Competing with China in Sri Lanka: Part II


China began to increase its diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka during the 90’s with the conclusion of several commercial treaties. These treaties greatly helped the Sri Lankan economy. China facilitated Sri Lanka’s membership to the World Trade Organisation in 2000, thus gaining a lot of goodwill from the island State that needed the prestige that comes with WTO membership.

China had also helped Sri Lanka with its defence during the Sri Lankan Civil War by providing them with weapons and ammunition. China was the only nation who had assisted Sri Lanka in its time of need. Even India, Sri Lanka’s natural ally had been unable to openly provide the government with significant military aid. The Civil War and India’s inability to help the Sri Lankan government eroded relations between the States paving the way for China. At the time, India’s hands had been tied because of Tamil Nadu’s DMK Party. The DMK was an important member of the central governments coalition. The DMK supported the LTTE and threatened to pull out of the coalition if India sent military aid to Sri Lanka. Faced with the possibility of losing power, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) refused Sri Lanka’s requests for support. Hence, Sri Lanka was forced to approach China.

The war against the LTTE was lead by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and was wrought with allegations of Human Rights abuses by Sri Lankan forces. In 2011 the UN published a report in which it issued a damning indictment of the governments actions during the war. The Rajapaksa lead government refused to allow an international investigation into the alleged war crimes and stated that they would not allow the investigators to enter Sri Lanka. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared to support the UN when he boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Colombo in 2013 citing Sri Lanka’s human rights record. But in 2014, when the UNHRC tabled a resolution that dealt with Sri Lanka’s alleged human rights abuses, India abstained[1] from voting for it which showed a huge shift in position. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka didn’t appreciate the lack of consistency, especially since China voted against the resolution stating that Sri Lanka had made significant progress already[2]. While India did gain some mileage for abstaining, China’s vote against it had more impact and pushed Delhi further away from Rajapaksa. Hence, China managed to increase its influence with Rajapaksa and alienate India.

Since 2013, China has been attempting to get a stronger position in Sri Lanka, putting India on the back-foot. International Affairs analyst Patrick Mendis refers to their method as ‘Buddhist Diplomacy[3].’ This peculiar brand of diplomacy appears to cite the nations’ shared beliefs and consequent shared history as a forerunner to 21st Century economic cooperation. At Colombo in 2014, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping made a unique move and wrote an editorial in Sri Lanka’s oldest national newspaper. He wrote about the two nations’ shared cultural and historic ties, citing Fahein and Zheng He’s voyages and then spoke of China’s tremendous contributions to the Sri Lankan economy. The Premier even spoke about the Maritime Silk Route Proposal to connect the oil rich Middle East to China, emulating the medieval Silk Route that connected European markets to the spices and silks of the Orient. This endeared the Sri Lankan public to the Chinese and reminded them that India isn’t the only neighbour that has contributed significantly to their economy.

India appears to have had an ambivalent attitude towards the Chinese advance. China began to establish defence cooperation with Sri Lanka reportedly by agreeing to construct a Maintenance Facility in Trincomalee, India’s Sri Lankan stronghold. This agreement violates an Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement on Defence[4], but India barely reacted to China’s moves towards India’s strategic assets. There have also been two occasions in 2014 alone when Sri Lanka allowed Chinese Nuclear Submarines to dock at its ports in Colombo, once in September, along with a Chinese Warship and then again in November. India merely expressed its displeasure at the complete disregard of their agreement in a message to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but eventually accepted Sri Lanka’s explanation that the Chinese submarines were simply docking at Sri Lanka on their way to and from anti-piracy activities near Somalia[5]. India quietly decided to re-evaluate its Indian Ocean policy behind closed doors somewhere in Delhi[6], although it could have engaged in a number of retaliatory measures.

Hence the question arises, why did India not show a stronger reaction and cement its status as the hegemonic power in the Indian Ocean?

The reason for this is that the Rajapaksa administration had consistently been trying to play China against India and make both nations compete for influence in Sri Lanka, while the tiny island nation reaped the benefits. He appears to have been engaging in a dangerous game of brinksmanship to see how far India will allow China to penetrate before reacting. Sri Lanka even offered India the opportunity to develop the Hambantota Project. India declined and lost the project to China, but in hindsight, this appears to have been a wise move because the Hambantota port operates far below capacity and has been a major loss for its Chinese investors.

The fundamental flaw in China’s policy towards Sri Lanka is that it had been geared towards pleasing the Rajapaksa government instead of the Sri Lankan nation. Rajapaksa seemed to have a strong dislike for India, especially in the context of India’s role in supporting the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the IPKF’s failed attempts to resolve the issue. In his view, India had double standards in accusing his government of Human Rights abuses when the IPKF itself had been accused of the same. India’s investments in Sri Lanka were also far lower than the billions they had been investing in Afghanistan. Hence, China and its money came as a welcome change, and also helped him win votes. Most of China’s construction projects pandered to the Rajapaksa family’s need to appeal to it’s home base, Hambantota and they haven’t actually had any developmental impact on the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans. An deeper analysis of India’s Sri Lanka policy reveals that India was simply biding its time and waiting for a pro-India government, while engaging in developmental projects that will generate more long-term benefits for the nation as a whole, than China’s flashy, vanity projects.

Eventually, China’s principal ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of power in 2015 and succeeded by Maithripala Sirisena, a man whose most effective policy has been to represent the opposite of everything Rajapaksa stood for. Where Rajapaksa openly displayed his wealth and power, Sirisena is the emodiment of austerity, he even got rid of the flower pots in the Presidential Palace citing unnecessary expenditure. He intends to bring back the parliamentary checks and balances that Rajapaksa scrapped in the 18th Amendment and is attempting to bring minorities back to the forefront of Sri Lankan society. Anti-Corruption policies are the hallmark of his administration and one of his first acts as President was to bring all Chinese projects under the scanner, even leading to the suspension of the Colombo Port City Project. China will have to use all its influence and adopt a fresh policy to regain its foothold in the country.

India has been monitoring these developments closely, and since leadership changes bring opportunities, Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj were quick to capitalise. They were the first to congratulate and visit Sirisena during his first 90 days in office. Modi prayed at a Buddhist temple, he visited the war torn region of Jaffna and unveiled plans to help fund power plants and railroads. During his visit, the two sides agreed on a $1.5 billion currency swap that would moderate volatility of Sri Lankas rupee. This showed that India was more interested in Sri Lanka’s welfare as opposed to the Chinese practice of pleasing the ruling family. Modi also announced that India would help further develop the Trincomalee Port.

