March 26, 2010

A Brief History of the Sino-Indian Border Dispute and the role of Tibet

On the 3rd of July, 1914, as Ivan Chen made his way down the steps of the Summit Hall building in Simla, he must have been aware of mixed feelings rising up inside him.  He had done something which would have far-reaching repercussions; and which would for years be remembered by many people on both sides of the Sino-Indian border, albeit in very different ways - He had just left the Simla conference.
After refusing to sign the agreement himself, he was made to sit in a separate room, and behind his back, was signed  one of the most controversial and bizarre treaties in human history – The Simla accord.

For over a century, the intricacies of the border between India and China have baffled scholars. The plot leading to the Simla conference and beyond is a textbook example of diplomacy and back-handed politics at work, and plays just like a thriller book or movie. The sheer complexity of this problem can be judged by the fact that 36 rounds of negotiations have taken place between India and China at different levels since 1981; but they have yet to reach a settlement.


The era of the late 19th century and the early 20th century was ripe with the European colonial powers finding new ways of exerting their influence in Asia and dividing it up.
Tibet was no exception. For years, many kings and empires, from Muhammad Tukluq to the British, had tried to wrench Tibet from China, with no significant successes.
Finally, the British came up with an underhand ploy to divide Tibet from within; so as to create a buffer state between British India and China; just as Mongolia had been divided and part of it made into a buffer between Russia and China. Sir Henry McMahon proposed the division of Tibet into an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Tibet. The Chinese representative saw through British imperial designs and smelt a rat; and thus left the Simla conference.

But the matter didn’t end there. A note was appended to the Simla accord, that contained a map  showing a part of Tibetan (i.e. Chinese) territory as Indian, based on a thick red line known as the McMahon line. Furthermore, China was barred from any rights and privileges of the Accord with respect to Tibet.

Disputed Territories

The major territories disputed between these two countries can be divided into two distinct parts:

1) The Western Sector - Aksai Chin, which lies to the east of the Kashmir valley, covering an area of about 37,250 (14,380 sq.mi) - currently occupied by China.

Territories disputed between India and China

2) The Eastern Sector - Most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, that China calls South Tibet, covering an area of 83,743 (32,333 sq.mi) - currently occupied by India.

In addition to these, there are also a few small chunks of territory in between these two sectors, but they are largely irrelevant when compared to these two major distinct territories.

The McMahon Line

The McMahon line is the basis of the Indian claim to the area that was formerly known as the North-East Frontier Agency; and has since become the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
It was drawn with a complete disregard for cartographic techniques and the geography of the area. The scale was - eight miles to an inch.

As Wikipedia makes clear, “The actual treaty map itself is topographically vague (as the treaty was not accompanied with demarcation), and the treaty includes no verbal description of geographic features nor description of the highest ridges.” There is no protocol or scientific method that uses cartographic techniques to identify the geographical location of the line.  The McMahon line was literally a line on paper.

Aksai Chin

Historical claims on the Aksai China area are even more dubious. There has never been any concrete demarcation of this region.


Britain was concerned about Russia's designs in this area, and hence proposed to make the Karakorum Pass as the boundary, so as to again create a buffer between Xinjiang/China and India.

As author Neville Maxwell states,
"In early 1880s, China and India agreed the Karakoram Pass as the fixed point of boundary, while leaving both sides of the pass indefinite. In the mid-1890s, China claimed Aksai Chin as its territory, and voiced the claim to Macartney in 1896, who drew part of the British boundary in the Himalayas. Macartney presented the claim to the British who agreed with his comment that part of Aksai Chin was in China and part in the British territory. Meanwhile, the forward school of British strategist in London suggested that the British should not only include the whole of Aksai Chin, but also all the territory given to Kashmir in 1865." 
In 1899, the British proposed to China that the whole of Aksai Chin would remain Chinese territory and the boundary would be along the Karakorum range; which is the status quo today. The Karakorum pass falls precisely on the boundary of territory controlled by India and China, marking northern end of Sino-Indian border, known as the Line of Actual Control.

However, China didn't reply to this proposal, something which it would regret for years. If it had, the fate of Aksai Chin would have been sealed then and there.
Nehru, for his part, appeared willing to play down the Indian claims to the Aksai Chin. He tried to delay disclosure if the news that the Chinese had built a road in the area. After the news had been revealed, he sought to play down the economic significance of the area, describing it as “barren tundra" and where "not even a blade of grass grows". He even went so far as to cast doubt on the validity of the Indian claim to Aksai Chin.
In statements to the Indian Parliament during early 1959, Nehru pointed out that 
"...during British rule, this area was neither inhabited: nor were there any outposts, .......this place, Aksai Chin area, is distinguished completely from other areas. It is a matter for argument which part belongs to us and which part belongs to somebody else. It is not clear".

Britain's Flip-Flops

Around that time, it was understood by the British government that Tibet forms part of Chinese territory. According to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, both players of the so called ‘Great Game’, Britain and Russia, had decided to negotiate with Tibet only through China. According to the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, Britain was "not to annex Tibetan territory". British Journalist Neville Maxwell states that McMahon had been instructed not to sign bilaterally with the Tibetans if China refused.
But that was exactly what McMahon did, previous promises be damned. Britain and Tibet signed the agreement themselves without Chinese knowledge, and was thus rejected at first by the British government in London. (Later however, its stance seems to have changed; and then changed again, as discussed below). Tibet welcomed this treaty because it would give further credence to what it thought was its ‘sovereignty’, even if it came at the cost of territory. Accordingly, the purpose and content of these exchanges had to be kept secret, and not only from the Chinese.

