Aksai Chin

Aksai Chin (Chinese: 阿克赛钦; pinyin: Ākèsài Qīn; Uyghur: ﺋﺎﻗﺴﺎﻱ ﭼﯩﻦ‎;) is a region administered by China as part of its Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions (mostly as part of Hotan County, Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang[1]), and constituting the eastern portion of the larger Kashmir region which has been the subject of a dispute between India and China since 1962.[2]

Aksai Chin
Region administered by China
Tianshuihai Chinese army service station in Aksai Chin
Tianshuihai Chinese army service station in Aksai Chin
Aksai Chin
A map of the disputed Kashmir region showing the Chinese-administered region of Aksai Chin
Coordinates: 35°7′N 79°8′E / 35.117°N 79.133°E / 35.117; 79.133Coordinates: 35°7′N 79°8′E / 35.117°N 79.133°E / 35.117; 79.133
Administering CountryChina
 • Total5,180 km2 (2,000 sq mi)
 • LanguagesUyghur; Mandarin Chinese


Some sources interpret Aksai to be a word of Turkic origin with the meaning "white stone desert", including several British colonial,[3][4] modern Western,[5][6][7][8] Chinese,[1][9] and Indian sources.[10][11] Some modern sources interpret it to mean "white brook" instead.[12][13] At least one source interprets Aksai to mean "eastern" in the Yarkandi Uyghur dialect.[14]

The meaning regarding the word "Chin" is disputed.[13] It is taken to mean "China" by some Chinese,[1][9][15] Western,[3][7] and Indian sources.[14] At least one source take it to mean "pass".[12] Other sources omit "Chin" in their interpretations.[4][5][6][8][10][11]


Because of its 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) elevation, the desolation of Aksai Chin meant that it had no human importance other than as an ancient trade route, which provided a temporary pass during summer for caravans of yaks between Xinjiang and Tibet.[16] For military campaigns, the region held great importance, as it was on the only route from Tarim Basin to Tibet that was passable all year round. The Dzungar Khanate used this route to enter Tibet in 1717.[17]

One of the earliest treaties regarding the boundaries in the western sector was signed in 1842. Ladakh was conquered a few years earlier by the armies of Raja Gulab Singh (Dogra) under the suzerainty of the Sikh Empire. Following an unsuccessful campaign into Tibet in 1840, Gulab Singh and the Tibetans signed a treaty, agreeing to stick to the "old, established frontiers", which were left unspecified.[18][19] The British defeat of the Sikhs in 1846 resulted in the transfer of the Jammu and Kashmir region including Ladakh to the British, who then installed Gulab Singh as the Maharaja under their suzerainty. British commissioners contacted Chinese officials to negotiate the border, who did not show any interest.[20] The British boundary commissioners fixed the southern end of the boundary at Pangong Lake, but regarded the area north of it as terra incognita.[21]

The Johnson Line

Map of Central Asia (1873) from T. Douglas Forsyth. Khotan is near top right corner. The border claimed by the British Indian Empire is shown in the two-toned purple and pink band with Shahidulla and the Kilik, Kilian and Sanju Passes north of the border.
The map shows the Indian and Chinese claims of the border in the Aksai Chin region, the Macartney-MacDonald line, the Foreign Office Line, as well as the progress of Chinese forces as they occupied areas during the Sino-Indian War.

William Johnson, a civil servant with the Survey of India proposed the "Johnson Line" in 1865, which put Aksai Chin in Kashmir.[22][unreliable source?] This was the time of the Dungan revolt, when China did not control most of Xinjiang, so this line was never presented to the Chinese.[22][unreliable source?] Johnson presented this line to the Maharaja of Kashmir, who then claimed the 18,000 square kilometres contained within,[22][unreliable source?] and by some accounts territory further north as far as the Sanju Pass in the Kun Lun Mountains. The Maharajah of Kashmir constructed a fort at Shahidulla (modern-day Xaidulla), and had troops stationed there for some years to protect caravans.[23] Eventually, most sources placed Shahidulla and the upper Karakash River firmly within the territory of Xinjiang (see accompanying map).[citation needed] According to Francis Younghusband, who explored the region in the late 1880s, there was only an abandoned fort and not one inhabited house at Shahidulla when he was there – it was just a convenient staging post and a convenient headquarters for the nomadic Kirghiz.[24][non-primary source needed] The abandoned fort had apparently been built a few years earlier by the Kashmiris.[25][non-primary source needed] In 1878 the Chinese had reconquered Xinjiang, and by 1890 they already had Shahidulla before the issue was decided.[22][unreliable source?] By 1892, China had erected boundary markers at Karakoram Pass.[26]