While experts believe that Modi’s deft diplomacy managed to wean Sri Lanka off China, is it too little too late?

The Chinese will not allow a new President to jeopardise their Maritime Silk Route and they have valuable bargaining chips. Sri Lanka needs more investment and China has more money than India. While the volume of trade between China and Sri Lanka remains high, most of this consists of Chinese exports. The lethal combination of a massive deficit, with billions of dollars worth of investment still in the pipeline will make it very difficult for Sirisena to initiate a fundamental shift in policy towards India, or even away from China. However, Sri Lanka accrues a disproportionate benefit from India who allows its own imports to exceed Sri Lankan exports, reducing the trade imbalance.

When Sirisena visited China, it became clear from the ensuing press conferences that China would remain supportive of Sri Lanka’s actions in reviewing Chinese projects as part of theirz broader anti-corruption investigation. More recently, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson spoke of the resumption of the Colombo Port Project and the creation of favourable conditions to advance their mutually beneficial cooperation[7]. This shows that the Chinese have enough leverage to prevent Sri Lanka from allowing a paradigm shift in policy towards India, or any other State. Sirisena appears to have been scoring political points when he suspended the Colombo Project, and he evidently does not intend to actually lose Chinese investment. Sri Lanka recently promised to resume the construction of the Colombo Post City after China threatened legal action. Another factor in China’s favour is the fact that Sirisena only won by six percent and their ally, Rajapaksa is set to make a comeback in the impending Prime Ministerial elections[8]. 


China is aiming for the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation[9]’ and has extended multibillion-dollar loans to the island nation. However, these massive sums are misnomers because as per R. Sampanthan, a member of the Sri Lankan parliament, only 2% of the total funding provided by China is in the form of grants. The remaining 98% has been given in the form of loans[10].

Further, several other experts have talked about how the Chinese used these investments to revive their own flagging economy by using Chinese labour, and in the event of damage, ensuring that only the Chinese have the capability to repair machinery. The Norochcholai Thermal Power Plant is a perfect example of China using its investments as a method of revival. It was funded by the EXIM Bank of China, with the caveat that only Chinese raw materials and labour could be used[11]. It suffered repeated and costly breakdowns that amounted to a quarter of its operational life and it was built such that only Chinese engineers could repair it.

China’s ‘White Elephant’ investments[12] have also been accused of being frivolous, poorly planned and debt generating. They are mostly vanity projects – A cricket stadium, an airport, a seaport and a highway. In fact, as soon as Rajapaksa was voted out of office, Sri Lanka’s national carrier stopped flights to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota because it was incurring a loss of $18 million per annum[13]. The seaport and the airport function largely under capacity.

There is widespread resentment among Sri Lankans about the predatory nature of Chinese investments – they have left Sri Lanka highly indebted to China, paying higher interest rates than under the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank[14], and have shown little benefit. The Chinese and the Rajapaksa regime had failed to recognise public resentment behind the allegations of corruption and neo-colonial behaviour by China. Their shortsightedness lead to the ousting of Rajapaksa from power, not once, but twice. The new president, Sirisena has been elected partially because of the anti-China and anti-Rajapaksa wave. His anti-corruption and austerity promises have brought all Chinese projects under the scanner and have lead to the suspension of the flagship Colombo Port City Project.

But India will have to remind the Sri Lankans of the benefits they have brought vis-à-vis the Chinese. While China built multi storied towers, stadiums, unusable airports and highways, India brought direct benefits to the people. India developed the railway networks that serve 300,000 commuters daily[15] and is helping to rehabilitate people displaced by the Civil War by building houses. India has been four times as generous in terms of grants, while the Chinese have only provided them with high interest loans.

In terms of security, the Indian Ocean Region is dominated by the Indian Navy and it simply outnumbers Chinas forces in the region[16]. China will never be able to match the security that India can provide simply by its proximity. Sri Lankan military officers have trained at Indian military academies and India helped put down a country-wide rebellion in 1971 at the request of the Sri Lankan President. Although China says that it provided Sri Lanka with weapons and diplomatic support during the civil war, India, despite its domestic constraints, played an equally important role by facilitating arms deals and providing critical naval and intelligence support[17]. Since the end of the fight against the LTTE in 2009, 10% of Sri Lanka’s officers have, at some point, trained in India. The Indian and Sri Lankan Navies also pariticipate in joint military exercises and training.

Both nations enjoy shared cultural influences such as Bollywood and their liberal democratic political system. 20% of Sri Lanka’s tourists come from India in stark contrast to the 3% from China[18]. India can even use the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka to make trouble for the government as it did in 1980.


India’s interests are naturally allied with Sri Lanka’s and many experts suggest that Sri Lanka’s recent diplomatic overtures in India are suggestive of a pro-India tilt. But India shouldn’t rest on its laurels just yet because China’s Maritime Silk Route Proposal is largely dependant on Sri Lanka’s ports, some of which have been called the best in the world. China will not allow Sri Lanka to slip out of its fingers and will use all the tools at it disposal to maintain its grip on Sri Lanka’s ports. India’s recent diplomatic successes are commendable, but it must either try to match China dollar-for-dollar, or shift the goalpost to security and remind Sri Lanka of its dependency on India. India must prevent China from dominating Sri Lanka’s policy and thus, must continue to compete.

Image Credits:,width-640,resizemode-4/pm-modi-sirisena-offer-prayers-at-the-sri-maha-bodhi-tree.jpg

[1] Human Rights Council adopts a resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka – Human Rights Council, 27th March, 2014; (last accessed: 25th May, 2015)

[2] Ibid. 19

[3] Ibid. 12

[4] R. Sampanthan’s Speech in Parliament – Only 2% Chinese Aid to Sri Lanka are Grants While India Provides 33% As Grants; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[5] Sachin Parashar – Sri Lanka snubs India, opens port to Chiense submarine again; (last accessed: 25th May, 2015)

[6] Ibid. 23

[7] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on March 19, 2015; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[8] Amantha Perera and Jason Burke – Mahinda Rajapaksa prepares for a political comeback in Sri Lanka; (last accessed: 25th May, 2015)

[9] Ibid. 11

[10] Ibid. 22

[11] Sameer Lalwani – China’s Port to Nowhere; (last accessed: 25th May, 2015)

[12] Ibid. 29

[13] Ibid. 29

[14] Ibid. 29

[15] Ibid. 29

[16] Ibid. 29

[17] Ibid. 29

[18] Ibid. 29


Competing with China in Sri Lanka: Part I


Renowned geostrategist, Admiral Alfred Mahan once said, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. …In the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in its waters.

