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The History of Sino-Indian Relations and the Border Dispute between the Two Countries


I. Pre-British Historical Relations Between India and China

India and China are not mere societies; they are civilisations – two of the most ancient and the only ones to have a cultural continuity up unto the present times. Modern DNA studies have shown that the present day Chinese are the descendants of the humans who moved east from India into Southeast Asia and China about 75,000 years ago. Further on, there are indications of cultural exchanges between the two from before the time of recorded history.

A. History of Cultural Exchanges

The transmission of Buddhism from India to China is central to the connection between the two countries. But even before this, the Shang Zhou civilisation and the ancient Vedic civilisation (second and third millennium B.C.) showed some evidence of conceptual and linguistic exchanges. For example, “anamika” (nameless) in Sanskrit and Pali is called “wumingzhi” (nameless finger) in Chinese. In the Mahabharata, there is a reference to king Bhagvadatta of China who participated in the Mahabharata war to support the Kaurava king Duryodhana. Chanakya (Kautilya) of Maurya Dynasty (350-283 B.C.) refers to Chinese silk as “chinamsuka” (Chinese silk dress) and “chinapatta” (Chinese silk bundle) in his Arthashastra. Similarly, there are references to “Shendu” (Sindhu) in Chinese literature.

In the sixth century B.C., the birth of Confucius and Shakyamuni Buddha opened a new period of exchange between the two countries. Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism in 256 B.C. and his earnest propagation of it in India and outside marked the beginning of closer cultural relations between the two countries. In the year A.D. 65, the Han emperor Ming-ti saw a golden man in a dream and was told by his courtiers that it was the Buddha. He accordingly sent ambassadors to India who brought with them two Indian monks named Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga. These missionaries brought a lot of sacred texts and relics on a white horse. Hence, the monastery built for them by imperial order at the capital city was called “The White Horse Monastery.” The two monks spent rest of their lives in China, translating Buddhist texts into Chinese and preaching Buddhism among the people. Thus Buddhism got a definite foothold in different parts of China in the first century A.D. The interest taken by the court and nobility in the new religion, and the sympathy and support they extended to the first missionaries encouraged other Buddhist missionaries to follow them. In the 1st century A.D. Emperor Kaniska embraced Buddhism and sent cultural emissaries to China. His capital Purushapura (Peshawar) lay on the historic “silk route” which enabled Chinese scholars and pilgrims to visit his capital strengthening cultural ties with India. Subsequently, Khotan, Turpan and Kucha prominent Buddhist countries along the silk route played an important role in reinforcing these ties. The Chinese have preserved the names of a large number of missionaries like Lokottama, Sanghabhadra and Dharmaraksha from the first three centuries of the Christian era.

Buddhism was making its influence felt among Chinese scholars and aristocracy. Mou-tesu, a great Chinese scholar (second century A.D.) wrote in defence of Buddhism and pronounced it as even superior to the doctrines of Confucius. Buddhism thus came to be an important factor in Chinese life and resulted in a growing desire among the Chinese to visit the Holy Land – the land of Lord Buddha’s birth.

Many great scholars collected and translated important Buddhist texts into Chinese as more and more Chinese scholars and pilgrims were becoming interested in the religion. The first of this series was started by the great scholar Kumarajiva. He collected and translated ninety-eight major Buddhist canonical works into Chinese while staying at a great Buddhist conclave in Chang’an (present Xi’an) where he died in 413 A.D. He was also responsible for bringing Mahayana Buddhism and Madhyamika doctrine into Chinese philosophy. In the year 415 A.D. Dharmakshema, an Indian Buddhist scholar went to China taking with him the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra” which was later translated into Chinese. Later on, many other Indian scholars and monks travelled to China such as Batuo (464-495 A.D.) and Bodhidharma – the founder of Zen Buddhism. Many Chinese scholars, monks and pilgrims also travelled to India through the Silk Road which played a significant role in facilitating India-China exchanges. Xuan Zhang and I Ching (635-713) were students at the prestigious Nalanda University. In the eighth century A.D. Gautama Siddha, an astronomer in Chang’an of Indian descent, translated Aryabhatta’s astronomic signs into Chinese in the book “Kaiyuan Zhanjing”. He is also believed to have translated the Navagraha Calender into Chinese. Buddhist scholars also visited India by the sea-route. The Chinese chronicles tell us that the number of Indian monks in the Chinese court towards the close of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century was the highest in Chinese history.

Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hein arrived in India during the beginning of the 5th century and stayed here for eight-ten years. His writings are a major source for Indian history of that time. Another Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang visited India in the 7th century A.D. Both of these pilgrims were stirred by a profound faith to go to India and to bring back Buddhist texts that were still unknown in China. Their writings provide us important information about early Buddhism and about the rich culture and fabulous wealth of India of those times.

B. History of Commercial and Political Exchanges

India and China perhaps enjoyed commercial exchanges from a period starting long before the first entry of Buddhism into China and the opening of the famous “Silk Route” to Central Asia in the 2nd century B.C. The Chinese traveller Zhang Jian who undertook his travels in Central Asia during the period 136-126 B.C., soon after the opening of the “Silk Route”, found to his utter surprise that bamboo and textiles from south-western China were being sold in the local markets of Bactria (northern Afghanistan). On making further enquiries he learned that these goods were first brought to eastern India through Yunan and Burma and then carried the whole way across north India and Afghanistan.

Certain passages in an old Chinese text written in the first century A.D., mention trade relations of China by sea with the countries along the Sea of China and the Indian Ocean. One of these places named Huang-Che has been identified by some with Kanchi (Tamil Nadu). The maritime intercourse between India and China in the second century B.C. is confirmed by the finding of a Chinese coin at Mysore which has been dated to a period around 138 B.C.

According to available records there were regular exchanges of gifts and tributes between Indian and Chinese rulers even before the beginning of the Christian era. According to Chola literature, the Chinese had good relations with the kings of the Chola dynasty who ruled from 300 B.C. to 1279 A.D., and during their golden age under Rajaraja I (985-1014) when the Cholas ruled Ceylon and occupied parts of Burma, Malaya and Sumatra. Under Rajendra I, the son of Rajaraja I, the Cholas had strong and flourishing trading links with the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279). As a gesture of friendship, the Chola navy conquered the Sri Vijay empire of Indonesia with the intention of suppressing the piratical activities of the Indonesian kings who interfered with the flourishing trade between South India and China. During the 7th century, the powerful Tang Dynasty in China gained control over large portions of the Silk Road and Central Asia.

The Chinese emperor T’ai-tsung sent Wang Xuance on a diplomatic mission as an ambassador to king Harsa. When he reached North India, there was great confusion there due to the sudden death of Harsa (590-647). A usurper, Arunasva, temporarily seized Kanyakubja and attacked Wang who had come with a small detachment of troops. Wang escaped with his little force and gathered reinforcements from Tibet, Nepal and Assam. With the aid of these he captured the usurper Arunasva and took him to China where he remained till the end of his life in attendance to the T’ang emperor. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming Dynasty in China sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Yangle who reigned from 1402 to 1424 designed these naval expeditions mainly to establish a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign people in the Indian Ocean basin. He dispatched a series of huge naval expeditions to explore the regions of the South East Asia and in particular India. The Emperor sent Admiral Zheng He to explore the region and establish Chinese trading ports in these areas. During his voyages, Zheng He visited numerous Indian kingdoms and ports. Throughout his travels, he liberally dispensed Chinese gifts of silk, porcelain, and other goods. In return, he received rich and unusual presents from his hosts. Zheng He and his company paid respects to local deities and customs, and in Ceylon they erected a monument (Galle Trilingual Inscription) honouring Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu.