In 1897 a British military officer, Sir John Ardagh, proposed a boundary line along the crest of the Kun Lun Mountains north of the Yarkand River.[23] At the time Britain was concerned at the danger of Russian expansion as China weakened, and Ardagh argued that his line was more defensible. The Ardagh line was effectively a modification of the Johnson line, and became known as the "Johnson-Ardagh Line".

The Macartney–Macdonald Line

The map given by Hung Ta-chen to the British consul at Kashgar in 1893. The boundary, marked with a thin dot-dashed line, matches the Johnson line[27]:pp. 73, 78

In 1893, Hung Ta-chen, a senior Chinese official at St. Petersburg, gave maps of the region to George Macartney, the British consul general at Kashgar, which coincided in broad details.[27] In 1899, Britain proposed a revised boundary, initially suggested by Macartney and developed by the Governor General of India Lord Elgin. This boundary placed the Lingzi Tang plains, which are south of the Laktsang range, in India, and Aksai Chin proper, which is north of the Laktsang range, in China. This border, along the Karakoram Mountains, was proposed and supported by British officials for a number of reasons. The Karakoram Mountains formed a natural boundary, which would set the British borders up to the Indus River watershed while leaving the Tarim River watershed in Chinese control, and Chinese control of this tract would present a further obstacle to Russian advance in Central Asia.[28] The British presented this line, known as the Macartney–MacDonald Line, to the Chinese in 1899 in a note by Sir Claude MacDonald. The Qing government did not respond to the note.[29] According to some commentators, China believed that this had been the accepted boundary.[30][31]

1899 to 1947

Both the Johnson-Ardagh and the Macartney-MacDonald lines were used on British maps of India.[22][unreliable source?] Until at least 1908, the British took the Macdonald line to be the boundary,[32] but in 1911, the Xinhai Revolution resulted in the collapse of central power in China, and by the end of World War I, the British officially used the Johnson Line. However they took no steps to establish outposts or assert actual control on the ground.[26] In 1927, the line was adjusted again as the government of British India abandoned the Johnson line in favor of a line along the Karakoram range further south.[26] However, the maps were not updated and still showed the Johnson Line.[26]

Postal map of China published by the Republic of China in 1917. The boundary in Aksai Chin is as per the Johnson line.

From 1917 to 1933, the Postal Atlas of China, published by the Government of China in Peking had shown the boundary in Aksai Chin as per the Johnson line, which runs along the Kunlun mountains.[27][31] The Peking University Atlas, published in 1925, also put the Aksai Chin in India.[33] When British officials learned of Soviet officials surveying the Aksai Chin for Sheng Shicai, warlord of Xinjiang in 1940–1941, they again advocated the Johnson Line.[22][unreliable source?] At this point the British had still made no attempts to establish outposts or control over the Aksai Chin, nor was the issue ever discussed with the governments of China or Tibet, and the boundary remained undemarcated at India's independence.[26]

Since 1947

Map including the Aksai Chin region (AMS, 1950)

Upon independence in 1947, the government of India used the Johnson Line as the basis for its official boundary in the west, which included the Aksai Chin.[26] From the Karakoram Pass (which is not under dispute), the Indian claim line extends northeast of the Karakoram Mountains through the salt flats of the Aksai Chin, to set a boundary at the Kunlun Mountains, and incorporating part of the Karakash River and Yarkand River watersheds. From there, it runs east along the Kunlun Mountains, before turning southwest through the Aksai Chin salt flats, through the Karakoram Mountains, and then to Panggong Lake.[16]