The Indian Ocean handles over 80% of the world’s seaborne trade in oil[i] and supplies energy to over half the world’s population. Sri Lanka is said to have some of the best ports in the world and its ports are en-route to the lucrative South East Asian markets. Hence, access to Sri Lanka is the key to seaborne trade in South-East Asia.

India has always had unfettered access to the Indian Ocean by virtue of its geography and deep historic and diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka and the other island nations in the region. India is Sri Lanka’s natural ally because of its proximity to the vast Indian subcontinent, India’s powerful navy and the volume of bilateral trade. But China has a vested interest in challenging India’s comfortable position and is vying to supplant India’s dominance in the region. The Chinese are using their ability to make multi-billion dollar investments, the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) Proposal and their ever-increasing navy to achieve their goals, forcing India to up the ante and compete.

Until recently, Sri Lanka has appeared to favour China over India. However, the recent ousting of pro-China President Mahinda Rajapaksa in favour of the seemingly more balanced Maithripala Sirisena shows that Delhi has certainly won a battle, but the question is, can it win the war?

Indo-Sri Lanka Relations:

India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and their relationship goes back for over two and a half millennia. The two nations have always had a strong socio-religious, economic, cultural and ethno-linguistic relationship. There is a population of over 842,000 Indian Origin Tamils that have formed a formidable political force and are supported by political parties in India like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party from Tamil Nadu. Ties strained after the Indian Peacekeeping Force’s (IPKF) failed intervention in Northern Sri Lanka to curb insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil population in Northern Sri Lanka. The subsequent Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accords of 1987 signed by Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene were also incredibly unpopular among Sri Lankans, especially in the light of allegations of human rights violations by the IPKF. Eventually, the IPKF was withdrawn in 1990 and after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, India has resisted the call to mediate or intervene in the conflict, choosing to focus on Indo-Sri Lankan economic ties instead. India had; until the end of the conflict in May 2009, supported the Sri Lankan governments right to take action against terrorist forces.

This shift ushered in a new era of friendship and cooperation, mitigating the damaging negative public opinion and bitterness caused by Indias earlier intervention. The Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) that came into force in 2000 leading to an influx of FDI[ii], enhancing trade and economic cooperation. There are Indian investments in several sectors including petroleum, retail, hospitals, telecom, vanaspati, copper and other metal industries, real estate, telecommunication, hospitality & tourism, banking and financial services, IT and food processing. India extended an $800 million line of credit for the development of railway lines and telecommunications systems in Northern Sri Lanka. India is Sri Lanka’s biggest trade partner and bilateral trade stood at $4.6 Billion in 2014. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi pledged $318 million to rehabilitate Sri Lanka’s railways[iii]. Sri Lanka’s trade deficit is in excess of $2500 million dollars[iv] in favour of India. Sri Lanka is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia. In turn, India is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner globally.

India sent in a significant amount of humanitarian aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami extending a line of credit amounting to $167 million. It is also assisting in the reconstruction of 50,000 houses for the 300,000 Internally Displaced People and had helped them with aid in the wake of the earlier conflict[v].

There have been several high level meetings between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders such as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit in 2012. India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives participated in the 2nd NSA Level Meeting on Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security[vi] making it clear that Sri Lanka definitely needs India for security. Their alliance was strengthened when India abstained from voting for a UN Resolution against war crimes in Sri Lanka, despite the domestic ramifications[vii].

Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena’s first State visit was to India in February 2015 where he discussed issues such as defence and maritime security cooperation and civil-nuclear cooperation[viii] with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj visited Sri Lanka[ix] in the first week of March to set the stage for a visit by Modi who visited Sri Lanka from 13th-15th March[x] as part of his three-nation tour of the Indian Ocean island nations. He is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the island nations since Rajiv Gandhi, over 28 years ago, ushering in a new era of friendship and cooperation.

China-Sri Lanka Relations:

China and Sri Lanka’s shared Buddhist philosophy goes back for centuries. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping attributes this to eminent Chinese Monk, Fahien’s visit to China in the 5th Century and Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s historical voyages that brought him to Sri Lankan shores in 1405 AD[xi]. While China is quick to remind the Lankans of their shared history, they forget to mention the truly Confucian manner in which Zheng He demanded that the Sinhalese King Vira Alakesvara pay tribute to the Chinese Emperor. He also demanded the ‘return’ of the Sacred Bowl, Hair and Tooth relics of the Buddha that had been described by Fahein and were revered in Sri Lanka[xii]. Admiral Zheng, in the course of his two voyages to Sri Lanka even captured Sinhalese Royals and took them back ‘to apologise’ to the rulers there[xiii]. But because of China’s aggression, Sino-Sri Lanka relations remained dormant for 500 years.

After Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, their first bilateral agreement was the 1952 Rubber-Rice Agreement with China. In fact, Sri Lanka was one of the first nations to recognise the People’s Republic of China. China established diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka in 1957 and their partnership has since seen robust growth. The construction of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in 1973 was one of the first projects that saw major Chinese investment. Since then, China and Sri Lanka have entered into several trade agreements, notably: the First Agreement on Economic and Technological Cooperation in 1962 and the Agreement on Economic & Trade Cooperation in 1984. The 90’s saw The Sri Lanka-China Joint Commission on Trade that held sessions in 1992, 1996 and 2000 and the Sri Lanka- China Business Council in 1994. China supported Sri Lanka’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2000. They also sent a great deal of aid to Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. They also sent arms and provided Sri Lanka with military assistance to fight the LTTE.

In 2005, China became its fourth largest Trade Partner[xiv]. The trade deficit in Sri Lanka stood at $2838 million in 2013[xv], which is significantly more than its deficit with India. Bilateral trade was at $3.62 billion in 2013[xvi]. Today, China is Sri Lanka’s second largest trade partner and 14% of Sri Lanka’s imports come from China, surpassed only by imports from India[xvii]. China has pledged over $6.2 billion in investments in Sri Lanka, which includes the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City financed by the state owned China Communications Construction Co. Some other projects are the Lotus Tower – A 350m communications tower that is being built in the heart of Colombo, the $1.2 billion Norochcholai Coal Power plant and other investments including a cricket stadium, an airport, ports and large highways.

