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Aksai Chin: An Ancient Trade Route, An Economic Mine and A Potential Flashpoint

As two important players in the Asian subcontinent, India and China have emerged as global powerhouses in the economic, diplomatic and strategic arenas. It is of immense merit to study the two nations in their rights, but equally meritorious is to study their relations with each other.

Both started their relations genially – so much so that on 1st April 1950, India became the first Non-Communist-Bloc country to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Indian Prime Minister Nehru paid a visit to China in 1954 and even confidently assured that it was unlikely that India would ever face any attack from China, Though Sardar Patel warned him, stating that “the Chinese do not regard us as their friends”, Nehru went “soft”, as some contemporary political scientists say. Nehru was so pleased by the Panchsheel principles that he couldn’t sense that the Chinese had some other intentions.

Soon the Dragon “breathed fire” and the air changed as China started expanding its territorial jurisdiction by capturing the adjoining areas, declaring them as part of the ‘Ancient Chinese Empire’. Therefore, it became immoral for India to act as ‘a good neighbour in a bad neighbourhood.’

Digging deep, it is found that the relationship has gone through numerous phases, and hence, has been very complex. The relation dates back centuries. The region of contention in the western sector of the currently disputed Indo-China border – Aksai-Chin (or Xinjiang Uyghur, as the Chinese call it) – is not just an important geographically strategic area but also has historical significance.

Historical Significance of Aksai Chin

Historically, the region was part of the Tibetan Empire and with time under the reign of different dynasties, it came under Chinese influence. However, Aksai Chin also shares a deep historical connection with India, as it was part of an Ancient trade route linking the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. These routes have been continuously used since time immemorial. This has left cultural and linguistic imprints in the region, mirroring India’s historical ties.

During the colonial period, the border between British-Indian territory and the territory of China’s Qing dynasty lay somewhere around Aksai Chin. However, due to the desolate nature of the region, it was never properly demarcated. The British always believed that bloody lines make for ugly maps. In 1897, they (the Britishers) officially proposed the “Ardagh-Johnson line” which included the Aksai Chin region into British-controlled Kashmir.

Initially, the line was accepted by the Chinese. However, before long, the Qing Dynasty started showing interest in the region again. To increase their influence in China, the British decided to offer the unpopulated desert to the Qing, and in 1899, they proposed “Macartney-Macdonald” line as a border which put Aksai Chin inside the Qing territory. Concerning the decision, there was no response from Qing. Both Chinese and Indian governments have different opinions on this historical incident. India considers the lack of response from Qing as their rejection of the proposal. However, China argues that it should be meant as acceptance. British India, since then, always showed the Ardagh-Johnson map and the Chinese would show the Macartney-Macdonald map after the Qing empire collapsed.

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Aksai Chin: The first major setback of Independent India

After India gained independence, India used a modified version of the Ardagh map and showed Aksai Chin as part of its territory and the new Communist Government of China, which had consolidated power by 1952 after a long Chinese Civil War, immediately opposed this. Tensions over the region escalated in 1962, when the historic Sino-Indian war broke out between both countries, resulting in a decisive Chinese victory. The conflict solidified China’s control over most of Aksai Chin, although India retained some territory further south. Controlling Aksai Chin is important for the Chinese, to secure its South Western borders and to retain a strategically important position. But, had India gotten control over this region, it could have better secured Kashmir and would have had better security conditions in the western Himalayan regions in case of military confrontations. However, the border dispute remained unresolved, leading to sporadic clashes and diplomatic friction over the subsequent decades.

About the loss of the Aksai Chin region to China, Nehru is reported to have said in Parliament “Not a single blade of grass grows there, and is about 17,000 feet high.” In response to this statement made by Nehru, Mahavir Tyagi, a senior Congress leader, pointed to his bald head and said: “Nothing grows here … should it be given away to somebody else?”

The geoeconomics and geostrategy of Aksai Chin

The Aksai Chin region, which was earlier considered of no importance by the Indian government, later came out to be of significant economic importance primarily due to its strategic location. Situated at the junction of India, China, and Pakistan, it is an important corridor for trade and connectivity between these nations. Control over this region provides multiple benefits including access to key transportation routes, including highways and railways, facilitating trade and economic activities. Additionally, Aksai Chin is also rich in natural resources such as minerals and grazing land, further enhancing its economic significance. Also, one of the world’s largest lead-zinc deposits have been discovered in this area, making it a more beneficial economic asset. Its geopolitical relevance adds to its economic value, making it a focal point for regional stability and development efforts.

Multiple efforts have been made to resolve the border issue, including diplomatic negotiations and confidence-building measures. However, a comprehensive resolution has remained elusive. In recent years, the issue between both countries has been exacerbated by factors such as China’s maps showing Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh within its territory, which according to Indian Minister of External Affairs (MEA) S. Jaishankar is nothing but “absurd”

Also Read: Decoding China’s Hegemony in Indo-Pacific Region and Its Repercussions

Over Indo-China relations, different opinions could be made as both nations have had multifaceted and conflicting relations. On one hand, both of them have been at war and have issues over territorial control. China is keen on increasing its influence on the Asian continent and control over the South Asian seas. It has adopted the ‘’String of Pearls‘’ strategy to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean. India’s growing relations with Japan and the US, and the adoption of the counter ‘Necklace of Diamonds‘’ strategy could be seen as India’s response to this belligerent China.

In contrast, on the brighter side, both nations have maintained cordial relations at multilateral platforms such as BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where both show their interest in fighting against terrorism, climate change and for global peace.

While the recent history has been a dividing factor, the geography unites the two. Apart from this, the fact that both the nations have had a long history of cultural and historical ties, could also serve as a major factor to bind both these Asian powers. Both these nations together can create a global impact to counter the US hegemony. Considering their growing economies, both are increasingly adding a larger share to the global economic chains.

Despite the border tensions, India and China have maintained economic ties and engaged in diplomatic dialogues from time to time to manage their differences. India’s stand on the Aksai Chin region is very clear and India is an indefatigable defender when it comes to its territorial rights. The statements from the Chinese side have always been a farrago of myths and unrealistic facts and have always showed different Indian areas as part of their region. Aksai Chin remains a symbol of historical grievances and territorial disputes between the two Asian giants. The Dragon and the Elephant must engage to stem the downward spiralling of their relations.


  1. Khanna, Tarun. “China + India: The Power of Two.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014, hbr.org/2007/12/china-india-the-power-of-two.
  2. Dutta, Prabhash K. “How China Captured Aksai Chin.” India Today, 22 June 2020, www.indiatoday.in/india/story/how-china-captured-aksai-chin-1691562-2020-06-22.
  3. Anirban Bhaumik, and Anirban Bhaumik. “‘Absurd’, Says Jaishankar on China Map Laying Claim on Arunachal, Aksai Chin.” Deccan Herald, 29 Aug. 2023, www.deccanherald.com/india/absurd-claims-says-jaishankar-on-china-map-with-arunachal-pradesh-aksai-chin-2665072.
  4. Sardar Patel’s Letter to Nehru (Nov 7, 1950) Warning India About Dangers From China. www.indiandefensenews.in/2020/10/sardar-patels-letter-to-nehru-nov-7.html.
  5. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/letters/rewinding-to-1962/article4023482.ece

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About the author

Rohan Qurashi is a student of Political Science and History at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. He likes to read and write on issues of Political importance and how they impact Geopolitics.

Rohan Qurashi

Rohan Qurashi is a student of Political Science and History at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. He likes to read and write on issues of Political importance and how they impact Geopolitics.

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