Unresolved Territorial Disputes between Regional Powers: China and India

Alessandro Gagaridis, Bakhit Ikranbekov, Elizabeth Fisher, Jeremy Robinson, Phil Acey, Jenson Hu PACOM Team

September 20, 2020


The Chinese and Indian governments have agreed to ease tensions following various territorial disputes  throughout the region of Southern Asia and along the Chinese-Indian border, including physical fights that took the life of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers in June. The Chinese have claimed the rights to the Aksai Chin region, in the northwestern section of the Ladakh District in India, as well as various parts of the Himalayas. China has been utilizing various forms of coercion such as leveraging debts and diverting rivers to assert their claims. This recent news has also drawn attention to the various other border conflicts occuring in the region, such as the ones involving other nations like Nepal and Pakistan. There have been previous agreements that have not done much to end the conflict permanently. It is likely that the Chinese may break this agreement again.


China has two main territorial disputes with India, such as Aksai Chin in the northeastern section of Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh region.[1] After gaining independence in 1947, India assumed control of Britain’s occupied Chinese territories. The result was that India invaded and occupied 90,000 square kilometers. In 1959, India claimed Aksai Chin territory in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.[2] Moreover, following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, when India granted refuge to the Dalai Lama, a series of violent border clashes erupted between the two countries. When India rejected the proposed diplomatic solution by China, Chinese military activity and aggression grew throughout 1960–1962.[3] The growing tensions occurred in a brief and bloody war in 1962 between China and India, where India was defeated.[4] However, India and China have not resolved territorial issues with each other so far. One of the recent major disputes occurred in 2017.  The dispute occurred near the borders of India, China and Bhutan over the remote Doklam Plateau. However, rigid confrontation in 2017, did not prevent India and China from making an agreement to "expeditious disengagement" of their troops.[5]


Many rivers that flow into India originate in China. In its border dispute with India, China could use its control of water resources to pressure India to capitulate to Chinese demands on some territory in Ladakh in exchange for continuous flow of the Brahmaputra River or other rivers that sustain Indian and Bengali agricultural regions. In the China-Nepal border dispute, China is using natural resources as a weapon to redraw borders.  A Nepali government report said that China has occupied ten different locations of Nepalese territory, comprising 33 hectares.[6] Since rivers mark some of the Nepal-China border, Nepal has accused China of deliberately diverting the Bagdare Khola and Karnali rivers further into Nepal in order to legally claim more territory.[7] In effect, China could utilize its state media to place the blame on India for its territorial dispute in Ladakh and Aksai Chin as well as build more dams in Tibet to restrict and control the flow of major rivers into India.


The Chinese state media have repeated the official narrative of the Chinese government that Indian troops were responsible for violating the ceasefire, no official tally of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s deaths or injuries were mentioned.[8] Global Times’ Hu Xijin argued that the reason China did not release casualty figures was because “the Chinese side doesn’t want people of the two countries to compare the casualties number so to avoid stoking public mood.”[9] Chinese social media users turned to Weibo, the most popular Chinese microblogging website likened to Twitter and Facebook, for answers and speculations as to the “actual casualty count.” However, only a very few Weibo accounts posted about the death toll of 35 PLA soldiers cited by the Indian media based on the intelligence from the United States. The report of 35 dead on the Chinese side was widely shared across Indian media, but the same news was reportedly only shared nine times on Weibo. It is highly likely that PLA casualties were considered a sensitive matter to the CCP and it might damage the regime’s prestige and power projection.


Since June, post-conflict anti-China sentiment increased rapidly in India as the Modi government banned the use of 59 Chinese apps, in its strongest move yet targeting Beijing. Indian nationals were seen on the streets burning the Chinese flag and portraits of Xi Jinping in a defiant act that could trigger further decoupling between the two nations and have long-term impact on their bilateral relations. Even Indian celebrities have joined the movement in circulating hashtags on Twitter such as “BoycottChina” and “BoycottChineseProducts” in hopes of generating global awareness and support.[10] There has been an equally dramatic rise in nationalism, if not more, inside China since June. Whereas the majority of pro-Beijing nationalist sentiments centered around Weibo, India’s social media users turned to Twitter to gain more attraction from international audiences with hashtags like ‘WeStandWithTheIndianArmy”. Furthermore, anti-Indian racism was another problem surfacing on Weibo. In a 7/21 news posted by Global Times on Weibo, the title reads “印度猴子推倒墙砸死一家5口”, which roughly translates to “A monkey in India knocked down a wall and killed a family of 5”, the comment section was flooded with racial slurs and language that were meant to make fun of India’s living conditions and the Indian people.[11]