Ousted President, Mahinda Rajapaksa had very close ties with China and it was primarily during his regime that Sino-Sri Lanka relations improved by leaps and bounds. Rajapaksa made a State visit to China in 2013, which was reciprocated by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in 2014. Two Chinese submarines and a Chinese warship docked in the Colombo Port in late 2014. But these close ties were marred by domestic allegations of corruption and nepotism. The people especially disliked the Chinese for facilitating corruption via their projects. All this eventually lead to his replacement by a new president in the recently concluded elections.

The new President Maithripala Sirisena has made a lot of anti-China election promises and one of his first presidential acts was to review the legality of all Chinese projects, culminating in the suspension of the flagship Colombo Port City Project. Analysts have hailed this move as a pro-India tilt in Sri Lankan policy, but even new presidents cannot abandon investors. However, Sirisena’s reelection only reaffirms the Sri Lankan people’s preference for India.

Sirisena visited China in March, following a visit by the Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister to Sri Lanka. Sirisena held talks with the Chinese Premier during which, presumably, the sticky issue of the suspension of the Colombo Port City Project and further protection of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka was discussed[xviii].

India and China’s competing interests  in Sri Lanka will be further discussed and analysed in Part II.

Image Credits:

[i] Sergei De-Silva Ramsinghe – Why the Indian Ocean Matters; (last accessed: 20th May, 2015)

[ii] Ministry of External Affairs – Indo-Sri Lanka Relations; January, 2014

[iii] India’s Modi visits Sri Lanka’s war torn Jaffna; (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[iv] Sri Lanka Customs, 2013

[v] Ibid. 2

[vi] Ibid. 2

[vii] Rama Lakshmi – India’s government loses key ally over U.N. Resolution against Sri Lanka; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[viii] Shubhajit Roy – Lankan President Sirisena gets the red carpet with deals on defence and nuclear security; (last accessed: 22nd May)

[ix] Sushma Swaraj in Sri Lanka Ahead of Modi Visit; (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[x] Suhasini Haider – Knitting the India-Sri Lanka Relationship Closer; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[xi] Xi Jinping – EXCLUSIVE: Xi Jinping, President People’s Republic of China, to Daily News readers- ‘Let us become partners in pursuit of our dreams’; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[xii] Patrick Mendis – China’s Buddhist Diplomacy: Why Do America and India Entangle with Tiny Sri Lanka?; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

[xiii] Ibid. 12

[xiv] Sri Lanka China Trade Relationship; (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[xv] (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[xvi] China-Sri Lanka FTA to be signed in June 2015; (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[xvii] The Observatory of Economic Complexity: Sri Lanka; (last accessed: 22nd May, 2015)

[xviii] Sri Lanka seeks improved Relations with China – Al Jazeera; (last accessed: 24th May, 2015)

Sino-Indian Border Dispute: Part III

1962 Onwards

Indo-China relations remained frozen till the 1980’s, with India refusing to negotiate a settlement until China withdrew its troops from Aksai Chin. A gradual change took place during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure and the land swap idea was tentatively discussed again by Deng Xiaoping in 1980[1], though it was never finalised. Incursions and troop movements continued on both sides for over 30 years after the War until the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility. However, the 1993 and 1996 Bilateral Agreements settled the Line of Actual Control (LAC), giving it legal and official recognition[2].

It is important to clarify that the LAC is only a rough demarcation of Indian and Chinese occupied territory, but it does not constitute the official boundary. There has been no official exchange of maps delineating the exact points of the LAC, thus ambiguity remains in several regions. Today, although tensions remain high and border patrols from both sides frequently cross the undefined border antagonising both sides, not a single shot has been fired at the LAC in 25 years; making it one of the most peaceful border disputes in the world.

Validity of the Claims

The legitimacy of India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh ultimately rests on the Shimla Convention of 1914. There is dissenting opinion as to the validity of this agreement for several reasons. First, Britain had been precluded from entering into bilateral agreements with Tibet because of China’s alleged suzerainty. Second, China claims that the treaty is itself nullified because Tibet was not a sovereign State and did not have the power to enter into relations with other States.

Chinas allegations can be contested on the grounds that Tibet had; upon the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty and consequent regime change in China, become an independent State and thus, had absolute control over the area in question. As an independent State, Tibet had the inherent right to enter into treaties with other States as it saw fit. Tibet did not have any of the encumbrances created by the Anglo-Chinese or Anglo-Russian Conventions that precluded parties from entering into agreements with the British.  The British were also free to treatise with an independent Tibet because the aforementioned conventions only envisioned an autonomous Tibet within Chinese control. Moreover, as Nehru pointed out in a letter to the Chinese Premier, China had never objected to Tibet’s right to enter into sovereign agreements: “In fact this was not the first occasion when Tibet concluded an agreement with other countries. In 1856 Tibet concluded an agreement on its own with Nepal. The Convention signed by Britain and Tibet in1904 was negotiated by the British and Tibetan representatives with the assistance of the Chinese Amban in Tibet.”[3] Hence, although the Chinese did not accept the McMahon Line and the British were wary of publicising it, the legitimacy of the agreement itself is unquestionable.

Secondly, as pointed out directly by Nehru and various other commentators, China never raised an objection to the Mc Mahon line at Shimla, post-Shimla, or even after India took control of Tawang in 1951. They only ever objected in the late 1950s, almost four decades after the Shimla Convention. China’s lack of formal objection to India’s claims to the McMahon line is critical because international law is unequivocal on the subject: “If a state acquires knowledge of an act which it considers internationally illegal, and in violation, and nevertheless does not protest; this attitude implies a renunciation of such rights, provided that a protest would have been necessary to preserve a claim.”[4] India lost an opportunity to move out of the shadows and openly stake its claim in 1954 because of a mulish desire not to rely on the so-called ‘colonial legacy.’ However, one must remember that China itself never made a claim to Arunachal until 1959, in the aftermath of the Tibetan Rebellion. It was only when they realised that they could use Arunachal as leverage to gain access to Aksai Chin that they began to make noises about having a claim to Arunachal.

Aksai Chin is of vital importance to China, more so than Arunachal. One of Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping’s pet-projects is the construction of a land route to the oil-rich Middle East that undercuts the importance of the Indian Ocean and increases Chinese influence along the volatile northern border of India. China has spent massive amounts of money in Pakistan to ensure the development of this route including building a port at Gwadar in the Baloch Province of Pakistan. The only hurdle to their unfettered access to oil in the Middle East is Aksai Chin, hence its importance. Perhaps even more important is its strategic position. It is located at a high altitude making it resistant to infiltration or military invasion from Central Asia or India and thus, forms the perfect outpost for China.

