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The Peculiar Case of Ladakh’s Eastern Boundary

Context

It is a good time to fucs on the Ladakh’s Eastern Boundary which has suffered from unnecessary conflicts as Foreign Minister of China is visiting India.

Relevance

GS-II: Bilateral, Regional and Global Groupings and Agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

Dimensions of the Article

  • Geographical Perspective
  • Treaties, Usage and Customs
  • Issues of India and China
  • Attempts at forming a new consensus
  • Mistakes of 1950s
  • Complicating External Factors
  • Way Forward

Geographical Perspective

  • No defined boundary in this area as high watershed frameworks does not apply to parallel ranges of Ladakh.
  • Ladakh translates to land of high passes which defined the limits of its administrative control over the trade routes via the Karakoram Pass to the North, Demchok to South and Zojila to West.
  • Grazing grounds in South were shared with Tibet.
  • Uninhabited soda plains which are presently disputed was governed by anyone.

Treaties, Usage and Customs

  • Ladakh emerged as  distinct entity with Treaty of Timosgang in 1684.
  • It established relations between Leh and Lhasa through trade.
  • With Treaty of Chushul in 1842, status quo was maintained between Ladakh and Tibet.
  • Treaty of Amritsar, 1846 between the East India Company and Kashmir included Ladakh but with undefined eastern boundaries.
  • After Britain took over, focus shifted to Western Boundary due to an expected Russian advance.

Issues of India and China

  • Both countries have relied upon the historical travel accounts and treaties which had different purpose and nowhere represent the reality.
  • Boundaries are clear only in the South and the West which is undisputed.
  • Aksai Chin region has been defined as a neutral territory which is the bone of contention.

Attempts at forming a new consensus

  • In 1959, both countries hardened their stance by relying selectively on travel accounts.
  • In 1993, an Agreement on Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control was signed which brought in diplomats and dialogue was constituted.
  • Now in 2020, 15 rounds of talks have happened with continuous military and diplomatic engagements.
  • Mutually acceptable resolution is necessary for continued bilateral relations.

Mistakes of 1950s

  • In 1951, a 17-point Agreement was done between Tibet and China and China was moving into the Aksai Chin region.
  • At the same time Ministry of External Affairs was handed over the North East Frontier Agency.
  • MEA felt post the agreement that India does not need a consulate in Kashgar.
  • In the India-China Agreement of 1954, the reference to passes marking the boundary in the central sector included passes in Ladakh.
  • Hence India never admitted that the boundary was unilaterally defined.

Complicating External Factors

  • Chinese transgression in the Aksai Chin region deepened mistrust.
  • Watershed Principle was not applied.
  • Cold War complicated geopolitical matters.
  • Pakistan joining SEATO and US’ arming of Tibetans.

Way Forward

Agreement on a watershed principle and a well defined principle of defining boundaries would ensure interests of both India and China. Both countries have immense potential and would want to use their energies in growth and development by resolving this long standing dispute.

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September 2022
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