How British Imperial History Does (And Doesn’t) Shape the Sino-Indian Border Dispute

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When the first Englishman visited Leh, the capital of Ladakh in north-west India, in the early 19th century, he quickly recognized the region’s strategic significance. Not only was it an important conduit for trade with Central Asia, but its position on the frontier of India meant it could be used as “a strong outwork against an enemy from the north.” William Moorcroft, a veterinarian working for the East India Company, signed an agreement with the ruler of Ladakh in which the latter pledged allegiance to Britain in exchange for protection. The agreement, however, was repudiated by Moorcroft’s British masters who were unwilling to alienate the then-powerful Sikh empire that controlled neighboring Kashmir and claimed rights over Ladakh. Thus began more than a century of British ambivalence about Ladakh. It was a period in which imperial Britain wielded enormous power while also suffering from what Moorcroft complained was “misplaced squeamishness and unnecessary timidity” in taking decisive action to settle Ladakh’s status.

British entanglement with Ladakh, from Moorcroft’s visit in 1820 to the British departure from India in 1947, is an essential backdrop for making sense of the current friction along the Sino-Indian frontier. British officials were the first to try to define linear borders for Ladakh, drawing these up at a time when imperial China was in retreat. They failed to do so, leaving a confused legacy that informs much of the dispute over the Sino-Indian frontier to this day. Last year saw the deadliest clashes in more than five decades between Indian and Chinese troops on the periphery of Ladakh. Tensions continue to run high on the Line of Actual Control, the disputed frontier born out of a 1962 border war in which China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India. Since Ladakh lies between the Sino-Indian frontier and the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir, worries are also growing in India that it might eventually face a two-front war against both China and its ally Pakistan.

As the United States moves closer to India and seeks to constrain China, it is likely to be drawn more and more into the Sino-Indian border dispute. In doing so, it will have to grapple with British imperial history, since it is impossible otherwise to navigate the competing frontier claims of India and China. Yet as I shall argue further below, knowing the British imperial background is a necessary but insufficient condition for understanding the contested frontier. Importantly, it leaves out choices made by China and India after the end of British rule in South Asia. It may even be misleading since it amplifies rather than questions the traditional historiography of the dispute — frontier histories have long tilted toward finding explanations in British imperialism, partly because of the hegemonic power of the Raj but also because of the greater ease of access to English-language sources.

Given the stakes involved, there is a strong argument for a rigorous re-examination of both the history and historiography of the dispute. This need not necessarily produce a sweeping reassessment, though it should certainly focus as much on the motivations and intentions of China — the current dominant power in the region — as on the historical role of the British Raj. But it should provide an opportunity to retest every assumption. The United States went into Afghanistan 20 years ago without fully understanding what it was taking on, starting out on a weak foundation from which it has never recovered. As it opens a new chapter in foreign policy based on competition with China — one in which Sino-Indian rivalry will play a role — it should not make the same mistake again.

“The Frontier Complex”

The latest addition to the literature on the British imperial legacy is Kyle J. Gardner’s new book, The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and the Making of the India-China Border, 1846-1962. Using a wide range of archival material, and focusing on Ladakh, Gardner documents the methods by which British imperial rulers tried to define linear borders in the mountains and high, cold deserts that separate South and Central Asia. Ultimately stymied by the immensity and geological complexity of the region, British officials, Gardner contends, nonetheless transformed the way in which political space was understood. In a compendium of the categorizations used by British imperial rulers, from geography and cartography to travel narratives and gazetteers, he argues that they created what he calls “the frontier complex” — a “Westphalian” reshaping of borders in a region unsuited to them. Ladakh, lying between Xinjiang, Tibet, and Kashmir, was once a crossroads for trade along tributaries of the Silk Route. By setting out to define Ladakh as an enclosed territory with linear borders, British officials began the process of turning it from a crossroads to a frontier. It was this legacy of empire, Gardner contends, that shapes attitudes to the frontier between India and China to this day.

It is a meticulously researched book which deserves to be read closely. Gardner’s focus on Ladakh — the largest but least populated part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir — is particularly welcome. It complements existing histories of the border dispute, among them books by Alastair Lamb and Neville Maxwell, who also focused on British 19th-century frontier-making. To be sure, it is an academic history and those looking for immediate policy answers on where the disputed frontier ought to run might be disappointed. Gardner’s book supports earlier research suggesting that there is nothing in the historical records to back up either India’s or China’s claims to the Aksai Chin, the desolate and barely inhabited high, cold desert on the periphery of Ladakh that has fueled border tensions since the 1950s. The book’s value, however, is in bringing to the surface some of the less obvious assumptions in the British view of the region, assumptions that continue to exert an influence today.