After the 1962 war, China withdrew its troops to the boundary stipulated by the McMahon line, implicitly recognising its legitimacy even though they retained troops in Aksai Chin. They have made multiple attempts to initiate land swaps, showing that their real interest is in Aksai Chin, not Arunachal. Despite incursions, they have never pushed the issue as much as they have for Aksai Chin. Although they continue to make noises about Tawang being part of Tibet because of the 400year old Tawang monastery’s close historical and spiritual connections with Lhasa, they have never tried to take it. Thus, one may tenatively conclude that India’s claim to all 84,000sqkm of Arunachal Pradesh is valid but the Chinese will never accept it until the Aksai Chin issue is settled.

Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh

The present State of Arunachal Pradesh was earlier known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). It became a fully fledged state on 20th February, 1987.


Arunachal Pradesh is of vital strategic importance to China because of the following reasons[5][6]:

  • If China holds Arunachal Pradesh, it will border Bhutan on both its eastern and western flanks
  • In the event of war, India will be able to launch multi-layered air-strikes from Arunachal that will pose a grave threat to the Chinese and act as a deterrent
  • It provides quick and easy access to Siliguri, the 22km corridor that connects the NER to the rest of India. If China cuts off the Siliguri Corridor, it can take the whole of the NER in one quick move
  • Arunachal is the quickest route to China and is thus useful to India
  • Arunachal is the home of clandestine pro-Tibet movements that threaten China’s rights in Tibet and provide assistance to separatists. If it has Arunachal, it can crush all pro-Tibet sentiment and drive away the remaining Tibetans in the NER
  • Arunachal will provide China will all-weather communications access to Tibet
  • It can continue to hold Arunachal hostage in order to pursue its true ambitions in Aksai Chin


The importance of Arunachal Pradesh for India far exceeds the strategic value it has for China[7]. This is because:

  • Bhutan is a buffer state between India and China. Chinese presence in Arunachal will mean that Bhutan will be swallowed up by China leaving a far greater portion of India’s border vulnerable to Chinese incursions.
  • It is the quickest route to China and Tibet and also allows India to make multi-layered air deployments that act as a major deterrent to China.
  • The border at Arunachal protects access to the Siliguri Corridor. If Siliguri is lost, India will lose the NER.
  • Tawang is a strategically important location and whoever controls it holds the key to the entire NER. India cannot afford to lose this key to China.
  • Pro-Tibet presence in Arunachal is important for India because it protects it from absolute Chinese domination
  • The NER provides easy access to Southern India and is also holds a great deal of India’s Natural Resource wealth.
  • The dispute over Arunachal gives India vital bargaining chips in its negotiations with China over Aksai Chin

Thus, India not only values Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of its territory, but it also holds vital strategic importance and helps it counter China’s influence.

Indo-China Relations

India and China are not close to resolving the border dispute. The Chinese still insist on referring to Arunachal as ‘South Tibet’ and have taken to protesting every time an Indian leader visits the region, as they did when Prime Minister Modi visited the State in February 2015[8]. The Chinese media engages in intense anti-India propaganda every time the Dalai Lama or any of India’s political leaders visit the region and has, on numerous occasions suggested military action to take over the entire NER.

Both States have been strengthening their strategic infrastructure to counter the other. China even departed from its policy of not overtly antagonising India and conducted the first pan-China exercise (Stride–2009) in the Chengdu Military Region that falls within the jurisdiction of Tibet[9], veering closer to the disputed border area.

There have been minor changes in the diplomatic field since China issued stapled visa’s to 2 Indian sports officials residing in Arunachal. This was a departure from its long standing position of not recognising the Indian passport for residents of Arunachal Pradesh and experts have suggested that this could be a sign of conciliation and must be taken seriously[10]. However, this appears to be more of a smokescreen than a significant change by virtue of the fact that it was coupled with major military exercises and there have been no high level talks about the border issue since.


Chinese officials and academics have often made noises about being magnanimous on the issue of Aksai Chin if India gives up Tawang. At the same time, India must not be naïve in thinking that China will allow India to take Aksai Chin which is its lifeline to Xinjiang in Tibet. India will not benefit from the loss of some its most important strategic locations, so China’s hope of acquiring ‘South Tibet’ and amalgamating it with ‘Greater Tibet’ remains a distant dream. India must build up its diplomatic and strategic arsenal until it is in a position to bring China to the negotiating table for the issue to be resolved on a mutually agreeable basis. At the same time, it must remember that the border dispute is one aspect of a much greater Indo-China relationship. Prime Minister Modi is taking the right first steps in building India’s economic ties with China and strategic ties with its neighbours but there is still a great deal more that must be done to improve its defence and economic ties such that it will become expensive for China to act against India.

[1] Ibid 27

[2] Swaran Singh – Three Agreements and Five Principles between India and China; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[3] Ibid 26

[4] Oppenheim. International Law: A Treatise

[5] Centre for Asian and Strategic Studies-India – Importance of Tawang; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[6] Dr. Subhash Kapila – Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[7] Ibid. 35,36

[8] Reuters Shanghai – China protests at Modi’s visit to disputed Arunachal Pradesh

[9] Dr. Subhash Kapila – Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh; C3S Paper No.368 dated September 20, 2009

[10] B. Raman – China: A seemingly interesting move on Arunachal Pradesh; C3S Paper No.716 dated January 16, 2011

Sino-Indian Border Dispute: Part II


India attained Independence on the 15th of August in 1947. Soon after, Indian authorities wrote to Tibet to affirm their rights as the successors of the British Government. They wished to confirm that all benefits accruing from any treaty or agreement entered into between Britain and Tibet, would pass on to the India[i]. Tibet ratified this in 1948, thereby confirming that all the privileges that had been enjoyed by British India would be enjoyed by it’s independent Successor in consonance with the principles of International Law dealing with State Succession.

In October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet and asserted Chinese sovereignty.[ii]. India’s ideal position would have been to challenge China’s sudden aggression and come to the rescue of its mountain ally. However, Prime Minister Nehru realised that India was not in a position to prevent the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Instead, he opted to maintain good relations with China while building India’s military presence along its own borders, and increasing the number of administrative outposts at the borders in order to deter Chinese encroachment into Indian territory south of Tibet[iii]. To further protect its interests, India declared that the McMahon Line would form its North-Eastern Boundary and decisively asserted control of the strategic Tawang Tract. (The Raj had acquired Tawan in 1914 but had not extended its administration into Tawang. As a consequence, the Tibetan administration had maintained its presence till as late as 1951).

