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)


  1. Britain after 1950 also did not change its position that Tibet was part of China.

    Britain has NOT Changed It’s Policy On Tibet’s Status

    Significantly, his statement itself does not express a formal repudiation of any previous policy Britain may have held; it is more a re-assemblage of its former position on Tibet. Whitehall’s dust-coated treaties that recognised China’s suzerainty, although in an obtuse legal sense could be debated to have implied some form of ’sovereignty’ for Tibet never in any genuine political context was considered by successive British governments to confer meaningful independent status to Tibet (notwithstanding the important assertions made by the great Hugh Richardson). One only has to recall Britain’s shameful role at the United Nations in 1959, in which it callously ignored Tibetan appeals for support, to understand that in real terms Britain always placed its recognition of Chinese control (suzerainty) over Tibet before its museum-like responsibilities concerning ‘autonomy’.

    That condition was violently destroyed following the invasion of Tibet in 1950, and apart from isolated periods of so-called liberalisation during China’s occupation, Tibetans have been brutally denied all of the political and civil rights that defines ‘autonomy‘. Therefore Britain’s policy in recognising China’s ’special position’, on the basis of Tibetans enjoying autonomy, was a nonsense, the microscopic and ageing details of which proved of interest largely to academics only. Meanwhile the oppression and destruction inside Tibet made a complete mockery of any notion of Tibetan’s enjoying autonomy.

    In actively pursuing, a policy which has ignored the suffering of the Tibetan people and their claims to self-determination and independence Britain has since 1950 effectively endorsed and acknowledged that Tibet has no basis for territorial or political independence. Nor has it since that period stated or recognised that Tibet is a separate political or sovereign region.

  2. India from the time of Nehru did not recognize Tibet independence.

    Regarding Tibet’s assertion of its independence status before its "invasion" by People's Liberation Army, Goldstein documents the response of the India Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nehru, 8 September 1950:
    Nehru responded bluntly: "The Government of India will continue the policy of the British period in considering Tibet outwardly a part of China but internally independent... ["Shakabpa wrote 'internally independent' but Nehru certainly said 'internally autonomous'," according to Goldstein in footnote 86, and the Tibetans' response following]." The Tibetans replied: "Because Tibet is independent please do not talk about 'internal autonomy' under China..." Nehru was a bit irritated by this and reply sharply to the Tibetans that it was not enough to speak about Tibet independence: such status had to be proved according to the law. [And Nehru rejected the Tibetan’s legal reasoning based on alleged "separate treaty" between Britain and Tibet in the Simla Convention of 1914. Nehru then replied to the Tibetans]: "There is no separate treaty like this and China never accepted the Simla Convention. The Chinese believe that Tibet is a part of China. Tibet thinks that because China didn’t accept Simla, it is independent but at that time Tibet did not make any clear decision. That was a mistake. And later when you had the time and the opportunity to do something [about "independence"] you did nothing and this was a mistake. During this period China has been very clever and have proclaimed widely in the internationally community that Tibet is part of China...[29]
    Nehru advised the [Tibetan Yatung delegation who were about to negotiate with Beijing in April 1951] to admit that Tibet was a part of China, since it was seen as such in the eyes of the world. He also told them they would probably have to agree to Chinese control over Tibet's foreign relations...[30]

  3. Britian before 1950, and after 1950, has never recognised Tibet independence. China having suzerainty over Tibet means Tibet had autonomy as part of China.

    The British Foreign Office's report titled Tibet and the Issue on China's "Suzerainty", issued in March 1943, proposed depriving China of its suzerainty over Tibet. Fearing that China would resort to force, the British Foreign Office consulted with the Indian Affairs Office and decided not to do that.
    On August 5, 1943, the British Foreign Minister sent a memorandum to KMT Foreign Minister Song Ziwen, reaffirming the "autonomous status of Tibet" and calling for the convocation of a conference similar to the Simla Conference. China turned a deaf ear to it. As the Second World War was about to end and the British Empire was about to fall, the British-engineered plot of "Tibetan independence" fizzled out.

