“The Empress is the sun in whose genial rays such poor people as I flourish,” Yakub Beg, who was also known as Atalik Ghazi (champion father of the faithful) and was the master of the great central Asian cities of Kashgar and Yarkand, told the British diplomat Thomas Forsyth in 1873 before his court. “I particularly desire the friendship of the English. It is essential to me.” There were dancers and fireworks; a 15-gun salute and military parades; a gargantuan dinner involving “five score and five dishes”.
For the troops who accompanied Forsyth, the journey from Leh, through Gogra, past the Galwan valley, and into Aksai Chin, had been murderous. “The thermometer seldom rose as high as freezing point,” Henry Trotter wrote, “whereas at night, the minimum would vary from zero [-17ºC] to minus 26º [-32ºC].” The extreme altitude exhausted humans and pack-animals, Trotter noted. “…they suffer, in addition, the pangs of hunger and thirst.”
Less than 10 years later, though, the Chinese general Zuo Zontang conquered Yakub Beg’s territories, and they became the province of Xinjiang. The warlord had tried to play off Imperial Britain against the Qing Empire; instead, Russia cut a deal with China, securing its claims over Tashkent and Samarkand.
The inheritors of those great Asian empires now face off across the Line of Control in Ladakh, where Beijing and New Delhi are now working on a disengagement deal, hoping to avert war. The complicated story of how the LAC became what it is, though, is key to understanding why two nuclear-weaponed states are clashing over ancient Yak grazing grounds and caravan routes in the inner Himalayas.
For much of modern history, there were no precise maps of the China-India frontier in Ladakh. The borderlands, the path-breaking scholarship of Bérénice Guyot-Réchard teaches us, were made up of populations that had no real sense of either belonging to British India or the Qing empire.
In 1914, British administrator Henry MacMahon negotiated the borders between India’s North East and Tibet in Shimla. The border he arrived at, never endorsed by either China or the Dalai Lama, drew on the cartographical work of adventurer Christian missionaries operating in Tibet in the 1870s. Kuomintang maps began appearing in the 1930s pushing back against this imperial cartography, with Chinese nationalist fictions of their own.
The first map issued by independent India in 1950, few Indians know, referred to the border as “undefined”. There were soon signs, though, that China didn’t understand the frontiers quite as independent India did. Inside weeks of prime minister Zhou Enlai’s 1954 visit to India—where he made no suggestion China contested India’s understanding of the border—Beijing protested the presence of the Indian Army on the Barahoti Pass in Uttar Pradesh.
From 1955 on, there was a succession of military intrusions: at Barahoti, the Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh, Kaurik and Hipsang Khud. In each case, China insisted the PLA was on its own territory. Khurnak Fort, in Ladakh, was occupied—and used as a base to supply outposts in Spanggur and Digra.
Evidence exists that following their takeover of Tibet, China’s new Communist rulers came to understand the vassal-states border claims—and set about asserting them.
Then, in 1958, came the map that made those claims explicit: China Pictorial, an official map, asserted claims over the whole of what was then India’s North-East Frontier Agency, with the exception of Tirap, as well as parts of Ladakh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Zhou responded to Indian protests by asserting that the maps were based on old Kuomintang cartography—but added that China hadn’t surveyed its boundaries, nor consulted with other countries on the issue.
Zhou offered a joint survey to delineate the border—but Prime Minister Nehru shot down the proposal outright. “There can be no question about these large parts of India being anything but India,” he wrote on 14 December 1958. “I do not know what kind of surveys can affect these well-known and fixed boundaries.”
The next year, Zhou offered another deal, proposing both sides withdraw 20 kilometres behind the MacMahon Line in the eastern sector, and a similar distance from their actual ground positions in Ladakh. Feeling this arrangement would cede China's control of areas in Ladakh it had occupied, prime minister Nehru again rejected the offer.
From June to December 1960, Chinese and Indian officials met in Beijing, New Delhi and Yangon, in a last-ditch effort to hammer out their differences. This time, the Chinese came armed with a Ladakh claim line—or border—running from east of Daulat Beg Oldi, cutting across the Galwan river near its confluence with the Shyok, then to where the Pangong Lake turns north-west, and ending south-west of Demchok. The map was even more expansive than one issued in 1956 and pushed by Chou En-Lai in the 1959 discussions.
Then, in 1959, bloody clashes broke out between the Indian Army and the PLA in the Galwan valley. New Delhi threw its weight behind the so-called Forward Policy: Thinly-held pickets of Indian troops were to assert India’s claims as far ahead as possible, gambling China would not evict them by force. In 1962, that decision backfired.
From Chinese maps issued to the Non-Aligned States in 1962—New Delhi has not issued an official cartographical representation of the war—it’s clear the PLA pushed past the Indian forward posts to its 1960 claim line. In some areas, it went west of that line, though retreating without capturing key areas Indian troops had retreated from, like Chushul and Daulat Beg Oldi. Later, the PLA withdrew some 20 kilometres behind its maximum points of advance, creating a kind of no-man’s land.
In time, Indian troops pushed forward, permanently setting up posts inside that no-man’s land, and elsewhere patrolling to its limits.
That line, broadly speaking, constitutes the LAC as India understands it. New Delhi, though, has never published an official map of the LAC, believing it would make it difficult to negotiate a border agreement with China. In turn, Beijing has flatly refused to discuss the alignment of the LAC in Ladakh—or even exchange maps—because it believes there is too great a gap between China and India’s perceptions.
Few signs exist that Beijing is now willing to negotiate a compromise; indeed, in the crisis of 2020, it pushed forward west of its 1960 claims in some areas.