On 1 July 1954 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a memo directing that the maps of India be revised to show definite boundaries on all frontiers. Up to this point, the boundary in the Aksai Chin sector, based on the Johnson Line, had been described as "undemarcated."[28]

During the 1950s, the People's Republic of China built a 1,200 km (750 mi) road connecting Xinjiang and western Tibet, of which 179 km (112 mi) ran south of the Johnson Line through the Aksai Chin region claimed by India.[16][26] Aksai Chin was easily accessible to the Chinese, but was more difficult for the Indians on the other side of the Karakorams to reach.[16] The Indians did not learn of the existence of the road until 1957, which was confirmed when the road was shown in Chinese maps published in 1958.[34]

The Indian position, as stated by Prime Minister Nehru, was that the Aksai Chin was "part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries" and that this northern border was a "firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody".[16]

The Chinese minister Zhou Enlai argued that the western border had never been delimited, that the Macartney-MacDonald Line, which left the Aksai Chin within Chinese borders was the only line ever proposed to a Chinese government, and that the Aksai Chin was already under Chinese jurisdiction, and that negotiations should take into account the status quo.[16]

Despite this region being nearly uninhabitable and having no resources, it remains strategically important for China as it connects Tibet and Xinjiang. Construction started in 1951 and the road was completed in 1957. The construction of this highway was one of the triggers for the Sino-Indian War of 1962.[35] The resurfacing of the highway taken up for first time in about 50 years was completed in 2013.[36]

In June 2006, satellite imagery on the Google Earth service revealed a 1:500[37] scale terrain model[38] of eastern Aksai Chin and adjacent Tibet, built near the town of Huangyangtan, about 35 kilometres (22 mi) southwest of Yinchuan, the capital of the autonomous region of Ningxia in China.[39] A visual side-by-side comparison shows a very detailed duplication of Aksai Chin in the camp.[40] The 900 m × 700 m (3,000 ft × 2,300 ft)[citation needed] model was surrounded by a substantial facility, with rows of red-roofed buildings, scores of olive-colored trucks and a large compound with elevated lookout posts and a large communications tower. Such terrain models are known to be used in military training and simulation, although usually on a much smaller scale.

Local authorities in Ningxia claim that their model of Aksai Chin is part of a tank training ground, built in 1998 or 1999.[37]

In August 2017, Indian and Chinese forces near Pangong Tso threw rocks at each other.[41][42][43]

On September 11, 2019, People's Liberation Army troops confronted Indian troops on the northern bank of Pangong Lake.[44][45]

A continued face-off in the 2020 China–India skirmishes of May and June 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops near Pangong Tso Lake culminated in a violent clash on 16 June 2020, with at least 20 deaths from the Indian side and no official reported deaths from the Chinese side. Both sides claim provocation from the other. [46][47][42][48][49][50][51]


Aksai Chin area, 1988 CIA map.
The Tarim River Basin, 2008
Northern plains of Aksai Chin looking towards Qitai Daban (Khitai Dawan)

Aksai Chin is one of the two large disputed border areas between India and China. India claims Aksai Chin as the easternmost part of the union territory of Ladakh. China claims that Aksai Chin is part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet. The line that separates Indian-administered areas of Ladakh from Aksai Chin is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and is concurrent with the Chinese Aksai Chin claim line.

Aksai Chin covers an area of about 37,244 square kilometres (14,380 sq mi). The area is largely a vast high-altitude desert with a low point (on the Karakash River) at about 4,300 m (14,100 ft) above sea level. In the southwest, mountains up to 7,000 m (23,000 ft) extending southeast from the Depsang Plains form the de facto border (Line of Actual Control) between Aksai Chin and Indian-controlled Kashmir.

In the north, the Kunlun Range separates Aksai Chin from the Tarim Basin, where the rest of Hotan County is situated. According to a recent detailed Chinese map, no roads cross the Kunlun Range within Hotan Prefecture, and only one track does so, over the Hindutash Pass.[52]

Aksai Chin area has number of endorheic basins with many salt or soda lakes. The major salt lakes are Surigh Yil Ganning Kol, Tso Tang, Aksai Chin Lake, Hongshan Hu, etc. Much of the northern part of Aksai Chin is referred to as the Soda Plains, located near Aksai Chin's largest river, the Karakash, which receives meltwater from a number of glaciers, crosses the Kunlun farther northwest, in Pishan County and enters the Tarim Basin, where it serves as one of the main sources of water for Karakax and Hotan Counties.