II. Sino-Indian Relationship During the British Rule from 1764-1947

The advent of the 17th century witnessed the first contact of the British with the Indian subcontinent. Sir Thomas Roe in 1612 visited the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (reign 1605-1627) to arrange for a commercial treaty between the British East India Company and the Mughal sultanate. However, the year 1764 i.e. the Battle of Buxar is marked as the beginning of British rule in India as they got the rights to collect revenue of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. But it was not until 1774 that the British came into contact with Tibet (China). In 1773 Warren Hastings became the Governor General of Bengal and, as the British expanded their territorial possessions, he tried to make political contact with Tibet. In the same year, the Bhutanese leader Zhidar invaded north Bengal and the ruler of north Bengal appealed to the British for help. The British helped him in return for his acceptance of British sovereignty over his kingdom. The Bhutanese leader was pushed back and he flew to Tibet. Hastings saw this as an opportunity to establish commercial and diplomatic relations with Tibet. He lost no time and sent George Bogle in 1774 as an emissary to the Third Phanchen Lama, I Obsang Palden Yeshe. Bogle travelled to Tibet via Bhutan and reached Tashilhunpo, the seat of Panchen Lama, in 1775. Bogle stayed in China for five years and developed a close friendship with the Panchen Lama. After his death, Captain Samuel Turner was sent in his place. However, after the departure of Hastings from India in 1785, there were no further contacts of the British with Tibet till the middle of the 19th century when the British initiated a series of negotiations with the Chinese to properly demarcate the Sino-Indian border.

At present India and China share a long border of 3,380 km which runs from the Karakoram Range in the Western Sector to Kibithu in Anjaw district in Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Sector. A number of disputed and contested areas lie along this border. On the western end lies Ladakh’s Aksai Chin region which lies between the Chinese region of Sinkiang and Tibet. On the eastern end lies the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (formerly North East Frontier Agency, NEFA) between Bhutan and Burma. The sovereignty over these two territories is claimed both by China and India. The whole of the Aksai Chin is claimed by India as part of its state of Jammu and Kashmir but 37,555 sq km of its area is actually administered and controlled by the Peoples Republic of China. In the Eastern Sector the position is just the opposite where China claims as part of Tibet an area of 90,000 sq km which at present is administered and controlled by India. In the Middle Sector, which stretches from Himachal Pradesh to the Eastern end of the state of Sikkim, there are no major problems, only minor differences at few locations, namely Bara Hoti in Uttarakhand (disputed area 80 sq km), an area adjoining Tibet’s Ngari Province called Ngari Prefecture bordering Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (disputed area 2,000 sq km) which includes Kaurik and Shipki Pass (Himachal Pradesh) and Jadh and Lapthal (Uttarakhand) and ‘The Finger Area’ in the north of Gyangyong in Sikkim. For the sake of convenience and better clarity on the border issues we have divided the disputed border into three parts: The Western Sector, The Middle Sector and The Eastern Sector. We begin first by considering the Western Sector in detail.

A. The Western Sector

The disputed territories in the Western sector comprise the Akasi Chin area and some areas in Ladakh bordering Tibet namely, Demchok and Chumar. While the Aksai Chin is claimed by India and is controlled and administered by China, the above mentioned areas bordering Tibet are claimed by China but actually controlled and administered by India. The Aksai Chin area has its border with the Chinese territory of Sinkiang and the other areas in Ladakh share the border with the Chinese territory of Tibet. Here we will consider each of these in turn.