One of the most important strategic decisions that India took at the time was to secure the Tawang Tract. The Governer of Assam, Jairamdas Daulatram sanctioned a secret mission that resulted in the local chieftain of Tawang acceding to India in 1951, thereby settling any questions about India’s sovereignty over it[iv]. More importantly, at the time, China did not protest against India’s authority over any part of the region, or of India’s eviction of all the local Tibetan authorities in Tawang. These developments lead India to believe that the Chinese weren’t averse to accepting the McMahon Line as the official border, creating an improvement in relations. India even went so far as to broadly support China’s claim to Tibet, though still maintaining that it should remain autonomous. India also refused to sponsor Tibet’s appeal to the Security Council[v], all with the objective of avoiding any conflict with China. Everything appeared to be going very well for Indo-China relations.

Rising Tension:

On September 27, 1951, Chinese Premier, Zhou En-Lai informally assured the Indian ambassador in Beijing, K M Panikkar, that China intended to safeguard India’s interests in Tibet, even adding that ‘there was no territorial dispute or controversy between India and China.’[vi] Unfortunately, Panikkar missed the warning signs. The Premier had also been speaking to lobbies in Beijing of ‘stabilising the Indo-Tibetan Border.’ This meant that the Chinese were engaging in doublespeak, telling their own people that they had the right to more land in the region, possibly even dipping into Indian territory, while simultaneously assuring India that there were no problems. China’s true beliefs emerged when they began to publish maps which showed Chinese territory dipping 100 miles below the McMahon Line. Not one to be deterred by obvious evidence to the contrary, Nehru accepted Zhou En-Lai’s explanation in 1954 and 1956 when the Premier dismissed the maps as ‘old’ and ‘uncorrected[vii], successfully skirting the real issue.

In 1954, India and China signed a fresh treaty on trade and pilgrimage to Tibet called the “Sino-Indian Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and the Tibet Region of China” under which India made a major concession and recognised Tibet as a part of China. Both States also agreed to recognise six border passes. Moreover, India gave up the extraterritorial rights that it had always enjoyed in Tibet as a successor of the British Government. The most troubling aspect of this treaty was that it made no mention of the Shimla Convention or the McMahon line; even though it conferred upon China all the benefits that would have accrued from the Shimla Convention. Nehru viewed the Shimla Conventions as part of India’s colonial heritage and did not wish to let it overshadow all her future diplomatic endeavours[viii].

Many analysts have condemned Nehru’s failure to push for a statement on the border as an incredibly shortsighted move. This treaty gave India the perfect opportunity to have a dialogue with the Chinese and settle the border issue once and for all.  Thus, it is difficult to argue that India had not missed a major diplomatic coup in 1954 – Had the Shimla Convention or the McMahon line been mentioned in the 1954 treaty, the issue would have been laid to rest instead of consistently acting as a thorn in the side of Indo-China Relations for decades to come. However, contrarian historians and analysts have argued that this is an easy allegation to make with the benefit of hindsight. Srinath Raghavan argues that, “This argument overlooks the fact that India had no means of preserving its rights in Tibet in the face of Chinese determination to arrive at a fresh arrangement. As the then foreign secretary explained, India’s relinquishment of its rights was ‘a concession only to realism’. Nehru, moreover, was unwilling to broach the boundary issue [in 1954] because India was far from consolidating its hold on the border regions, and was ill-prepared to counter any efforts by China to take possession of these areas. If the issue became an openly contested one, India might be unable to defend its claims.”[ix]

In 1957, India discovered that China had built a road from Xinjiang in Tibet through Aksai Chin (area North East of Kashmir). This region, which had been hitherto marked as ‘undemarcated’, was claimed by India as of 1954 when Nehru asserted that Aksai Chin had been “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and was “not open to discussion with anybody.” Several historians posit that India’s sudden claim irked the Chinese, leading to suspicion and a renewed interest in Arunachal and Tawang as leverage for the resolution of the Aksai Chin problem. India lodged a formal protest with the Chinese on Aksai Chin, prompting a series of exchanges between Zhou en Lai and Nehru wherein China expressed (for the first time, directly) its rejection of the McMahon line.

Zhou wrote to Nehru in 1959, stating, “The so-called McMahon Line was a product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibet Region of China -and has never been recognised by any Chinese Central Government and is therefore decidedly illegal. As to the Shimla treaty, it was not formally signed by the representative of the then Chinese Central Government, and this is explicitly noted in the treaty.….. The Chinese Government absolutely does not recognise the so-called McMahon Line, but Chinese troops have never crossed that line. This is for the sake of maintaining amity along the border to facilitate negotiations and settlement of the boundary question, and in no way implies that the Chinese Government has recognised that line.”[x] Nehru, expressing shock and distress in his response claimed that he had no idea that China would ever claim such large tracts of Indian territory in Arunachal. He pointed out: “It is clear from the proceedings of the conference that not only did the Chinese representative fully participate in the conference but that the Tibetan-representative took part in the discussions on an equal footing with the Chinese and the then British Indian representatives … At no stage, either then or subsequently, did the Chinese Government object to the discussions on the boundary between India and Tibet at the conference… Later, the Chinese Foreign Office in a memorandum, dated the 25th April 1914 listed a number: of objections to the boundaries between Inner Tibet and Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet and China. It did not raise any objection to the boundary between Tibet and India as shown in the map attached to the tripartite Shimla Convention…On the contrary, it is the McMahon Line which correctly represents the customary boundary in this area. The water-parting formed by the crest of the Himalayas is the natural frontier which was accepted for centuries as the boundary by the peoples on both sides.” [xi]

Zhou En Lai appeared to have eventually convinced Nehru to consider a land swap. Towards the end of 1959, Nehru seemed to be gearing up for a land exchange with China; swapping Aksai Chin in the West, in exchange for settling the border dispute in the East[xii]. This would have been a good way to settle the problem and protect India’s then vulnerable borders. Unfortunately, Nehru later backtracked based on information obtained by historian, Dr. S Gopal. He made a speech in the Lok Sabha stating that India’s claim to Aksai Chin was stronger than China’s, thus precluding him from making any subsequent concessions on that front[xiii]. Dr. S Gopal is the only historian who has, on record, stated that India has a stronger claim on Aksai Chin than China. Public opinion also did not favour an exchange of land with China either, precluding Nehru from considering such an offer.