The western part of Aksai Chin region is drained by the Tarim River. The eastern part of the region contains several small endorheic basins. The largest of them is that of the Aksai Chin Lake, which is fed by the river of the same name. The region as a whole receives little precipitation as the Himalayas and the Karakoram block the rains from the Indian monsoon.

The nearby Trans-Karakoram Tract is also the subject of ongoing dispute between China and India in the Kashmir dispute.[53][16]

Demographics and Economics

Prior to 1940s, the inhabitants of Aksai Chin are, for the most part, the occasional explorers, hunters, and nomads from India who pass through the area.[54][55][56]

Prior to European exploration in 1860s, there were some jade mining operations on the Xinjiang side of Aksai Chin.[56][57] They were abandoned by the time European explorers reached the area.[57] In the 1860s to 1870s, in order to facilitate trade between the Indian subcontinent and Tarim Basin, the British attempted to promote a caravan route via the western side of Aksai Chin as an alternative to the difficult and tariffed Karakoram Pass.[58] The route, referred to as the Chang Chenmo line after the starting point in Chang Chenmo River valley, was discussed in the House of Commons in 1874.[59] Unfortunately, in addition of being longer and higher elevation than Karakoram Pass, it also goes through the desolate desert of Aksai Chin.[58][59] By 1890s, traders have mostly given up on this route.[60]

In the 1950s, India collected salt from various lakes in Aksai Chin to study the economic feasibility of salt mining operations in the area.[61][62]

By the end of 1950s, in addition to have constructed a road, numerous PLA Ground Force outposts were constructed in a few locations, including at Tianwendian,[63] Kongka Pass,[64] Heweitan[65] and Tianshuihai.[66] The road was later upgraded to the China National Highway 219. Modern day, there are a few businesses along the highway serving motorists.[67]

In the 2010s, geological surveys were conducted in Western Kunlun region, which Aksai Chin is part of.[68] Huoshaoyun, a major lead-zinc deposit, and numerous smaller deposits were discovered in the region.[68] Huoshaoyun is a mountain located in Aksai Chin near the Tibetan border.[69] The mining development for Huoshaoyun started in 2017.[70][71]


China National Highway 219 runs through Aksai Chin connecting Lhatse County (Lhazê, Lazi) and Xinjiang in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

See also


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  2. ^ The application of the term "administered" to the various regions of Kashmir and a mention of the Kashmir dispute is supported by the tertiary sources (a) and (b), reflecting due weight in the coverage:
    (a) Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannia, Kashmir, region Indian subcontinent, Encyclopaedia Britannica, retrieved 15 August 2019CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link) (subscription required) Quote: "Kashmir, region of the northwestern Indian subcontinent ... has been the subject of dispute between India and Pakistan since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The northern and western portions are administered by Pakistan and comprise three areas: Azad Kashmir, Gilgit, and Baltistan, the last two being part of a territory called the Northern Areas. Administered by India are the southern and southeastern portions, which constitute the state of Jammu and Kashmir but are slated to be split into two union territories. China became active in the eastern area of Kashmir in the 1950s and has controlled the northeastern part of Ladakh (the easternmost portion of the region) since 1962.";
    (b) "Kashmir", Encyclopedia Americana, Scholastic Library Publishing, 2006, p. 328, ISBN 978-0-7172-0139-6 C. E Bosworth, University of Manchester Quote: "KASHMIR, kash'mer, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, administered partlv by India, partly by Pakistan, and partly by China. The region has been the subject of a bitter dispute between India and Pakistan since they became independent in 1947";
  3. ^ a b Report on the Trade and Resources of the Countries on the North-western Boundary of British India. Printed at the Government Press. 1862. pp. xxii. c. the "Aksai Chin," or as the term implies the great Chinese white desert or plain.
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