Author name: 
Lt Gen J R Mukherjee, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Graduate from Staff College Camberley, United Kingdom; alumnus of the National Defence Academy, the Indian Military Academy and the National Defence College; commanded 15 Corps from late 1999 to 2001; retired in 2005 as Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, Indian Army.



Chinese claims in the Eastern Sector of about 90,000 sq. km. encompass most of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies to the north of the Rivers Brahmaputra/Lohit, with the general limits of the claim being the entire area south of the McMahon Line up to the approximate alignment of the Arunachal Pradesh/Assam border – the entire area is the hill sector of Arunachal Pradesh, up to River Lohit. The Chinese claim this entire area to be South Eastern Tibet and have so depicted on their maps.


The author has no intention of going into the historical details of the Chinese and Indian claims and counter-claims, as this has been extensively covered by others. The paper would rather focus on lesser-known aspects, based on a fairly intimate knowledge of the author of most of the claimed area, the people and from being an avid China-watcher over the last 50 years, the author’s own assessment and advice, with a view to assist in attempts at problem resolution.


The Claims in a Nutshell


The Chinese assert that the entire claimed area of Arunachal Pradesh is part of Tibet (South Eastern Tibet) as they have ruled undisturbed over Tibet for over 700 years and as Tibet is an integral part of China, this entire claimed area in Arunachal Pradesh belongs to them. The Chinese in addition to claiming the entire area, state that they do not recognise the McMahon line (in spite of the fact that after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Chinese themselves withdrew back across the line/border). India’s claims are backed, in addition, by recorded history such as the Ahom Burunjis, British historians, the Tibetans and local folklore.


The Tibetan Counterclaims in a Nutshell


The Tibetan Government in exile on the other hand, counter the Chinese claim by giving evidence that they were a totally independent state since 1913 and prior to that, they have at no stage in history been part of the Middle Kingdom. Their relationship with the Mongolian rulers of China, was one of priest and patron – priests of Mongol Royal Family and hence they had their political patronage from time to time. There was never any structured Chinese rule or formal suzerainty over Tibet.


Indian Claims


In 1914, the Tibetan Government signed the Simla Accord with the British rulers of India demarcating the border between India and Tibet and called the same – the McMahon Line, which is what is claimed by India, being the inheriting state from the British and has been accepted by the Tibetan Government in Exile.


Further, the people of Arunachal Pradesh have always been fiercely independent – Tibet also at no stage had control over Arunachal Pradesh. The interaction with Tibet was invariably only cultural and commercial – that also only in limited areas where the common point was Buddhism (which in fact had originally spread from India).


Specific Chinese Claims Related to McMahon Line


Even though the Chinese do not recognise the McMahon Line, on grounds of it being a colonial imposition, they differ at places with the interpretation of the alignment of the McMahon Line on ground, as it has only been delineated on a large-scale map. There is also an issue of interpretation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Whilst India interprets the LAC to be based on the limits of control over areas physically held by the opposing forces of India and China, the Chinese interpretation is different. The Chinese interpretation whilst not elaborated upon by them in recent years, as far as the Eastern Sector is concerned, appears to be related to their interpretation on ground of the alignment of the McMahon Line. This analysis is drawn from a letter from Chou En Lai to Pandit Nehru in the sixties wherein he refers to forward location of troops of both sides as in 1959 and the Chinese interpretation of the McMahon line. The LAC is again referred to by the Chinese in their comments to the Colombo Proposals of December 1962 in the same light. This now needs to be specified by them in concrete geographical terms and an understanding between both Governments reached on the subject, as this is largely the origin of the dispute. However, from the above facts, if presumed correct, the following areas of further dispute emerge in relation to the Eastern Sector:


1. The location of the Sino-Indian(Sikkim)-Bhutan tri-junction of the border – the Chinese claim it to be much further south than that claimed by India. The effect of this claim is that, if accepted, then it would facilitate the Chinese outflanking existing Indian defences in Sikkim and Bhutanese defences. The recent standoff at the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China is one of the fallouts of these Chinese claims.


2. The location of the Sino-Indian(Arunachal)-Bhutanese tri-junction – here again the Chinese claim it to be much further south of what India claims the alignment to be in the Tawang Sector – hence the Chinese claim to the Thagla Ridge, Khinzemane and other locations in the sector and parallel claims in Eastern Bhutan.


3. Consequent to the dispute regarding the tri-junction in both locations, the Chinese also have claims to Bhutanese territory in Central and Eastern Bhutan – defence of Bhutan is an Indian responsibility and a Treaty obligation. This consequently has a major bearing on the defence of both Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.


4. In the Subansiri Sector, the Chinese claim that Longju is in Tibet and not in India.


5. In the Anini/Dembuen Sectors claims are yet to emerge, there being little Chinese activity opposite these sectors currently, as they are extremely rugged and difficult.


6. In the Dibang Sector there are claims to a fairly large area, which is currently under Indian occupation near Kaila Pass.


7. In the Lohit Sector the claim is again in relation to the Sino-Indian(Arunachal)-Myanmar tri-junction – here the Chinese claim it to be much further south – if that were the case, the entire area, up to Walong would fall in Chinese Tibet.


