External Affairs

Why Removing the Historical Baggage of McMahon May Be More Important for China than the Line Itself

Without actually meaning to, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval may have stumbled upon an important key to the vexed boundary issue between India and China. In his recent Rustamji memorial lecture in New Delhi, Doval had said China acknowledges the McMahon Line in the Myanmar sector but not in the Indian sector. China has since responded to Doval’s statement with the old posture that it considers the McMahon Line illegal.

It is true that part of the McMahon Line extends into Myanmar, and this is understandable for when the line was drawn, Myanmar (then Burma) was still clubbed with India since its annexation by the British in 1885. By the Government of India Act, 1935, grounds were laid for putting Burma under a separate administration and the actual bifurcation happened in 1937. In fact, as Parshottam Mehra notes, one of the reasons why Olaf Caroe was in a hurry to publish the McMahon Line in Aitchison’s Treaties – which he ultimately did in 1938 under controversial circumstances – was this imminent separation.

China settled its outstanding boundary issues with Burma in 1960, and in the Burmese sector of the McMahon Line, the settlement in physical terms is virtually an adoption of the same alignment, with some minor give and take. Burma ended up returning 132 sq miles of territory to China and China 85 sq miles to Burma. However, the important point is this: The boundary agreed upon is not the McMahon Line any more but a new line ratified by “The Burma-China Boundary Treaty of October 1, 1960”.

Tibet’s claim to sovereignty

There is nothing trivial about this. From China’s point of view, removing the historical baggage which comes with the McMahon Line may be what is more important than some territory lost or gained in accepting the line.

From its vantage, international acknowledgment of its sovereignty over Tibet is non-negotiable but a boundary realignment proposal might be open to discussion. Tibet, thereby, would not be conferred with treaty concluding powers. Remember, the McMahon Line was the result of a negotiation between Tibetan and British plenipotentiaries in the 1913-14 Simla Conference, without the Chinese plenipotentiary being taken into confidence. I have discussed the reasons for this in an earlier article.

The Simla Conference had an important precedent in the triangular relationship between British India, China and Tibet. In 1904, Lord Curzon – who was suspicious of the proximity of the 13th Dalai Lama to Russia via the influence of a Siberian monk of the Buriat community settled in Lhasa, Agvan Dorjiev – invaded Tibet. Curzon’s suspicion may have had a basis, as Charles Bell notes, for the Dalai Lama, wary of the British, refused all communications from Curzon and even returned a letter from the latter unopened. On the other hand, in 1901, the Dalai Lama sent Dorjiyev as his envoy to the Russian Tsar and Dorjiev returned with gifts from the Tsar, including some Russian firearms.

The officer who led the 1904 invasion, Col. Francis Younghusband, forced a treaty on Tibet. If Curzon was allowed to have his way and this treaty remained as it was, in all likelihood, Tibet could have ended up close to what Sikkim was. But this was not to be, and the treaty was ultimately undone step by step, both at the behest of London and China, for different reasons.

Quite ironically, although the Tibetans were the ones who ended up massacred by Younghusband and his soldiers, and the Lhasa Convention was a grossly unequally treaty forced on them, it was still a treaty which could have been a valuable alibi for Tibet’s claim to sovereignty. This treaty was concluded between the Tibetans and the British, though the Dalai Lama was not a signatory as he had fled to Mongolia to avoid capture by the invaders. But significantly, China was not a party. As one of his predecessors Lord Dufferin had towards the end of the 19th Century concluded, Curzon too was of the opinion that China’s control over Tibet then was a fiction, and decided to deal with the Tibetans on Tibetan affairs directly.

The victimised Tibetans understandably would have been blinded by outrage to appreciate the longer term implications of this treaty, but these implications were not lost on the Chinese. The latter immediately activated its diplomatic channels to initiate talks in Calcutta to work to undo this treaty.

Pay for reparations

When it became evident the treaty would not be abrogated, the Chinese first tried to prevail upon the British that the Lhasa Convention should be made legitimate only after another treaty with the Chinese ratified it. As long as Curzon was still in charge, this did not work and the Calcutta talks were abandoned. Fortunately for the Chinese, Curzon’s term as Viceroy ended in 1905. In London too, the conservative Arthur Balfour government made an exit the same year to give way to the liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman government, further removing China’s hurdles. The failed Calcutta talks were revived in Peking in 1906 and the Peking Convention adopted the Lhasa agreements with modifications. Also noteworthy was that though the agenda of the Peking Convention was Tibet, no Tibetan representative was part of the negotiations.

China was even ready to pay substantial costs to bring the matter to such a conclusion. One of the main articles of the 10-article Lhasa Convention was that Tibet was to pay war reparation of Rs. 75 lakhs to the British in an annual instalment of Rs. 1 lakh. Until this was paid in full, Chumbi Valley adjacent to Sikkim and Bhutan, was to be in British custody. The Tibetans were unlikely to be able to pay this so in effect it had meant a permanent British presence in Tibet. Lord Ampthill as officiating Viceroy while Curzon was on leave, voluntarily had this amount reduced to Rs. 25 lakhs in 1904 itself. The Chinese offered to pay this, and also to have the British agree that the payment be made in just three instalments. Chumbi Valley thus returned to Tibet in three years.

Maybe China was and still is looking for a settlement of the McMahon Line issue with India along this line. In October 1960, immediately after resolving its boundary issues with Burma, including the Burmese portion of the McMahon Line, Zhou Enlai and his team flew down to New Delhi but the mood in India was different. The Aksai Chin highway had only been recently built and the Khampa uprising in Tibet had been suppressed brutally, prompting the 14th Dalai Lama to flee and take refuge in India in 1959. Nehru was besieged by the right wing in Parliament, including by those within his own party, and by the media that he was betraying Tibet and letting down India. After talks failed in New Delhi, Zhou flew to Kathmandu where too, as in Burma, they settled their boundary issues, including dividing Mt. Everest by the watershed principle.

It will be a tough moral decision for India. Disowning the Simla Agreement would be a blow to the Tibetan cause, but having another boundary treaty supersede the Simla Agreement without substantially changing the McMahon Line alignment may prove to be a major step toward a resolution of India’s border issues with China.

The writer is editor of the Imphal Free Press. His book, written as fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, on the geopolitics that shaped the physical map as well as psychology of the Indian Northeast is due to be published later this year.