India-China relations remained in a state of flux in the late 1950s. The unfortunate simultaneity of the Tibetan rebellion, military patrols and incursions by both sides along the disputed border, and the Dalai Lama being given asylum in India led to Chinese distrust and paranoia about Indian ‘meddling’ in Tibet. The Communist Party Leader, Mao Zedong and Chinese Premier, Zhou En-Lai had been becoming increasingly suspicious of Nehru’s intentions in Tibet.[xiv] Facing pressure at home, Nehru resorted to the disastrous ‘Forward Policy’ which ultimately led to the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

During the war, the Chinese managed to penetrate Indian territory as far Curzon’s Outer Line, but later unilaterally reverted to the frontier as per the McMahon Line[xv]. The 1962 war led to extreme mistrust among Indians because the Chinese had made peace promises during the Panchsheel Treaty negotiations of 1954. Public opinion reflected the official belief that the Chinese had stabbed them in the back by attacking in 1962.

The other causes and consequences of the War, and the remaining history of Sino-Indian Relations will be dealt with in Part III.

[i] The History of Sino-Indian Relations and the Border Dispute Between the Two Countries (5) – (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[ii] ibid. 19

[iii] Srinath Raghava, “The Boundary Dispute with China”, available at:

[iv] Ibid. 4

[v] Ibid. 19

[vi] The History of Sino-Indian Relations and the Border Dispute Between the Two Countries (6) – (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[vii] Ibid. 23

[viii] Ibid 10

[ix] Ibid 18

[x] Letter from the Prime Minister of China to the Prime Minister of India, 8 September 1959

[xi] Letter from the Prime Minister of India to the Prime Minister of China,

26 September 1959

[xii] Ibid. 23

[xiii] Dr. VC Bhutani of Delhi University to Rashme Sehgal of Rediff; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[xiv] Ananth Krishnan – From Tibet to Tawang, a legacy of suspicions; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)

[xv] Ibid 23

Sino-Indian Border Dispute: Part I

India maintains that all 84,000sqkm of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is, and always has been an integral part of its territory. China, on the other hand claims that “South Tibet” consists of 65,000sqkm of what India claims is Arunachal Pradesh.

This dispute originates from the Shimla Convention of 1914, wherein Tibet agreed to cede the region beyond the McMahon Line to British India. This very region forms modern-day Arunachal Pradesh and the dispute arises because the Chinese contend that Tibet was their vassal and did not have the independent authority to cede any territory. They still refer to it as ‘South Tibet’ and no Chinese government has ever accepted the McMahon Line[i]. India asserts that the Shimla Convention is valid and the region beyond the McMahon line by virtue of history, custom and treaty belongs to India. This dispute has overshadowed Indo-China relations for over a century now without any sign of resolution.

History of the Dispute

An understanding of the this dispute requires a deeper historical analysis of the circumstances in which the Simla Convention was signed. The international boundary between India and Tibet, known as the ‘Outer Line’, had been demarcated in 1875 and it ran along the foothills, from Baroi Lake in the East, to Nizamghat.[ii] The then British India’s territorial expansion into Arunachal Pradesh took place as a result of Lord Curzon’s aggressive forward policy. Curzon began to send armed missions beyond the Outer Line to capture more territory and counter increasing Russian influence in Tibet. At the time, there was a “Great Game” between China, Russia and Britain to assert control over Tibet and its outlying regions. The lure of capturing important trading outposts in the region was the primary factor influencing their interest in the region. Under Curzon, the British captured territory northwards of the Outer Line, till what came to be as the McMahon Line (but did not include Tawang at this point). After the Younghusband Mission (a military force sent to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet) Britain eliminated Russian influence by propping Tibet up as an independent State with a Britain-approved foreign policy[iii].

Britain’s successes startled the Chinese; then ruled by the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, and scared them into adopting a ‘forward policy’ of their own. They began to assert their own influence over Tibet and a successful military campaign culminated in their effective rule over Tibet by 1910.[iv] Britain had been precluded from retaliating because of the Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-Russian Conventions of 1906 and 1907[v], by which they had agreed not deal with Tibet unilaterally and to recognise Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The fall of the Manchu Dynasty in late 1911 led to a drastic change because it gave Tibet an opportunity to assert its Independence. The Dalai Lama who had fled during the Younghusband Mission, returned to break Tibet out of the Chinese sphere of influence[vi].

Britain wanted to bring Tibet back under its own wing but had to do this without breaking the Anglo-Russian Convention. At the same time, The General Staff of the Indian Army had proposed a boundary that would include the main watersheds, the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra and the Lohit and Irrawady Rivers[vii]. The Chief of the General Staff had gone a step further and argued that the Chinese would be able to exercise influence on Bhutan through the strategically located Tawang Ridge and to protect Indian interests, this region must be included within the Indian border as well. Hence, acquiring these regions took on paramount importance for British India. They decided to achieve these goals through a Tripartite Conference between Tibet, British India and China – the Shimla Convention of 1914.

Shimla Convention, 1914

China was initially reluctant to participate at Shimla because it did not want to be seen on an equal footing with Tibet and questioned its treaty making power. It was eventually persuaded to participate by Britain and the three parties met at Shimla in October 1913. The conference was presided over by Sir Henry McMahon; representing the British and attended by the representative of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Lonchen Shatra and Monsier Ivan Chen representing the Kuomintang Regime in China[viii].

From the very beginning, it had become evident that the Tibetan and the Chinese positions were diametrically opposite[ix]. Despite the fall of the Manchu Dynasty, China wished to assert absolute control over Tibet and this display of Tibetan independence did not sit well with the Chinese. They feared that their participation could be perceived as an implicit recognition of the Tibetan State. It was only McMahon who managed to convince the two to set aside their reservations and participate.

Mc Mahon’s proposal for the Conference involved Tibet being split into ‘Inner and Outer Tibet,’ with Inner Tibet being governed by China, and Outer Tibet remaining autonomous. The Chinese, however, refused to accept the demarcation of Inner and Outer Tibet because they still wanted to exercise absolute control over Tibet. Thus, negotiations broke down over the border between China and Tibet as outlined in Article 9 of the Draft Treaty.[x] This is a crucial point because one must remember that the Chinese were never, in principle opposed to the Indo-Tibetan border; they were opposed to Tibet making agreements as a sovereign power and objected only to the border between Tibet and China; not the Mc Mahon line (proposed border between Tibet and India).[xi]

The British and Tibetan representatives had already conducted secret negotiations in early 1914[xii] during which the McMahon Line had been established and the transfer of territory from Tibetan hands had been agreed to. The territory transferred included the strategically important Tawang Tract, as had been recommended by the Indian Army. Tibet claimed that with the fall of the Manchu Dynasty, it had become independent of China and was free to make agreements with the English as a sovereign power. Hence, the agreement was eventually signed and ratified between the sovereign powers of Tibet and British India and China did not participate in the framing of the final convention because it had already withdrawn from the discussions.

