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

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