8. While there has been no previous evidence of specific Chinese claims in the Siang Sector of Arunachal Pradesh, the very recent intrusion and attempts at road construction near Bishing village in this sector is indicative of the fact that the Chinese have now raked up a fresh claim in this sector.


9. In addition to the above, [it is the author’s firm opinion that] if and when LAC physical demarcation is done between the two countries, more disputes are bound to arise.


10. Additionally, there are other major differences in both the Western (Aksai Chin in Ladakh) and Central Sectors (Barahoti-Uttaranchal).


Other Specific Chinese Claims


Notwithstanding the dispute related to the LAC and the general claim as given earlier to most of Arunachal Pradesh, China has indicated certain specific claims based on alleged past direct Tibetan control, religious or cultural affinity over specific areas in Arunachal Pradesh including the Tawang Tracts. These are broadly as follows –


1. The Tawang Tracts, which correspond to Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh. The significance of this area lies in the fact that the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang in the 17th century, and the Tawang Tract with Se La as the dividing line is claimed to be the fiefdom of the Dzongpens (high officials) of the Tsona district in Tibet. Notwithstanding the specific Chinese claim to this huge chunk of western Arunachal Pradesh, like a dagger jutting down to the Assam plains, it must be noted that, the entire Tawang Tract being south of the McMahon Line, is clearly part of India; and that the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama have publicly declared that Tawang is a part of India.


2. In the Subansiri Valley, Asafila, an all-weather pass (just south of the alignment of the Indian perception of the McMahon Line) along the Subansiri River; and the Portrang Ridge, which is part of the Takpa Siri Mountain, also known as the “Crystal Mountain”, holy not only to the Tibetans, but also to Monpas and Tagins of Arunachal Pradesh, a place of pilgrimage since time immemorial, is again specifically claimed by China. The ridge in the shape of a dagger, ending opposite Taksing, is bounded by River Subansiri and the Yume Chu stream. A pilgrimage used to be undertaken every 12 years, starting from Chosam in Tibet. It followed the Tsari Chu valley till its junction with River Subansiri and then up the Subansiri river valley till Taksing. From here the route turned north up the Ridge or along Yume Chu. The pilgrimage would end at the holy Yume Gompa (monastery). This longer version of pilgrimage, called “Ringkor’, was undertaken over a three-month period and several thousand pilgrims passed on this route, staying in caves and bamboo shelters, which were called “Tsukang”. The local people stocked these shelters with food and wood. The pilgrims passed through this challenging and difficult route. The Tagins, who live in the Upper Subansiri valley, were paid yearly tribute by the Tibetans of Longju and a special large tribute to help this pilgrimage. Today, the pilgrimage has stopped as the McMahon line divides Takpa Siri and the valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. In case this area is granted to China, it would compromise Indian positions along both streams up to and including Taksing.


3. Longju, which is south of the McMahon Line has been illegally occupied by the Chinese up to and including the area of the Bisa Cane Bridge a few kilometres to its south on the grounds that the population is of Tibetan descent.


4. In the Siang Sector, whilst not yet specifically claimed as Tawang has been, the entire Siyom valley including Mechuka and Manigong, and from the border up to Gelling in the Siang Valley, have some population of Tibetan origin similar to Tawang and are again considered by the Chinese to be fiefdoms of Tibet. The Gompa at Mechuka is also considered a holy shrine to people of Monpa/Tibetan origin, Adis and Sikhs as it is claimed to have been a resting place of Guru Nanak during his visit to Tibet. In fact, a Gurdwara has also been set up near Nishangong/Tongkhorla enroute to Yorlung, which was also considered to have been a resting place of the Guru and has other folklore attached to this Shrine.  In the author’s view, there is little doubt that these areas would ultimately be specifically claimed by them on the same grounds as Tawang. Here again, the Tibetans accept these areas to be part of India and are well south of the McMahon Line.


5. The Dibang Sector has the roughest and least inhabited area of Arunachal Pradesh, where on account of cartographic errors the Chinese have specific claim to a fairly large area astride Kaila Pass.


6. In the Lohit Sector, the specific Chinese claim besides the claim up to Walong is to the Dichu pass itself on the watershed – this is disputed by India and is under Indian occupation. In addition the area from the Border up to Walong also has some population who are of Tibetan origin and would in all probability be claimed by them at some stage on the lines of Tawang.


Early Chinese Proposals for Dispute Resolution


Notwithstanding all the above specific claims, China was in 1959 and even till as late as the 80s, prepared to do a swap of their western claimed area of Aksai Chin, which was strategically more important to it, with the claimed area of Arunachal Pradesh to resolve the dispute. This was however not agreed to by the Indian Government on the grounds that China had illegally occupied the area and that such an act amounted to gifting Indian Territory, which they were not authorised to do as also public sentiment was strongly against it. Thereafter, a series of meetings between officials of both countries were held with no worthwhile results. Notwithstanding this, consequent to meetings between the Heads of State of both countries, several treaties related to ensuring Peace and Tranquillity along the borders have been signed between the two countries, starting with the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement in 1993 and the last having been signed in 2005; relations actually improved and in the early period of 2003-2004, it was felt a resolution of the dispute was in sight. In 2005, the meeting between Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was seen as a turning point in relations wherein it was agreed to resolve the border dispute without displacing settled populations.


*A detailed bibliography referred to by the author is provided at the end of the second part of this article.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.