Wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan, Doklam in Tibet’s Chumbi valley points like a dagger at the Siliguri corridor connecting the Northeast with the rest of India.
It is interesting that in invoking historical justifications in the latest standoff between China and India in the Sikkim and Bhutan tri-junction area, neither party is keen to recall that the region once constituted sovereign principalities – of Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. Of the three, Bhutan is still independent, Tibet was taken over by China in 1951 and Sikkim became part of India only in 1975 by the exercise of Article 2 of the Indian constitution. The controversies behind these takeovers is another matter, but the moot point is that the histories of these erstwhile states have been splintered beyond recognition as they have been absorbed into other historical streams. How much of this destroyed history can, with any moral legitimacy, continue to be used as alibis by China or India to advance their interests in the region is the unasked question.
China cites the 1890 agreement between itself and the British government fixing the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, claiming that this is the boundary Indian troops have violated in objecting to Chinese road construction in Doklam. Britain signed this agreement with China in acknowledgment that China had suzerainty power over Tibet; however, the latter disputed this and refused to recognize the 1890 treaty and another one, signed again by the British and Chinese in 1893, on trade regulations – which allowed the setting up of a British India trade mart at Yatung in the Chumbi valley. The buildup to these treaties a decade earlier is not only interesting but also marked an important turning point in the triangular diplomacy between the British, Chinese and Tibetans.
The British had for long been looking for a permanent presence in Tibet and towards this end in 1886, they planned a trade mission to Lhasa under the command of an officer by the name of Colman Macaulay. This was in keeping with the Chefoo Convention reached between the British and the Chinese in 1876 in Peking. The Chinese, though not in a position at the time to oppose the British, had weakly conveyed their reluctance, saying the plan would be opposed by the Tibetans – indicating they were unsure of their control over Tibet.
The Macaulay mission was ultimately suspended, but for reasons many scholars, including Alastair Lamb, suspect had little to do with the British not wanting to embarrass the Chinese at their inability to control the Tibetans. The real reason was that the British had tacitly coerced the Chinese to recognise the British annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 – a country Manchu rulers considered their tributary state.
Events that followed again proved Chinese apprehensions that Tibetans would oppose the British trade mission was not just an excuse to dissuade the British. Not knowing the mission had been called off, the Tibetans
‘sent a detachment into the British-protected State of Sikkim, a region to which they now reasserted ancient claims. In Sikkim, at the village of Lingtu, on the main road from Darjeeling to the Tibetan border at the Chumbi Valley, along which Colman Macaulay was expected to travel, the Tibetans set up a military post; and they refused to retreat even after there ceased to be any question of a British mission.’ (Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line, A Study in Relation Between India, China and Tibet 1904-1914, Vol 1)
Explaining the same episode, a British official and Tibetan observer of the time, Charles Bell, notes that the Tibetan were instigated by
‘the Ne-chung Oracle at Lhasa, which declared that its magic influence inside the fort would disarm any troops that the British sent against it, while the occupation would give them a commanding position in any negotiations that took place for the delimitation of the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim.’ (Charles Lamb, Tibet Past and Present).
What followed is of importance. Despite repeated appeals by the British to the Chinese to have the blockade lifted, the Chinese were not in a position to do anything. It was then that Lord Dufferin in 1888 authorised the clearing of the blockade by force, which was done promptly and without much problem. Dufferin also became convinced then that the only way to deal with Tibet was to deal with it directly and not through Peking. However, despite the Lingtu blockade episode, the British did not abandon their policy outlook towards Tibet immediately, and the 1890 boundary treaty and the 1893 trade treaty were signed with Peking not with Lhasa.
One of the reasons, as scholars point out, is that the Tibet anxiety of the British was informed by the possibility of other European powers, in particular Russia, coming to influence Tibet. This being so, entering into international treaties with Tibet, it feared would give the Tibetans de jure sovereignty status in the eye of international law and this may encourage the Tibetans to enter into independent treaties with other European rivals. To the British, then, China was the lesser danger.
Things however changed under Lord Curzon. When towards the turn of the century, he became convinced that the 13th Dalai Lama was leaning towards Russia, he authorised the Younghusband Mission in 1904, to invade and teach the Tibetans a lesson. Col Francis Younghusband did precisely this and in a brutal act of aggression captured Lhasa. Though the 13th Dalai Lama managed to escape to Mongolia before he entered Lhasa, Younghusband forced the Lhasa Convention with the Tibetan government. Among the many humiliating concessions, the Tibetans were coerced into agreeing to pay a war indemnity of Rs. 75 lakh, an amount thought to be beyond the capacity of Tibet to pay, and until this amount was paid up, Chumbi valley was to remain with India. Not only this, the Rs. 75 lakh was to be paid in an instalment of Rs. 1 lakh a year, ensuring thereby that even if the Tibetans paid up, Chumbi valley would remain with India for at least 75 years.