a. Ladakh-Tibet border

During the 8th Century, the Tibetan attempts to expand into the East and the Chinese attempts to extend its influence into Central Asia, made Ladakh an important region for both China and Tibet. As a consequence the suzerainty of Ladakh frequently changed hands between Tibet and China. In 842, after the break-up of the Tibetan empire, Nyima-Gon, a royal Tibetan representative annexed Ladakh for himself and founded a separate Ladakhi dynasty. During its reign this dynasty spearheaded the spreading of Buddhism in Ladakh and, as a result, Ladakh acquired a predominantly Tibetan (Buddhist) character. In the Royal Chronicles of the Kings of Ladakh, compiled in the 17th century, it is mentioned that in the 10th century A.D., the then King Skyid-lde-ngima-gon divided his kingdom between his three sons. From the details in the chronicles it is clear that, at that time both Rudok and Demchok (towns on Tibet-Ladakh border) were an integral part of Ladakh. At present Rudok is part of Tibet and Demchok is a disputed territory. During the Islamic invasion of South Asia in the 13th century, Ladakh moved closer to Tibet as it sought guidance on religious matters from Tibet. Till 1600, for nearly two centuries, Ladakh was subject to invasions and the religious zeal of the Muslim invaders which resulted in the conversion of many Ladakhis to Noorbakshi Islam. As a result of the frequent attacks by the Muslim aggressors of Central Asia, Ladakh suffered much and got divided into two parts, the upper and the lower Ladakh. The upper was ruled by King Takbumde of Shey and Leh and the lower was ruled by King Takpabum of Basgo. In 1470 Lhachen Bhagan who was the former King of Basgo brought Ladakh back together by overthrowing the Kings of Leh and Basgo. After his victory, he took the surname Namgyal (victorious), and set up a new dynasty which continues to this day. In the course of time, the Namgyals became very powerful and repelled most of the Central Asian Muslim raiders and temporarily extended the boundary of their kingdom to as far as the border of Nepal whose boundary at that time extended to some parts of the present day Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. By the 17th century, to restore the artefacts, monasteries and gonpas which were destroyed by the raiders, the kingdom was extended upto Zanskar (a tehsil of the Kargil district) and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh).

In the year 1549 A.D., the King of Baltistan (at present part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir) Ali Sher Khan Anchan, who was very powerful and obsessed with the desire of success, advanced as far as Skardu, a town at the doors of Ladakh. The Raja of Ladakh wanted peace and sued for peace, and since Ali Sher Khan’s intention was not to annex Ladakh, he demanded that some of the villages be ceded to his territory of Skardu and the Ladakhi King should pay annual tribute to him. This tribute was paid subsequently for a long time through the monastery of Lamayuru. The English official records show that this monastery paid tribute to the Skardu Darbar till the Dogra conquest of Ladakh in 1835.
From the year 1679-84, the Tibet-Ladakh-Mughal war was fought between the Gelung (a sect of Buddhism) dominated Tibetan government and the Drukpa Kagup of Ladkah. The reason for the war was that in the dispute between Bhutan and Tibet, Ladakh had sided with Bhutan and to punish Ladakh for this indiscretion, the Tibetan government invaded Ladakh in 1679. For the next three years the Ladakhis held out against the Tibetian attack on Basgo, the then Ladakhi capital. The stalement was broken when the Mughal Empire intervened in the war. Although the Mughals had wanted Ladakh to be in their sphere of influence, they did not have any rights or administrative authority over Ladakh till then. In 1683, the governor of Kashmir, Ibrahim Khan, with his army defeated the Tibetan army, lifted the siege of Basgo and threw the Tibetans out beyond Lake Pangong (located on the present Ladakh-Tibet border). But the Tibetans with the help of the Zungar Empire (present-day northern Kyrgyzstan and parts of southern Siberia) again attacked Ladakh in 1684. This time the Tibetans were victorious and retreated back to Lhasa in December 1684 only after conducting a treaty with Ladakh. The treaty, known as the Treaty of Tingmosgang, settled the border between Tibet and Ladakh and severely restricted Ladakh’s independence. The Treaty fixed the Tibetan-Ladakhi border at the Lhari stream near Demchok and strictly regulated trade and the tribute missions from Ladakh to Tibet. This settled border continues to be the present border between India and Tibet (China). In the year 1835, Ladakh came under the control of the Dogra ruler of Jammu, Raja Gulab Singh.

