New Tensions, Old Problems on the Sino-Indian Border

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 24

China and India's border disputes have flared in recent years due to infrastructure building. The map depicts the western disputed areas, including the strategically important area Burtse. (Image: Google Earth)

As China deepens its economic and strategic relations with Pakistan, and makes diplomatic in-roads with Nepal and Myanmar, it is worth examining an issue that continues to mar Sino-Indian relations. The China-India border dispute has long stirred tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, in spite of regular attempts to put the border issue on the backburner. However, provocative incidents continue to occur between Chinese and Indian forces along the vaguely demarcated and often disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The latest major such incident between the two sides took place on September 11 near Burtse, situated on the far western end of the roughly 3488 kilometer (3,4883,488km) long LAC, between the Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and Xinjiang province. After receiving information that the Chinese were constructing a hut with a camera, Indian soldiers and border police demolished the structure, in spite of Chinese attempts to push them back. This resulted in a stand-off between the two sides.

As it often happens with incidents on the border, the stand-off provoked a small storm of attention from the Indian media, but was downplayed by the Indian government and completely ignored by the Chinese one (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 14). Unusually, however, a week after the stand-off had ended a Chinese military spokesperson criticized India for not following border agreements (Ministry of National Defense, September 24). Eventually, the two sides called two “flag meetings” between senior officers, a mechanism for addressing border incidents at five meeting points along the LAC, and resolved the incident (Daily Excelsior, September 15). Both sides agreed to pull out their soldiers and, in what was seen as success for India, abstain from building structures on the disputed LAC.

What made the incident significant was its place and timing. The Chinese provocation took place just before the Indian Home Minster, Rajnath Singh, seen as a hawk on the territorial dispute, was scheduled to make a highly-symbolic visit to the disputed border close to the location of the incident. The minister subsequently postponed his visit to later in September (Times of India, September 13). The location of the incident was also interesting because the area around Burtse is of great strategic significance. It is close to both the G219 and G314 highways. The latter of these is better known as the Chinese part of the Karakorum highway, one of the major arteries through which Chinese aid and personnel come to Pakistan. [1] Burtse is also close to India’s small but strategic Daulat Beg Oldi airbase, which New Delhi activated in 2008 to Beijing’s displeasure, and not far from the site of a severe border standoff in 2013 (India Today, August 20, 2013).

The Border Dispute

The Burtse stand-off is just one of a long string of incidents which mark the decades-long border dispute. The dispute concerns three areas around the border 1) the western sector, known as Aksai Chin, which is mostly occupied by China; 2) a middle sector where there are relatively small disagreements on where the border should run; 3) and the fiercely disputed Eastern sector, which is occupied by India and largely covers the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. In the middle sector the dispute also concerns Sikkim, a strategically located Indian state which Beijing has not recognized, unequivocally, as part of India. [2]

With roots stretching back to the 19th and early 20th century, this dispute was inherited in the 1950s by the recently established People’s Republic of China and a newly independent India. China’s subsequent consolidation of control in Tibet resulted in the gradual souring of the Sino-Indian relationship. The nadir came in 1962, when, in response to India’s seizure of territory, China attacked India and inflicted a heavy, albeit limited, defeat on Indian forces. The brief war has adversely shaped mutual perceptions to this day, and has turned the dispute into a highly sensitive issue, especially for India.

Several pushes have been made to resolve the dispute since the 1980s, most notably in 2003, when the two sides initiated the Special Representatives Talks headed by India’s National Security Advisor and China’s State Counsellor responsible for foreign policy, and in 2005, when the two parties agreed on a set of guidelines for resolving the dispute. [3] Nevertheless, in spite of eighteen rounds of such talks, regular declarations that both sides seek to settle the dispute, and years of work of a Joint Working Group on the boundary dispute, there has been little progress toward a final settlement. Instead, focus has increasingly shifted to managing the frequent border tensions.

A quick review of the borders would suggest that China and India can easily accept the status quo and swap their claims over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Nevertheless, a key obstacle is the nexus between the dispute and the issue of Tibet. Beijing’s territorial claims are based on the logic that Tibet has been part of China, and India’s case is founded on agreements signed by a Tibetan government and British India without Beijing’s consent, particularly the 1914 Simla Accord determining the McMahon Line which delineates the eastern sector of the border. Hence, accepting a territorial swap or the legitimacy of some parts of the LAC, which is partly based on the McMahon Line, will bring up the issue of the historical status of Tibet. The Tibet question also involves another great impediment to resolving the dispute, Tawang, a border town with a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that had historically been a part of Tibet and where the next Dalai Lama could reincarnate in the future. Predictably, these characteristics have made the Indian-controlled Tawang a requirement for Beijing in any border settlement. Some analysts have additionally noted domestic constraints on both sides, strategic concerns and the potential that the two sides deliberately want to keep the dispute unresolved.


