Aksai Chin, which Union Home Minister Amit Shah sought to regain from the clutches of China, has about a century-and-a-half old political history. While the story of its control dates back to the Indian king Gulab Singh Dogra expanding his territory to include the region in 1840, we will skip the details of the British claims over the region in the form of the Johnson Line and the Macartney–MacDonald Line, and focus on the post-1947 scenario. For that is the period that deals with the tripartite claim on Aksai Chin by India, China and also Pakistan.

History of Aksai Chin

When India (and Pakistan) were freed by the British in 1947, the Indian government considered the Johnson Line, named after an ICS officer cum surveyor in 1865, to decide how far its territories extended towards the north. China cannot have a historical claim over the area for the simple reason that the Xinjiang province, to the west of which Aksai Chin falls, was not a part of China then. The Hui Muslims had revolted against the Qing rule in what is referred to in books of history as the Dungan revolt. So, if even Xinjiang was not China’s, how could neighbouring Aksai Chin, which was earlier under the control of an Indian king, belong to China? The British Empire rightly, therefore, did not ask China its view on the map of India towards the north.

The Karakoram Pass was never under dispute. India, hence, held that the area to the north-east of the Karakoram Mountains through the salt flats of the Aksai Chin was our territory up to the Kunlun Mountains. This included a part of the Karakash River and Yarkand River watersheds. Our boundary went from there eastward along the Kunlun Mountains and turned south-west through the Aksai Chin salt flats to the Panggong Lake.

Aksai Chin slips as Nehru looks on

In the 1950s, China built a 1,200 km road connecting Xinjiang and western Tibet, claiming a 179 km-long inroad into the Indian territory (south of the Johnson Line). While India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a memo directing the cartographic authority of India to revise and finalise the entire international boundary of India on 1 July 1954, he actually had no idea of what the Chinese were up to until 1957 or rather 1958 when a map of China declared Aksai Chin to be part of its territory! The global community at that point considered Aksai Chin “undemarcated.” [I]AG Noorani’s “Fact of History”, article in Frontline, 2003

Now, India faced a topographic challenge, too, the history of Aksai Chin notwithstanding. The altitude of the area was higher from the Indian end than the Chinese, as, for the Indians, it lay on the other side of the Karakoram Range. However, Nehru stated that the Aksai Chin was “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and that this northern border was a “firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody”.

Then comes the role of the Macartney–MacDonald Line. In 1893, almost three decades after the drawing of the Johnson Line, a Chinese officer Hung Ta-chen laid claim over a part of Aksai Chin by writing to the British consul-general at Kashgar George Macartney in the era of Lord Elgin. The British found no issues with the claim and were in a mood to accept the Chinese claim. However, China strangely never sealed the deal after Claude MacDonald wrote to them in 1899. Nevertheless, to this day, China believes that the Macartney-MacDonald Line is final! [II]Dorothy Woodman’s Himalayan Frontiers; London: Barrie & Rockliff [III]Virendra Sahai Verma’s article “Sino-Indian Border Dispute At Aksai Chin — A Middle Path For Resolution”

So, in Nehru’s time, Zhou Enlai affirmed that Aksai Chin had not been delimited and, therefore, the Macartney-MacDonald Line holds.

In the meantime, Pakistan had invaded Kashmir in 1947, months after India and it gained freedom from the British. When the Indian Army thwarted its move further and Nehru stunned all Indians by taking the matter to the UN, the area already annexed by Pakistan was the western and north-western part of Kashmir (including the Gilgit–Baltistan stretch) and the part to the north of it. This meant that if the Chinese claim were to be accepted, there would be a geographical continuity between the territories controlled by Pakistan and China, thus making both the neighbours hostile to India transact in a more convenient manner. Since the Johnson Line did not extend to the west of the Karakoram Pass, it became easy for Pakistan and China to negotiate on 13 October 1962 the boundary west of the Karakoram Pass.

By 1963, Pakistan and China had settled their respective controls over the northernmost parts of India. [IV]Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War The basis was the Macartney-MacDonald Line. China kept the Trans Karakoram Tract and told Pakistan the boundary between them could be renegotiated once the Kashmir ‘dispute’ settled.

However, India never recognised the Pakistani and Chinese claim that they have a common border, which our largely Indian readers must be well aware of, given the map of Jammu and Kashmir taught in all Indian schools and used for all practical purposes by the adult citizens of the country. Anyway, the story above explains why Indian diplomats on television often say Pakistan “gifted” Aksai Chin to China. Afore-narrated history describes the ‘gift’.

Brazen Nehru

When India practically lost Aksai Chin, Nehru had tried to make light of the situation by saying in Parliament “not a blade of grass” grew in that region. While there was hardly a modicum of opposition in that House back then, Mahavir Tyagi of the Congress rose from his chair, removed his cap to display his bald pate and quipped, “Nothing grows here (either)… should it be given away to somebody else?”

How myopic Nehru was — or he must be trying to deflect public attention from his folly — can be gauged from the fact that, since his epoch, China has enhanced its ties with Pakistan while also tightening its stranglehold over Tibet by means of constructions in Aksai Chin. It is foolish of a ruler to believe only a land that is agriculturally or minerally rich needs to be controlled. Nehru’s response was actually not foolish. He was brazening it out.

Conclusion: The Chinese challenge

Aksai Chin is China’s strategic asset today besides being part of its economic corridors with Pakistan as well as Xinjiang and Tibet. While the late arrival of information of these constructions led to the war of 1962, China sealed its fate as late as in 2013 by completing a 50-year-long construction of pavement along the highway.

China has developed the region strategically further. Google Earth imagery in 2006 revealed that it built in the period 1998-99 a terrain model of eastern Aksai Chin and adjacent Tibet near Huangyangtan. It lies 35 km southwest of Yinchuan, which is the capital of the Ningxia autonomous region. This model, a replica of Aksai Chin used for army’s tank training, is likely to be used by the PLA of China to rehearse any possible battle that may happen over the territory of Aksai Chin in the future.

How are we planning to get Aksai Chin back then? By holding bilateral talks? It’s beyond optimism to assume that will work. Another war is something that both China and India rule out these days. If Doklam is an indication, an economic quid pro quo might work out. In whatever way India gets back Aksai Chin, that will be beyond the foreseeable future.

References   [ + ]

I. AG Noorani’s “Fact of History”, article in Frontline, 2003
II. Dorothy Woodman’s Himalayan Frontiers; London: Barrie & Rockliff
III. Virendra Sahai Verma’s article “Sino-Indian Border Dispute At Aksai Chin — A Middle Path For Resolution”
IV. Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War