under its control. India has the McMahon Line. China has the Aksai Chin road. Only a political deal can resolve the deadlock: a give and take in the Aksai Chin and India’s acquiescence in the 1963 agreement.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2015

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