Britain seems to have taken upon itself the role of Tibet's Guardian. In the 1940s, British officials in India pointed out to Anthony Eden, the then British Foreign Secretary, that China had no rights in Tibet since it had not accepted the provisions of the Simla accord of 1914 (As if it was up to Britain to decide the extent of China's 'right' to Tibet!). Needless to say, the Tibetan government welcomed these intrusions.

Initially, London rejected the Simla accord as it was in contradiction with many previous agreements. But later, in 1935, some hardliners within the government convinced it to start using the line on official maps - thus officially accepting that the McMahon line was the official border between India and Tibet (and hence, later China too).

But recently in 2008, a historic statement was released by the British Foreign Office which would have far reaching consequences. The British government discarded the Simla agreement as an anachronism and a colonial legacy - a "position [the British] took based on the geo-politics of the time".  The British pulled away the only leg India had to stand on.
The statement says,
    ".......our position is unusual for one reason of history that has been imported into the present: the anachronism of our formal position on whether Tibet is part of China, and whether in fact we harbour continued designs to see the break up of China. We do not."
    "Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geo-politics of the time.  Our recognition of China's "special position" in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty. "

(A New York Times article about this statement, entitled, 'Did Britain just sell Tibet?' (as if Britain owned it!) accused the British of 'rewriting history' in exchange for China's support during the financial crisis!)

Effectively, what Britain in fact was saying was that Tibet is a part of China and is not sovereign - which was the position of almost all countries by that time, including EU nations and the US. It even apologized for not having done so earlier. However, what is important in that statement is that the British seem to have completely discarded the Simla agreement - on which the whole of India's negotiating stance is based. Consequently, if we start with the assumption that the Simla agreement was illegal as Tibet had no right to conclude treaties separately, then we arrive at what the Chinese position has been all along! 

The Tibetan question and the cause of the dispute

The fact is that a large part of the border dispute hinges on the uncomfortable question of Tibet's sovereignty. If Tibet was sovereign at the time of the Simla conference, then the treaty is legal and it serves India's cause. If Tibet was not sovereign at that time, then the treaty is illegal and serves China's cause.

Some activists campaigning for a free Tibet often bring up the Simla conference as proof of Tibet's independence. Their arguments are mainly two fold -
a)The Tibetan representative signed the treaty even though he was instructed by the Chinese representative not to sign, a clear indication undermining (Tibetan acceptance of) Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
b) More importantly, since Tibet concluded a treaty with a foreign power on its own, it was an independent country on that day.

At the time of the Simla conference, although the Tibetan government had driven out all Chinese officials from Tibet after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and declared independence, the Nationalist government did not accept this and neither has the PRC nor any other government.

India had enjoyed certain privileges with regard to Tibet under the Simla Agreement, including those regarding trade and commerce. However, when China 'annexed' Tibet in 1951, India under Nehru recognized it as Chinese territory, thus giving up those privileges and undermining Tibet’s sovereignty (which it may have momentarily enjoyed during the time of the Simla agreement). Thus in a sense the Indian government tacitly admitted that the Simla agreement was effectively illegal, which to this day remains China's official position. In doing so, India weakened its own position with respect to the border dispute.

The Simla agreement was signed between Britain, Tibet and China. Now, from this information, two questions present themselves -
1) If Tibet was sovereign, why was China invited at the conference at all? Why didn't the British negotiate directly with Tibet?
2) If Tibet was not sovereign, why was it invited at the conference? Why didn't the British negotiate directly with China? (In other words, why did China accept to attend a conference where Tibet was represented as a separate party?)

The answer to (1) is that, as stated above, Britain recognised Tibet to be under Chinese suzerainty. Hence, any bilateral agreement that Britain signed with Tibet (without Chinese agreement) would be illegal. (But ironically, that is exactly what the British did)
(2) is a bit more complicated. There are indications that the British had blackmailed the Chinese into attending by threatening to -

a) withdraw their recognition of the new nationalist government, and,
b) sign the treaty with Tibet alone if China didn't participate, thus acknowledging that Tibet was in fact sovereign. (But later the British did exactly the same thing when China didn't agree to its terms during the conference).

Hence, it is clear that Britain's imperial designs and its policy of 'divide and rule' and double crossing everyone was in effect the cause of the entire dispute.


Surprisingly, in this complicated dispute, China has shown a remarkable tendency to restrain its own claims and even recognize the McMahon line in the eastern sector. It was willing to ignore history and had offered to recognize Indian claims on 74% of the total disputed territory (the eastern sector - currently controlled by India); provided India recognized Chinese claims on the remaining 26% (Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin). In other words, while China had taken a prudent first step and was willing to convert the current status quo 'borders' into the international boundary, India, on the other hand, was (and is) just not willing to even discuss the issue of mutual compromise.
In the western sector the claim is entirely a matter of perspective, as Nehru himself admitted. In the eastern sector, however, the entire disputed territory hinges upon one question - The legality, or not, of the Simla agreement. 
India has had two contradictory stances simultaneously  - a) Not recognizing Tibet's sovereignty and b) Recognizing the McMahon line as the international boundary; and thus the legality of the Simla agreement. However, if a country doesn't recognize Tibet's sovereignty, then consequently it is expected that it would also not recognize the legality of the Simla agreement and the McMahon line. 
The Indian position can also be construed to mean that regardless of whether or not Tibet is sovereign now , it was sovereign when the Simla agreement was signed; and consequently the McMahon line is legal. Which raises the question based on which 32,333 square miles of territory is disputed - Does signing a (bilateral) treaty with a foreign power on its own make a province sovereign?

(update: also posted at Fool's Mountain and Hidden Harmonies)