While the border dispute cannot be resolved, it cannot be put on the backburner, either. The reason are the incidents, usually incursions, which regularly take place on the border. On average, about 400 such incidents occur every year, starting in 2012, although the number might be somewhat on the decline this year. [3] Most incidents are the result of Chinese patrolling beyond the LAC or the building of small structures, such as huts, bunkers or surveillance installations, by either side.

The last years have witnessed several major incidents. The largest was a three-week stand-off at Daulat Beg Oldi in April and May 2013 which witnessed Chinese soldiers set up tents 19 km inside India-controlled territory in the run-up to the visit of India’s foreign minister to Beijing and the visit to India of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (Economic Times, May 7, 2013). When incident was resolved, in a deal about which little is known to this day, India destroyed a number of bunkers that its troops had recently built on the LAC (The Indian Express, May 13, 2013). Another standoff took place in September 2014, just before President Xi Jinping’s trip to India when, in response to Indian construction of a hut with a surveillance camera on the border and the digging of a canal, Chinese soldiers moved to disputed territory in Ladakh to build a road (Times of India, September 24, 2014). An incident also took place in November when a PLA light-armored vehicle went patrolling beyond the LAC during the Indian home minister’s visit to Beijing and just days before a meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi at the G-20 summit in Turkey (The Hindu, November 19).

Three features characterize border incidents. First, the incidents have grown since 2007, a development which has led some analysts to connect China’s behavior with the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the Tibet uprising of 2008. Second, there has been a particular increase in incidents in the western sector, usually around Ladakh. Third, larger incidents tend to precede high-ranking bilateral meetings, which might suggest that Beijing is using incursions to gain advantage in negotiations or signal its position. The last point leads to the fundamental question why China seeks to provoke border tensions. Explanations have varied from a strategy to keep India on the defensive or punish it for its closer ties with Washington, to a form of coercion on the dispute, to the provocative behavior of local Chinese commanders. Beijing, itself, often explains the incidents with the undetermined LAC, an explanation supported by some independent analysts, although Chinese observers have also sometimes suggested that Indian media deliberately exaggerates the incidents (Global Times, September 15).

Repeated attempts have been made to manage border tensions, starting with the 1993 agreement in which both sides state “No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control” (UN, September 7, 1993). More recently, in 2013, China and India signed the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, which adopts measures to reduce tensions, such as flag meetings between officers at designated points, the proposed establishment of a hotline between the two regional military headquarters, on the two sides of the LAC, and prohibitions against tailing the other side’s patrols (Ministry of External Affairs, October 23, 2013). In 2012, the two countries’ ministries of foreign affairs also established a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs between senior diplomats (Ministry of External Affairs, January 17, 2012). The issue has also been discussed regularly at high-level meetings, most recently during a visit to Beijing by India’s home minister and during the visit of a Chinese military delegation led by Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, to New Delhi (NDTV, November 20; Ministry of National Defense, November 16). Nevertheless, neither agreements nor bilateral diplomacy have succeeded in decisively reducing tensions.

Border Infrastructure Building

Beside border incidents, which receive most media attention, border tensions are fueled by an infrastructure building race. This infrastructure building, which has accelerated dramatically in the last ten years, serves three goals: 1) integration of the disputed territories under control; 2) establishment of sovereignty through facts on the ground; and 3) setting up the necessary infrastructure for moving troops and equipment to the LAC fast, in case of armed conflict.