The Younghusband mission was not met with appreciation among all in Britain. Among those who held it in contempt was Lord Morley, Secretary of State for India. The latter ultimately ended up undoing most of what was achieved by the Younghusband mission, including the virtual transfer of Chumbi valley to India. First the amount was reduced to Rs. 25 lakh, and then, not long after Curzon retired in 1905, he acceded to a demand of the Chinese – who had, in a masterly stroke of diplomacy that won them prestige in the eyes of the Tibetans and strengthened before the world the legitimacy of their claims over Tibet – that Peking pay the Rs. 25 lakh on behalf of the Tibetans and also have the amount paid in just three instalments, ensuring thereby that the Chumbi valley returned to Tibetan custody in three years. With Curzon out of the way, China also convinced the British government that the Lhasa agreement can only be acceptable if it is ratified by another treaty between the British and Chinese, and this came to be so by the Peking Convention of 1906.
What became evident at the time was also the difference in security perceptions between British India and the British Empire. For men like Curzon in India, controlling Tibet was important for India’s security. For men like Morley in London, this interest was only a small and incomplete wrinkle on the larger security map of the empire. In Morley’s words, what Britain does in Tibet, other rivals may want to do in other sensitive regions like Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran etc. He even derisively referred to men like Curzon as “these frontier men”, calling them too raw to understand the intricacies of the larger interest of the empire. But in the end, it was the empire which dissolved, leaving the colonies to bear the burdens of the exertions made on their behalf. The uncertainties over India’s northern boundary is a prime example.
The Bhutan case is also interesting for another reason. British India concluded an important treaty with Thimphu in 1910 by which Bhutan was to pursue its foreign policy in consultation with India. What prompted this treaty was the Chinese forward policy that began in 1908 in what is generally described as the Qing Dynasty’s last burst of desperate energy before is collapse in 1912 in the face of the Republican Revolution, a tumultuous period in Chinese history captivatingly depicted in the Hollywood classic, The Last Emperor.
Chinese troops entered Tibet, forcing the 13th Dalai Lama who was on his way back to Lhasa from his exile in Mongolia, to flee to India. The Chinese not only took charge of Tibet, but also began probing the neighbouring principalities of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The British were not worried about Sikkim which was their protectorate, nor too much about Nepal either for the latter had a robust army, but they became very concerned about Bhutan. At the time, the British had only an 1865 treaty with Bhutan but this was an agreement for the Bhutias not to raid the Dooars plains and for this the British would pay a compensation, much like the Posa arrangement the Ahom kings in Assam made with the hill tribes as a conflict resolution mechanism. This treaty however would not have been able to protect Bhutan if the Chinese decided to enter it. The British, at the behest of Charles Bell, who was then their political officer in Sikkim, visited the Bhutan king in 1910, and had the latter agree to sign a new treaty which merely added one more clause to the 1865 treaty – that Bhutan would pursue its foreign affairs in consultation with India. The Chinese threat, however, did not last as the Qing Dynasty soon fell. Not long after, in 1913, the British called the Simla Conference in an effort to secure India’s boundary in this sector.
The history of this boundary is murky, and it gives no one any credit to invoke it to justify present policies. The current standoff between India and China on this border probably has, as so many commentators have pointed out, nothing to do with this history, but with current realpolitik. In the wake of India leaning towards the United States, and the US allegedly attempting to use India as a pivot to counterweigh China, Beijing probably is sending a message to New Delhi that it can have a better friend nearer home, and equally, a worse adversary nearer home.
The two giants need to acknowledge certain truths. On China’s part, it needs to understand India’s concern about the Chumbi valley where the mutual allegations of border incursions are being made. This narrow valley wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan, points like a dagger at the Chicken’s Neck or Siliguri corridor, which connects the Northeast with the rest of India. It is, therefore, legitimate for India to be worried about a dagger pointed at his neck even if the dagger is not touching its neck or the wielder of the dagger is a friend. On India’s part, since Tibet is now Chinese territory, it is legitimate for the latter to connect its territories by roads. A settlement, if any, will have to be placed between these two concerns.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of Imphal Free Press and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers (2016).