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India-China 1987 - Arunachal Pradesh

The border between China and India has never been officially delimited. China's position on the eastern part of the border between the two countries is consistent. Not a single Chinese government recognizes the "illegal" McMahon Line. For China, the McMahon Line, stands as a symbol of imperialist aggression on the country. The so-called "Arunachal Pradesh" dispute is China's most intractable border issue. Because the gap between the positions of China and India is wide, it is difficult for both nations to reach consensus. The area of this disputed region is three times that of Taiwan, six times that of Beijing and ten times that of the Malvenas islands, disputed by Britain and Argentina. It is flat and rich in water and forest resources.

Arunachal Pradesh is the only issue which has a potential for a major conflict between India and China. If ever India and China go to war one day, it will be on this issue. India considers recurring Sino-Indian border clashes a potential threat to its security. Since the war, each side continued to improve its military and logistics capabilities in the disputed regions. China has continued its occupation of the Aksai Chin area, through which it built a strategic highway linking Xizang and Xinjiang autonomous regions. China had a vital military interest in maintaining control over this region, whereas India's primary interest lay in Arunachal Pradesh, its state in the northeast bordering Xizang Autonomous Region.

Barring an armed clash at Nathu La in eastern Sikkim in 1967, the border between India and China (Tibet) - and specifically the ill-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh/Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh - had remained free of any major incidents through the 1970s and the early 1980s. While relations between the two countries remained cool,, official statements from Beijing and New Delhi professed a desire to solve the border tangle peacefully through mutual consultations. Beginning in December 1981, officials from both countries held yearly talks on the border issue.

With the improvement of logistics on the Indian side, the Indian Army sought to reinforce and strengthen forward areas in Arunachal Pradesh in the early 1980s. Patrols resumed in 1981 and by the summer of 1984 India had established an observation post on the bank of the Sumdorong Chu [referred to as Sangduoluo He in the Chinese media].

In July 1986 there were reports in the Indian media of Chinese incursions into the Sumdorong Chu [S-C] rivervalley in Arunachal Pradesh. By September-October, an brigade of the Indian Army 5 Mountain Division was airlifted to Zimithang, a helipad very close to the S-C valley. Referred to as Operation Falcon, this involved the occupation of ridges overlooking the S-C valley, including Langrola and the Hathung La ridge across the Namka Chu rivulet.

This was followed by reports of large-scale troop movements on both sides of the border in early 1987, and grave concerns about a possible military clash over the border. In February 1987, India established the so-called Arunachal Pradesh in its ["illegally occupied"] Chinese-claimed territories south of the McMahon Line. The Chinese side made solemn statements on many occasions that China never recognizes the "illegal" McMahon Line and the "so-called" Arunachal Pradesh. After these events, and India's conversion of Arunachal Pradesh from union territory to state, tensions between China and India escalated. Both sides moved to reinforce their capabilities in the area, but neither ruled out further negotiations of their dispute.

China, which had always maintained a large military presence in Tibet, was said to have moved in 20,000 troops from the"53rd Army Corps in Chengdu and the 13th Army in Lanzhou by early 1987, along with heavy artillery and helicopters. By early April, it had moved 8 divisions to eastern Tibet as a prelude to possible belligerent action. Reinforcements on the Indian side began with Operation Falcon in late 1986, and continued through early 1987 under Exercise Chequerboard. This massive air-land exercise involved 10 Divisions of the Indian Army and several squadrons of the IAF. The Indian Army moved 3 divisions to positions around Wangdung, where they were supplied solely by air. These reinforcements were over and above the 50,000 troops already present across Arunachal Pradesh.

Although India enjoyed air superiority in 1987, rough parity on the ground existed between the two military forces, which had a combined total of nearly 400,000 troops near the border. The Indian Army deployed eleven divisions in the region, backed up by paramilitary forces, whereas the PLA had fifteen divisions available for operations on the border. Most observers believe that the mountainous terrain, high-altitude climate, and concomitant logistic difficulties made it unlikely that a protracted or larges-cale conflict would erupt on the Sino-Indian border.

That the Sino-Indian border has not suffered any major disruptions since 1986, as compared to the incessant firing incidents and infiltration on the Indo-Pak borders, made the Sino-Indian border an example of good neighbourly relations.

In December 1988, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. The Prime Ministers of the two countries agreed to settle the boundary questions through the guiding principle of "Mutual Understanding and Accommodation and Mutual Adjustment". Agreement also reached that while seeking for the mutually acceptable solution to the boundary questions, the two countries should develop their relations in other fields and make efforts to create the atmosphere and conditions conducive to the settlement of the boundary questions. The two sides agreed to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary questions at the Vice-Foreign Ministerial level.

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Page last modified: 05-01-2022 15:43:15 ZULU