Yet precisely because it is such a well-researched book, that makes it easier to criticize. While there is no reason to challenge its historical accuracy, it provides a solid foundation for re-examining the historiography of the India-China border dispute. At times, the book’s need to maintain a narrative thread about the influence of British imperial geopolitics suggests a greater historical coherence than was the case. As noted above, it ignores choices made by independent India. It also obscures the role of communist China in setting the stage for the frontier dispute by asserting Chinese control over its periphery, based in part on Chinese imperial claims.

The Watershed Principle

Some of the history covered in Gardner’s book is well established. Following the creation of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir under British suzerainty in 1846, British officials  tried for the first time to define clear borders for Ladakh. Before that, pre-colonial treaties allowed for customs posts for levying duties on trade, but also accepted a more multi-layered notion of sovereignty by emphasizing trade and other links, and there were no linear borders. At the outset, British imperial officials believed they could adopt what appeared to be a logical system for delineating borders. These would follow the watershed — the high mountain ranges that separate waters flowing into different river systems. But this watershed principle was too simplistic for the immense, and at the time, little-known tangle of mountains and deserts between South and Central Asia. For a start, it tended to assume neatly aligned mountain ranges, while ignoring perpendicular spurs running off the central Himalayan range. An even bigger problem came in deciding a border for the Aksai Chin since it offered no clear mountain range on which to impose such a line. Britain considered several options, among them the Ardagh-Johnson Line that dated back to 1865 and included most of the Aksai Chin in Ladakh, and the more modest Macartney-MacDonald Line of 1899. These were never internationally agreed and by the time British rule ended, British maps showed no border there, relying instead on a yellow wash that faded away to the north and east. With the collapse of British hegemony, both India and China laid claim to the Aksai Chin — then a no-man’s land — and the two countries ended up at war in 1962. China’s victory allowed it to occupy the Aksai Chin and create the first effective borderline in the region, the Line of Actual Control.

Gardner’s book expands on this established history by drawing British frontier-making into a coherent whole, one in which a hybrid form of geography and imperial politics — geopolitics — remapped the way in which Ladakh and the surrounding region were imagined. This remapping included everything from British attempts to introduce “scientific frontiers” using surveying and cartography, to statistics, to the classification of people into defined categories of ethnography and linguistics. It ignored the traditional cross-border movement of people, among them caravan traders, nomads, and pilgrims, while prioritizing imperial security. “While the British Empire would ultimately fail to define its territorial borders in the northwestern Himalaya,” Gardner writes, “it bequeathed to its successor nation-states a conception of political space that made borders objects of existential significance.”

Where I would differ with Gardner — and this is partly a question of emphasis — would be on the extent to which British influence on the frontiers marked a clear rupture from the past. As with other parts of the empire, British policymakers tried to accommodate indigenous traditions while introducing their own practices. The movement of people between regions, for example, continued right up to World War II and the tentative frontier lines were never demarcated or militarized, remaining no more than lines on maps. Imperial officials also decided against putting an end to the “Lopchak mission,” a caravan bearing gifts to the Dalai Lama in a biennial tribute from Ladakh to Tibet agreed in the 17th century. Though British officials feared that this mission — which reflected the imperial Qing system of tributes from inferior states — could undermine British paramountcy, they let it continue right up to 1950.

Histories of British imperialism can also make British policies and approaches seem more coherent than they actually were. Despite the country’s undoubted power, British frontier-making in Ladakh was marked by confusion and uncertainty, both about the nature of the terrain and the intentions of an expansionist tsarist Russia to the north. Changes in leadership and different personalities played a role too, leading to frequent policy revisions. Reading through old memoirs from the period, it is clear that at times British officials could be officious to the point of ridiculousness — at others, they were acutely aware of their limitations. The upshot, however, was that borders remained fluid right up to the time that British rule in India ended. Unlike its successor states, imperial Britain had the advantage of being able to afford ambiguity on the frontiers. It had the diplomatic, economic, and military might to enforce its writ without fixed borders. But it also meant that life, and the movement of people between regions, continued as before. Even when I first began visiting Ladakh two decades ago, you could still find old men talking nostalgically about the days when there were no borders.

A Far Bigger Rupture

Arguably a far bigger rupture in the overlapping links between Ladakh and its neighbors came not with the British Empire but with the 1949 triumph of the communists in the civil war in China. This in turn led to a reassertion of central power and the Chinese takeover of Tibet, culminating in an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. In the 1950s, China also began building a road through the Aksai Chin to help it move troops from Xinjiang to Tibet, triggering alarm bells in India which tried and failed to assert its own claim to the region in the run-up to the 1962 war.