Gulab Singh was born on 18th October 1792 to Kishore Singh Jamwal, a Dogra Rajput. He was a distant kinsman of Jit Singh (reign 1797-1816), the Raja of Jammu. In 1808, the Sikh army under Maharaja Ranjit Singh invaded Jammu and made it a tributary of the Sikh empire. After two years, that is, in 1810 Gulab Singh found himself employed in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Working there, Gulab Singh distinguished himself as an able administrator and soldier. He successfully completed several campaigns including the conquest of Multan and town of Reasi in Jammu in 1816. In 1816, Raja Jit Singh rebelled against the Sikh empire. Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh suppressed the rebellion and appointed his governor there. In 1819 Kashmir was also annexed by the Sikh forces from the Afghans. In the year 1820, highly satisfied with the service rendered by Gulab Singh, Ranjit Singh granted the region of Jammu as a fief to his father, Kishore Singh.
In 1821, Gulab Sigh captured and executed his own clansman, Mian Dido Jamwal, who was leading a rebellion against the Sikhs. In the same year he conquered Rajouri from Aghar Khan and Kishtwar from Tegh Muhammad Singh. In 1822, after the death of Kishore Singh, he was appointed the Raja of Jammu by Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself. After becoming the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh expanded his empire with the help of his able general Zorawar Singh. In the year 1834, the Dogras under the command of the great General Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh and in the spring of 1835 defeated the large Ladakhi army and marched victoriously towards Leh. By this victory, Ladakh region was incorporated into the Dogra state of Jammu. After an understanding with the Namgyal ruler, the Jagir of Stok (Ladakh) was given to his family which it nominally retains to this day.

In the year 1841, after conquering Baltistan, Zorawar Singh turned his energies eastwards towards Tibet. In May 1841 with 6000 troops he marched towards Lhasa. In September 1841 he defeated the Tibetan force stationed in Gartok. To aid communication and to keep the supply line intact, Zorawar Singh built a network of small forts all along the route. But due to intense cold and snow, all his supply lines were cut off and many of his soldiers died of starvation. Seeing this as an opportunity, the Tibetans and their Chinese allies regrouped and attacked the Ladkahi forces on 12th December 1841. During the ensuing war, the Dogras witnessed the death of Zorawar Singh. The Sino-Tibetan forces then advanced towards Ladakh. The final battle, the Battle of Chushul in August 1942, was won by the Dogras who executed the enemy general to avenge the death of Zorawar Singh. At this point, neither side wished to continue the conflict, because the Sikhs were embroiled in tensions with the British and the Chinese were in the midst of the First Opium War. The Chinese Qing Empire and the Sikh Empire signed the Treaty of Leh in September 1842 which stipulated that there should be no transgressions or interference, in each other’s territories. The treaty stipulated that the boundaries of Ladakh shall remain unchanged from what they have been for a long time – referring perhaps to the earlier treaty of 1684.

Meanwhile, after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh Empire became a battle ground between different ambitious Rajas who were under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In the year 1844, the Lahore court, the seat of the Sikh Empire, planned an invasion of Jammu to extract money from Gulab Singh as he was reputed to be the richest Raja north of the Sutlej River. However, Gulab Singh negotiated with the Lahore court and agreed to pay Rs. 27 Lakh to it as one time tribute. The Anglo-Sikh wars (1815-1846) resulted in the Treaty of Lahore on 9th March 1946. Under the provisions of the treaty, the defeated Lahore court was made to transfer Jammu to Gulab Singh. This was done because the British felt very tired after the long war with Sikhs and lacked resources to occupy the large area of Jammu. Therefore, after annexing portions of Punjab, the British recognised Gulab Singh as the Maharaja of Jammu. On 16th March 1846, the Treaty of Amritsar was signed which formalized the Treaty of Lahore. By Article 1 of the Amritsar Treaty, Gulab Singh acquired all the hilly or mountainous country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus and the westward of the River Ravi including Chambaa and excluding Lahul. Thus this treaty gave the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir to Gulab Singh. Under Article 3, Gulab Singh was to make a onetime payment of 75 lakhs of Nanak Shahi rupees (the then ruling currency of Punjab) to the British Government, along with an annual tribute. The Treaty of Amritsar marked the beginning of Dogra rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus the treaties of Leh and Amritsar defined the borders of Jammu in the east, south and west but the northern border was left undefined. As Maharaja Gulab Singh recognised the paramountcy of the British, this was taken to mean that the determination of the border between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Tibet and Sinkiang had become a matter of negotiations between the British and the Chinese governments who then were the masters of these areas. Thus the British assumed the responsibility of determining Jammu and Kashmir’s border with China.


After the Anglo-Sikh war of 1846, the Raja of Chamba agreed to the British suzerainty and became part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, after Indian independence in 1947, it merged with the Indian Union and subsequently became part of Himachal Pradesh. 

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