  4. UK, US, India from 1947/8 to 1951 did not recognise Tibet independence, and have never done so.

    The Indian government, which was soon to shake off the colonial fetters imposed on it by Britain and become independent, inherited the British legacy and secretly supported those who were plotting the "independence" of Tibet. It hoisted the so-called national flag of Tibet together with those of other countries, and hung a map of China which did not include Tibet in the conference hall. A strong protest by China got them removed.
    In 1948, the Gaxag government organized a trade mission to visit India, Britain and the United States. The economic objective was to purchase gold or obtain hard currency to back the Tibetan currency, and establish direct trade relations between Tibet and Britain and the United States. Its political task was to win support form big powers to support Tibet's "independence" and membership of the United Nations. But it encountered various handicaps. The first issue was the visa problem, for Tibet had no passports or diplomatic relations with other countries. Finally, the Gaxag issued makeshift passports and the delegation got visas in Hong Kong. The delegation's request for a loan of two million US dollars was rebuffed, and it could get no country to back its claim of " independence" for Tibet.
    In 1949, the Gaxag government organized another delegation to the West, hoping to win military support. But even before it had left Tibet, Britain and the United States indicated that it would not be welcome.
    About this time, another Tibetan delegation was waiting to meet representatives of the People's Republic of China in India. The delegation asked Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, to mediate between Lhasa and Beijing. Nehru gave a categorical reply that if Tibet insisted on total independence, agreement would be difficult to reach.

  5. By posting from the anti-China web site it does not imply that I agree totally with it. This is just to prove that even those who were pro-Tibet independence hold the view that Britain considered Tibet part of China.

    Tibet does enjoy considerable degree of autonomy similar to all other autonomous regions. They have local legislative congresses, local Tibetan party officials-in-charge, and a Governor who is always a Tibetan. Yes, the No. 1 Party Secretary is not a Tibetan. But then in all China, the No. 1 Party Secretary of a Province is never a person of or from the Province. This is to discourage local nationalism or provincialism, which was prevalent and led to regional warlordism from 1911 to 1949.

  6. "This is to discourage local nationalism or provincialism, which was prevalent and led to regional warlordism from 1911 to 1949."

    In Tibet before 1950, too much autonomy led to the Tibetan ruling class yearning for total independence. I am sure people who understand this period of Chinese history can understand why China would never allow history repeats itself. So the same kind of autonomy will never happen again in Tibet.

    "Genuine autonomy" as proposed by the Dalai Lama is essentially independence in disguise, which means repeating the Tibet history of 1913-1950.

  7. "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! "

    I believe you can read this in one of Goldstein's or Grunfeld's books.

    I also want to draw your attention to the fact that the Dalai Lama held the same position in 1959 during his exile. He said to Nehru, that if Tibet was not independent, then the McMahon Line was not valid, and "South Tibet" or Arunachal Pradesh is part of Tibet and therefore part of China. The Dalai Lama obviously trying to get Nehru to recognize Tibet independence, but he was unsuccessful.

  8. My post above:

    "In 1948, the Gaxag government organized a trade mission ...Its political task was to win support form big powers to support Tibet's "independence" could get no country to back its claim of " independence" for Tibet."

    You can read from Tom Grunfeld's book, The Making of Modern Tibet, for the details. No country the Tibetan missions visited recognise its independence status.

  9. It is not true that Britain recognise China's "suzerainty" but not "sovereignty" before Miliband's 2008 statements.

    Actually, Britain has explicitly "recognized" Chinese "sovereignty" over Tibet. In 1999 when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Britain, the spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated clearly and unambiguously that, "They [i.e. the Chinese] are well aware of our position on Tibet. We do recognize their sovereignty over it."[122]

    [And, clearly]

    Tibetologist Melvyn C. Goldstein also says that a 1943 British official letter "reconfirmed that Britain considered Tibet as part of China." [121]

    [and, the US in a response to Britain]

    The Americans presented their view on 15 May 1943:

    For its part, the Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that...the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims.[40][104]

  10. _A History of Modern Tibet_, 1913-1951: The Dem…(Paperback)
    by Melvyn C. Goldstein

    Read page 397 when Britain accepted Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet in 1914 (Simla), 1921, 1943,

    Read page 248 when Tibet accepted Chinese "suzerainty" in 1934 (same position taken at Simla), which they also understood to mean Tibet was part of China.