The historical judgment on that war has traditionally been that India was at fault for precipitating it by staking a claim to the Aksai Chin, based on the hazy British imperial Ardagh-Johnson Line. It is only relatively recently that some have begun to question that history. The Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, for example, published a book three years ago blaming China for the war, arguing that Mao Zedong was seeking a domestic distraction after the disastrous famine caused by the “Great Leap Forward” and looking for an excuse to cut India down to size. It is not the place here to adjudicate on this contested history and, to be fair, the 1962 war itself is not the subject of Gardner’s book. But it would certainly be an important place to start in rethinking the historiography of the Sino-Indian border dispute. As historical turning points go, the 1962 war was one of the more significant in 20th-century history: Before the war, India had aspired to inherit Britain’s role as the leading power in the region, but after its defeat it was knocked into second place by China. It is also worth noting that whatever the explanation for the war, the closing of Ladakh’s frontiers came not during the British imperial period but after British rule ended in 1947. In its determination to assert control over Xinjiang and Tibet, China has closed both regions not just to neighboring Ladakh but to much of the outside world.

Independent India too has made choices that do not flow directly from the British imperial legacy. It was entirely reasonable for newly independent and newly partitioned India to be far more insecure about its frontiers than the British Raj had been. Yet it also chose to conflate its border claims with national honor — in describing India’s claim to the Aksai Chin, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru insisted the country’s national pride and self-respect were at stake. This conflation of national pride with borders persists to this day in a mindset that “not one inch of land” should be ceded to the other side, making it harder to seek pragmatic compromises in order to achieve militarily defensible frontiers.

India also abandoned a strategy it had inherited from the British Empire to leave the dirt tracks leading up to the frontier intentionally unimproved to avoid providing easy access to any invading army. Around 2006, India began building military roads and other infrastructure up to the Line of Actual Control. As I have argued in my own book, it is far from clear whether this infrastructure-building — which reportedly alarmed China — actually made Indian frontiers more secure, or instead gave the overstretched Indian Army more to defend. Then in 2019, the Indian government did what Moorcroft had suggested two centuries earlier — it took Ladakh under direct control, separating it from neighboring Kashmir after effectively annulling the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir state. Gardner writes that imperial Britain regularly considered taking Ladakh under direct control because of its anomalous status, given its traditional links to both Tibet and Kashmir. In the end, it left well alone. The Indian move elicited sharp criticism from Beijing and likely shaped China’s approach last year to the disputed frontier.

Accidental Ambiguity

In the absence of counterfactual history, it is hard to assess for sure the exact extent of the British role in shaping conditions in the present day. It is definitely worth exploring in order to retest assumptions that help drive volatility on the frontier and to look for lessons for any future border settlement. Certainly, history suggests that those British officials who believed that seeking settled, linear borders would bring peace were wrong. If anything, drawing lines on maps has tended to increase, rather than lower, the risk of conflict in the region. Instead, imperial Britain’s accidental ambiguity — one that allowed for cross-border movement of people while eschewing a strong border road network and militarized frontiers — may turn out to have been a more useful model to emulate.

At the same time, too much focus on the role of the British Empire can lead to an overly deterministic view of history that risks casting modern-day India and China as victims of British imperial machinations rather than actors in their own right. It has also skewed the historiography to foreground the Indian side of the border while pushing Chinese actions and decisions into the background. It is, of course, eminently sensible to focus on the most powerful actor in the region and before 1947 that was imperial Britain. However, that is no longer the case. With China now the preeminent power in Asia, it is time to rethink historiographies anchored in the British Empire and consider instead how Beijing is reshaping the political map of the region with geopolitics of its own.

Such a review will not produce policy solutions overnight and nor should it be intended to do so. What it can do is sift through the lessons of history and separate the right ones from the wrong ones. The British legacy of trying, and failing, to draw up linear borders is certainly partly responsible for the frontier conflict. But British officials also got some things right, by accident or design. They allowed traders, nomads and others to move freely between Ladakh and its neighbors. Such free movement may appear utopian in the current circumstances but would be an ideal to aspire to in the very long term. Their willingness to let the harsh terrain do the work of providing defense by, for example, leaving border roads intentionally unimproved, deserves consideration in determining how to achieve defensible frontiers today. Finally, in examining the British imperial legacy, one should be careful of underplaying the view from the Chinese side of the frontier, or ignoring Beijing’s role in setting the stage for the border conflict with its occupation of Tibet and the building of a military road through the Aksai Chin in the 1950s.

Myra MacDonald is a South Asia specialist, former journalist and author of three books on India and Pakistan. Her latest, White as the Shroud: India, Pakistan and War on the Frontiers of Kashmir, covers the contested frontiers between India and Pakistan and between India and China on the periphery of Ladakh. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.

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