On the Chinese side, as part of a huge project for developing Tibet, Beijing has built a network of roads that reaches every county in Tibet and connects with four main highways, the Central Highway, the Eastern Highway, the Yunnan-Tibet Highway and the Western Highway which eventually extends into the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway and passes through India-claimed Aksai Chin. [5] Many of the roads of this network run very close to the LAC and even beyond it (or what India claims as LAC), such as the Chip Chat Heights road in the western sector, which is four kilometers inside Indian occupied territory. [6] China plans to extend this highway network from about 70,000 km in 2013 to 110,000 km by 2020 (China Tibet Online, February 19, 2013; Xinhua, July 29, 2013). China has also been extending its rail lines up to or close to the border. One line between Lhasa and Xigaze, next to Sikkim, was completed in 2014 (with plans for extension to the border), and work has been going on lines to Yatung, next to Sikkim and the strategic Nathula Pass, and Nyingchi, on the border with Chinese-claimed Arunachal Pradesh (Xinhua, August 15, 2014). [7] Beijing has also built five airbases in the area around the borders, numerous landing strips and oil depots. [8]

Indian infrastructure building has also progressed, although at a much slower pace and from a lower starting point, due to decades-old fears that China could use infrastructure to its advantage in case of attack. Since 2006, New Delhi has initiated a major program of building 73 all-weather roads and 14 rail lines on the border. However, as of 2014, only 18 roads and none of the rail lines have been completed (Times of India, February 20, 2014). In terms of Advanced Landing Grounds, India has fared better with five airstrips operational by the end of 2014 and two more projected (New Indian Express, September 9). The slow progress on the Indian side has been attributed to bureaucratic inertia, the complex politics between the central government and the states in which the infrastructure is to be built and the fact that several different agencies work on these projects. On his visit to the border at Ladakh after the Burtse incident, Home Minister Rajnath Singh promised the prompt construction of three strategic new roads in the increasingly contested Ladakh region (The Tribune, September 23). This comes on top of a Home Ministry plan of building 27 new roads, a proposed $6 billion new highway in Arunachal Pradesh and suggestions that India might inaugurate a program of population settling in the disputed territories (Mint, October 26).

As the overview above demonstrates, China is far ahead of India in terms of building strategic infrastructure. In case of military conflict, it is estimated that China can presently transport up to 32 divisions in six weeks, along with heavy equipment, all year round and sustain them, from a previous limit of 22 divisions mobilized in six months and not during all times of the year. [9] Such a mobilization would leave Indian forces outnumbered 3:1 (Times of India, August 22, 2014). However, India has been increasingly worried by this disparity and has sought to accelerate its infrastructure building, especially as it discusses plans to raise up to two new divisions on the border, three artillery brigades and three armored brigades (The Hindu, April 30).


The Burtse incursion in September is one of a long string of incidents on the Sino-Indian border which often coincide with major bilateral meetings. These incidents, and the race between China and India in building border infrastructure, regularly generate tensions on the LAC and trouble Sino-Indian relations. Efforts to manage such tensions have been consistently unsuccessful. Hence, a more stable relationship between Beijing and New Delhi will require either a real breakthrough in managing border tensions or a resolution of the dispute which underlines them. Neither seems likely in foreseeable future.

Ivan Lidarev is a Ph.D. student at King’s College London (KCL) and an advisor to Bulgaria’s National Assembly. Ivan’s research, published in The Diplomat and Eurasia Review among other publications, focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Sino-Indian relations and Asian security.


  1. Indian media describes Indian military forces in the area around Burtse as capable of monitoring activity on the Karakorum highway. Given the distances and rough terrain, it is uncertain how accurate this information is, but could include signals intelligence.
  2. For a brief but comprehensive presentation of the dispute see David Scott “Sino-Indian territorial issues: The Razor’s Edge” in Harsh Pant (ed.) The Rise of China: Implications for India, (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  3. Alka Acharya “Course Correction: An Analysis of the Origins and Implications of the Sino–Indian Agreements of 2003 and 2005,” China Report, May 2011, vol. 47: no. 2, pp. 159–171.
  4. Catherine Richards, China-India: An Analysis of the Himalayan territorial dispute, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College, 2015, p.14
  5. Mukul Raheja, “Issue Brief: China’s Infrastructure Build-up in the Tibet Autonomous Region and along the Indian Border: What India Can Do” Delhi Policy Group, 2014, pp. 2–4.
  6. Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai and Prakash, Rahul “Sino-Indian Border Infrastructure: An Update”, Occasional Paper No. 42, Observer Research Foundation, May 2013, pp. 6–10.
  7. Raheja, pp. 4–5.
  8. Sudha Ramachandran, “India’s Worrying Border Infrastructure Deficit,” The Diplomat, (July 19, 2014). Editor: Similarly, as seen from comparison of Google Earth satellite imagery between June 2011 and February 2013, China has also built the infrastructure for a modern surface to air missile base south of Hotan (和田), the closest major city to western border disputes, and home to an unidentified mechanized infantry division.
  9. Rajagopalan, pp. 10–12.