The situation along the Line of Actual Control is difficult for both China and India. China holds a crushing numerical superiority over India in all fields, even though the latter’s large pool of reservists (if mobilized) would outnumber the Chinese military even if it called to arms its own relatively small reserve troops.[12] The PRC has also been modernizing its forces to a pace that India has not been able to sustain. Yet, the power balance along the India-China border on the Himalaya (Line of Actual Control, LAC) is different; as the Indian military is in a position of global advantage over the PLA, at least in the short term.[13]


The LAC mostly runs along high mountainous ranges subject to landslides and flooding. This makes it difficult to upkeep and supply military outposts, to rapidly send reinforcements and to advance. The Indian side is made of narrow valleys separated by mountains, in contrast to China’s relatively more open terrain. Moreover, operating at high over-the-sea altitudes and low temperatures negatively affects aircraft payload, mechanical failures, ballistic trajectories, and more. This presents specific challenges for both parties. Along the LAC, India has a larger number of forward-deployed ground and air forces positioned in defense of the valleys leading to its territories; whereas the bulk of China’s units are located farther from the border so they can rapidly intervene in case of domestic trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang. India’s deployment strategy is meant to offset the difficulty of moving them due to the fragmented nature of the terrain on its side; a problem affecting China to a lesser degree. The challenge for the PRC is to quickly move its forces forward and advance into India’s territory through the easily-defended Himalayan valleys. In this logic, China has improved its communication and transport capabilities by building roads and railways. India’s logistical infrastructure upgrade has lagged behind China’s, and outposts located on a higher ground give the PLA an advantage in surveillance and targeting to disrupt the limited Indian communication lines. Nevertheless, the difficult terrain complicates such operations.


In spite of its problems India currently holds a general short-term advantage, but neither party wants a long-dragging war in such difficult conditions. Therefore, the most likely scenario is a brief localized conflict to gain control of strategic outposts and negotiate from a position of strength. India can achieve this objective in the first days of war, but it must be able to hold its ground to ultimately prevail in negotiations. In fact, a prolonged clash would allow China to bring more troops and deploy its most advanced platforms to launch an offensive that may reverse the respective negotiating strength.


Numerous diplomatic conflicts have resulted as proxies to direct military confrontation. Beijing did not recognize Bhutan as a sovereign nation until 1998 and signed an agreement that year to “Maintain Peace and Tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas.”[14] The two nations have worked to resolve their own territorial disputes peacefully, despite not having an official diplomatic relationship.[15] In 2017, Bhutan sided with India regarding a dispute over Doklam Plateau, which shares borders with both India and China.[16] China is trying to stake a claim on a previously uncontested sanctuary in Bhutan to provoke a response from India. The increasingly strained relationship between China and Bhutan leads one to believe Bhutan would be inclined to support India in the territory dispute.  Bhutan likely views itself as a pawn in the tensions between India and China.


India developed diplomatic relations with Bhutan more than 50 years ago, in which Bhutan agreed “to be guided by the advice of the Government of India” on foreign affairs in exchange for military support against China.[17] In 2007, the agreement was revised removing the advisory role of India and acknowledging Bhutan’s role as an ally instead.[18] Additionally, there has been an economic relationship between the two nations based on Bhutan producing hydroelectric power to India thereby generating export revenue for Bhutan.[19]  The younger Bhutanese population look critically at the relationship with India as being overbearing and trying to keep a tight rein on the nation’s relationship with others, including exploring economic opportunities with China. The older Bhutanese still view India with respect and gratitude.


Bangladesh is in a geographically good position between India and China. India shares the fifth longest border in the world with Bangladesh, making it pertinent to India’s border security and management to maintain a healthy relationship with the smaller nation.[20] Recently though, China has won large government contracts to do work in the nation and Bangladeshi view India as patronizing and don’t really value the country as independent.[21] Bangladesh has the strongest military ties of all nations with China.[22] For example, in the last two decades China has provided a large number of military platforms and capabilities to Bangladesh.[23] Bangladesh is receiving economic resources and medical supplies from China to help with COVID-19.[24] However, all the help coming from China is not altruistic in nature, and instead is a ploy for more influence over Bangladesh, specifically their relationship with India. Bangladesh has a longer history with India, but has stronger ties with China making it likely it would side with China in the border dispute.