The fact that China was not made a party to this treaty puts it on shaky legal ground because of its subject matter. China still has some wriggle room to claim that Tibet was under its control and any agreement in contravention of their definition of Tibet would be void. The Chinese maintain that it is not possible for India to have acquired what they believe to be their own territory without their consent. Thus, until 1935, neither Aitchison’s Treaties Vol 14, nor did the Survey Maps of India reflect the McMahon Line. Eventually, Sir Olaf Caroe, in 1935 decided that the Survey Maps should be published to show Indian Territory extending till the McMahon Line. Aitchison’s Treaties Vol. 14, first published in 1929 was republished in 1937 to reflect the McMahon line and almost all previous editions were destroyed to prevent counterclaims[xiii]. The region came to be known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and the British began to exercise sovereignty over the region.

The question of whether or not their claims can stand the scrutiny of law is an aspect that will be further discussed in Part II.

[i] Ananth Krishnan – China reiterates claim to Arunachal; (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)
[ii] The History of Sino-Indian Relations and the Border Dispute Between the Two Countries (4) (last accessed: 18th May, 2015)
[iii] Ibid. 3
[iv] Ibid. 3
[v] Shimla Convention, 1914; Anlgo-Tibetan Declaration, 1914; Anglo-Chinese Convention, 1906; Anglo-Russian Convention, 1907
[vi] Ibid. 3
[vii] Ibid. 4
[viii] Shimla Convention, 1914
[ix] Nirmal C. Sinha – The Shimla Convention 1914: A Chinese Puzzle; (last accessed: 14th May, 2015
[xi] AG Noorani, “Strategic Differences”, Frontline, Vol 25, Issue 26, available at:
[xii] Ibid. 10
[xiii] Ibid. 4

The Right to Self-determination: Pro-Secession?

Self-determination refers to the right of a ‘people’ possessing unique cultural and ethnic traits to freely determine their social, economic and political status to protect their unique ethno-religious and linguistic identity.[1] The United Nations has, in several declarations and resolutions promoted the right to Self-determination as a basic human right. In doing so, it has inadvertently bolstered several secessionist movements and encouraged them to claim a separate territory for their people in order to exercise their right to Self-determination.

Thus, the question arises: Is the Right to Secede a natural consequence of the right to Self-determination?

 The concept of Self-determination arose in the French Revolution, when the people demanded a government that represented the people and protected their interests. They believed that if the prevailing system did not represent the people’s will, the people had the right to overthrow the government in order to protect their rights. The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 showed the world that a population did not have to submit to the authority of an alien government and could secede to protect its freedoms.[2] The United Nations through its Charter and several international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the Friendly Relations Declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights etc., has expressly or implicitly recognised the right to Self-determination and this has taken the form of an erga omnes norm.[3]

 However, even as per discussions preceding the inclusion of Article 1.2 in the UN Charter,[4] the Right to Self-determination was limited to just that and secession was never a part of the scheme Self-determination, even in the pre-decolonisation context, was taken to mean merely self government and independence was, by extension, and not an automatic right. The principle was upheld in cases where it did not bring about or authorise secession.[5] This scenario was modified to include independence for colonised countries and peoples as per the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,[6] permitting them to declare independence if they were being subjected to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation. It was still believed that the principle could not apply to the population of a sovereign State, irrespective of the nature of human rights abuse that may be prevalent, so long as the State did not systematically practice discrimination on racial or religious grounds. This restriction was based on the natural instinct of sovereign States to protect their territorial integrity, and avoid the inadvertent authorisation of secession. Thus came the distinction between internal and external self-determination.

At this juncture, the principle of self determination had a bearing on the rights of peoples within a sovereign territory to elect and keep a government of their choice, or internal self-determination; and on the rights of peoples under colonial, racist or alien rule to freely choose their government in the realm of international relations, or external self-determination. Under the latter, people were given the freedom to either form a sovereign and independent State, to freely associate and integrate with an independent State or to emerge into any other form of political status freely determined by the people.[7]

In recent years, jurisprudence has developed with regard to the right to external self-determination and some scholars believe that secession, based on the right to external self-determination can be legally granted only in extremely limited circumstances and only if the following conditions are fulfilled: (1) it shall concern people in territories that are subject to decolonization; (2) it shall be envisaged by the national legislation of the parent state concerned; (3) the territory inhabited by a certain people should be occupied or annexed after 1945; (4) the secessionists shall be “a people”; (5) their parent state shall flagrantly violate their human rights and (6) no other effective remedies under national or international law may exist, if any of these conditions are met.[8] The International Court of Justice, in its deliberations during the Kosovo Advisory Opinion, has come to the same conclusion.[9]

Hence, Self-determination has not been accepted as a postulate for defying seemingly autocratic regimes as the principle of Territorial Integrity takes precedence over it. It has been established that the need for external Self-determination may arise only in highly specific conditions and even this limited interpretation has not been generally accepted by the international community. The principle of Self-determination is meant to promote peace and freedom for all within sovereign territories, and is not, except in extremely rare circumstances, a justification for secession.

Despite the above mentioned position, Self-determination will still be looked to as a libertarian principle, and will continue to support the call of oppressed peoples for freedom.

Previously published at:

[1] Alina Kaczorowska and P. Thornberry.

[2] Lea Brilmayer, Secession and Self Determinations: A Territorial Interpretation.

[3] Anna Stepanowa, International Law and the Legality of Secession in Crimea, CJIL,

[4] Article 1.2: Purposes and Principles – ‘to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self determination of peoples.

[5] Antonio Cassese, International Law in a Divided World. pg. 133, para 80.


[7] 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-Operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (GAR 2625) – Principle V, Para 6.

[8] Quebec case, 2 S.C.R. 217, para.123 (1998); Aaland Islands case, L.N.O.J. Spec. Supp. No.3 (1920); Pellet A., Ellet A., The Opinions of the Badinter Arbitration Committee: A Second Breath for the Self-Determination of Peoples, 3 EJIL 178 (