    Also, according to Tsering Shakya in his article _Tibet and the League of Nations_, Shakya analyses the letters of the 13th Dalai Lama (who died in 1933) and concludes that Tibet "had no political will to assert independence".

    Tibet's real effort to achieve independence began in 1942 when the Regent Taktra took office, but was never successful even when China was at her weakest moments. Read Goldstein on the Chapter "Taktra...", page 369.

  11. _A History of Modern Tibet_, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State_ by Melvyn C. Goldstein

    Regarding Tawang, the book has a detailed account from p.299

    That Tawang is under Lhasa's control before 1914 (Simla) is beyond dispute. True, Tibet signed away Tawang to the British, but China did not recognize the Treaty.

    Even after 1914, and up to 1938 (p.307) (onwards?) Tawang was still under Lhasa's control. The British even complained about CHINESE troops in Tawang too near to Bhutan's border for its comfort.

    p305-6, Lhasa asserted its rights of Tawang against the British, forcing British to contemplate another treaty and reconsider Tibet's claim to Tawang. Of course no new treaty was signed by any party.

    p.309. 405-6, The unsettled Tawang issue flared up again in 1943. Tibetan troops were still stationed in Tawang.

    p.412- Tawang Negotiations, 1944. British considered giving up Tawang. Assam troops advanced to Tibetan areas in NEFA. But the issue remained unresolved even after India's independence in 1947 (p.418,565). Tibetans continued to control main Tawang area north of Se La Pass.

    Tibetan officials even wanted to claim Sikkhim, Darjeeling in addition to NEFA from independent India (p.566-9) before accepting India as legitimate successor to British treaty rights.

  12. @MatthewTan: Thanks for your informative comments.

    You are right in saying that the British did not change their position on Tibet's sovereignty after the 2008 statement. However, in the context of Britain's actions and overtures towards Tibet, the statement indicates a subtle change in position. What I said in my post was that the British discarded the Simla agreement as an 'anachronism' and a 'colonial legacy', which coincides with the Chinese view of it being a 'fact of history'.

    BTW, the sentences of mine which you quoted were not taken from one of Goldstein's or Grunfeld's books. They represented my own interpretations of the events, and now I see that those authors also came to the same conclusions.

  13. Good to see a pro-China Indian for once. Keep up the good work friend.

  14. @(Anonymous): Thanks
    It's not about being pro-China, it's just about analysing the truth.

  15. This is the first time I see an Indian with neutral stand on the historical facts about indian China boarder issue. My respect to you!
    both Chinese and Indian people were brutally played by foreign powers in over 100 years prior to 1949. both have a very humiliate history in that time. I wish they can find a peaceful solution today and move on. Thank you for posting such a good article.

  16. @Anaonymous:
    It is sad that this is the first time you have come across an Indian who puts logic and the truth before a false nationalistic fervor.
    Though frankly I have never even thought of the Indo-Chinese border issues, Maitreya has presented a clear picture of the truth.
    I am convinced by it and I am sure a lot of other Indians will be too!

  17. This is a great article, very neutral and logical.

    I believe India should mend fences with China and get this dispute behind us ASAP. My belief is the following: When we kicked out the British in 1947, we did not create a new way of thinking, we merely continued on with the "Empire" way of doing things. Not surprising, because the Indian elite that replaced the British rulers were educated in UK.

    China/USSR almost went nuclear following a bitter border dispute in the late 1960s. Despite that and centuries of acrimony, the China/Russia border has largely been demarcated since the 1990s.

    So its clear that the Chinese will negotiate, they did with Russia. Why can't India do the same with China?

    I'd be curious as to why we have not made progress even with 36 rounds of talks. Its ridiculous.

  18. I think a lot of disputes like this posting occur in many countries.
    I hope these disputes get solved peaceful ways.


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