In June 2020, physical violence broke out between Chinese and Indian military forces at the long-disputed Line of Actual Control in the first fatal confrontation between the two sides in 45 years. The source of the border dispute can be traced back to the McMahon Line, drawn arbitrarily by British colonizers who were occupying India at the time.

What is the Line of Actual Control?

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the 3,440 km (2,100-mile) long border between China and India. The two countries have highly disputed the area surrounding this boundary since the British colonial era, during which the Indian subcontinent was partitioned. The McMahon Line—predecessor to the Line of Actual Control—was created to divide Tibet and British-occupied Northeast India.

The natural geography of the region complicates this vague boundary. As the rivers, lakes, snowcaps and the frontier freeze and melt with the seasons, the line can shift, bringing soldiers face-to-face at many points and increasing the likelihood of military confrontation.

China’s Perspective on the LAC

The McMahon Line was named after Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India and chief negotiator of the 1914 Simla Convention. This line originally ran from Bhutan’s eastern border along the crest of the Himalayas up until the Assam Valley’s Brahmaputra River. To this day, China has continued to reject this version of the boundary, though it does recognize a shorter LAC in the eastern part of its border with India. 

Although the proposal was signed by McMahon and a representative from the Tibetan government, in China’s eyes, the agreement was invalid because China did not participate in the negotiations. Furthermore, Tibet lacked the authority to conclude treaties because Tibet was and remains unrecognized as a sovereign state by China. Tibet, however, considers itself to be an independent nation and not an autonomous region of China.

India’s Perspective on the LAC

On the other hand, India has considered the McMahon Line as its legal national border since its inception in 1914.

In response to China’s argument, India claimed that China had no authority over Tibet when the British drew the McMahon Line. Moreover, China does not have a historical claim to the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh, a key area of dispute along the LAC. Although India currently administers Tawang, China continues to consider the area as South Tibet.

The region is also home to the Naku-La Pass—an area along the LAC where at least twenty Indian soldiers died in a border clash last June. This casualty was the first fatal confrontation between the two sides since 1975 when Chinese infantrymen fired at a patrol of Indian soldiers in Arunachal Pradesh, killing four of them.

Due to an agreement between the two countries signed in 1996, both militaries deployed no guns or explosives. Hand-to-hand combat, sticks, rocks, and clubs, however, were reportedly used.

Rising Tensions

Since the confrontation, tensions between the two countries have risen. Last September, both sides accused each other of firing a round of warning shots during a face-to-face encounter. If these allegations are true, this would also be the first time in forty-five years that shots were fired along the LAC.

China’s shift to a more aggressive development strategy partially drives this rapidly deteriorating relationship. When it comes to the LAC, this means building transportation routes and airfields along the boundary and upgrading its military hardware.

Although China has been doing this for years, India’s recent construction projects along the border and modernizing their military equipment have made China suspicious. Notably, India’s recent completion of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, which would allow soldiers and materials to pass through the region more easily, sparked the Naku-La Pass confrontation.

An Uncertain Future Built on a Colonial Past

China’s rise on the world stage and its ambitious development goals have highlighted and brought previously hidden border disputes to the attention of the broader community. First and foremost, India’s colonial past continues to haunt its relations with China due to the lack of consensus over the foreign-drawn boundary. Whereas India accepted the line as its international border with China, the latter has rejected it. In addition, the LAC is vaguely defined and may shift with the seasons, making it nearly impossible to draw out the limits of each country.

Furthermore, the reports of gunshots, if true, indicate the rapid deterioration of relations between the two countries. In an effort to secure their boundaries, both China and India are competing to build and enhance their military infrastructures along the border. These growing tensions may lead both sides to question whether the other will respect their commitment to maintaining “peace and tranquillity along the line of actual control,” as laid out in their 1996 bilateral agreement.

These clashes are just one example of colonial legacies’ role in the territorial disputes seen today. This issue is particularly applicable to China. With fourteen nations spread along its border, China has more neighbours than most countries. China has border disputes with most of its neighbours, and its forceful approach has only strained these relations.

It is difficult to predict whether the 1996 agreement will collapse under pressure and which nation will make the first move. However, both countries want to avoid violating the agreement. China is one of India’s biggest trading partners, and talks have been conducted at the military and diplomatic levels to de-escalate the situation. In any case, artifacts from India’s history of colonization have and will continue to impact its current international affairs because of the lack of inclusive consideration during the creation of foreign-drawn boundaries.