The United States continues to be concerned with China’s expansionist policies across the Himelayean region. With the US seeking new ways everyday to limit the Chinese power, taking India’s side in this conflict is a prime opportunity to continue to assert themselves as the world power and also support a valuable ally in the region. The US has begun moving into the region to perform joint military exercises with India. This is an open and public demonstration that has put the world on notice that the US has taken a side.[25] Moving forward, the United States should continue to make more public gestures in support for India. If China is not met with resistance by strong forces, they will continue to act unchanged, which makes the United States and the international community look weak.


CTG recommends continued monitoring of the border dispute between the Indian and Chinese governments and the possible repercussions of it. The PACOM Team should conduct an analysis of the dispute with the Historical Analysis Team to provide context for historical claims in disputed border regions. Both parties involved should act to de-escalate tensions by withdrawing their forces and implementing trust-building measures based on transparency. In the long term, they should work to reach a peaceful resolution of the dispute, and other states/international organizations (most notably the UN) should mediate. In case of further clashes in the future, China and India should establish direct and rapid diplomatic channels to manage the crisis and avoid an unintended escalation. Strong efforts should be made to limit the spread of disinformation about incidents that may fuel nationalistic sentiments and lead to aggressive responses. Similarly, the media and politicians should exert restraint to avoid a conflict that would be detrimental to both parties. Given the remoteness of the disputed area and the limited scale of clashes, companies are not significantly affected, but they should note that if the situation turned into a major war their business would be disrupted. Yet, this remains a very unlikely prospect.

________________________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Indo-China War of 1962, Globalsecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/indo-prc_1962.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hoffman, S. “India and the China Crisis,” University of California Press, 1990

[4] In Pictures: The History of India-China Border Conflict, Aljazeera, June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/pictures-history-india-china-border-conflict-200617112706985.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] 'China Encroaching Our Land, May Set up Border Outposts Here': Nepal govt, Times Now, June 2020, https://www.timesnownews.com/international/article/china-encroaching-our-land-may-set-up-border-outposts-here-nepal-govt/610862

[7] Ibid.

[8] China Ready for Peace, and War, The Global Times, September 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1201002.shtml

[9] What Are Chinese Saying About the Deadly Sino-Indian Border Clash?, The Diplomat, June 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/what-are-chinese-saying-about-the-deadly-sino-indian-border-clash/

[10] India’s China Border Face-Off Fuels a Wallet War, U.S. News, June 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-06-29/rising-anti-china-sentiment-in-india-targets-consumer-products

[11] 印度猴子推倒墙砸死一家5口, Translated by Zhencong Hu, Global Times Weibo, July 2020, https://m.weibo.cn/status/4529223957486764?

[12] Global Firepower Index, Global Firepower, September 2020, https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=india&country2=china&Submit=COMPARE

[13] A Military Analysis of the Sino–Indian Border Clashes, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), June 2020, https://rusi.org/commentary/military-analysis-sino%E2%80%93indian-border-clashes

[14] No Sanctuary: China’s New Territorial Dispute with Bhutan, Foreign Policy Research Institute, July 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/07/china-territorial-dispute-bhutan/

[15]  What’s Behind China’s Expansion of Its Territorial Dispute With Bhutan?, The Diplomat, July 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/whats-behind-chinas-expansion-of-its-territorial-dispute-with-bhutan/

[16] India ‘talking’ to Bhutan as Beijing opens new front with Thimphu along Arunachal border, The Print, July 2020 https://theprint.in/diplomacy/india-talking-to-bhutan-as-beijing-opens-new-front-with-thimphu-along-arunachal-border/456425/

[17] Is India Losing Its Grip on Bhutan?, The Diplomat, July 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/is-india-losing-its-grip-on-bhutan/

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bhutan-India Hydropower Relations, Royal Bhutanese Embassy, 2016, https://www.mfa.gov.bt/rbedelhi/?page_id=28

[20] Bangladesh and the China-India Conflict, The Diplomat, July 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/bangladesh-and-the-china-india-conflict/

[21] As Bangladesh’s Relations with India Weaken, Ties with China Strengthen, The Economist, September 2020, https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/09/19/as-bangladeshs-relations-with-india-weaken-ties-with-china-strengthen

[22] China’s Engagement with Smaller South Asian Countries, United States Institute of Peace, April 2019, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/sr_446-chinas_engagement_with_smaller_south_asian_countries.pdf

[23] Ibid.

[24] Bangladesh and the China-India Conflict, The Diplomat, July 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/bangladesh-and-the-china-india-conflict/

[25] Rajagopalan, R. (2020, July 23). This Time the US Is Taking India's Side Against China. Retrieved September 19, 2020, from https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/this-time-the-us-is-taking-indias-side-against-china/

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