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


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