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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 8, February 12, 2011

The Pre-history of the Sino-Indian Border Dispute: A Note

Saturday 19 February 2011


[(The author of India’s China War (1970), Neville Maxwell is a well-known specialist of the history of Sino-Indian border conflict. He was for eight years the Times correspondent in India. We are publishing, as a point of view, this article he specially sent to Mainstream. He had earlier prepared a two-part article for The Indian Express as he was invited to write for it on the subject; however, for reasons unknown to him, the publication in the daily was withheld. Thus he has written in a note to the editor: “The outcome is that I can now offer you this piece (I have made it a single paper, about 2300 words, and attach it). I will be putting it on-line (on the site, where I have other papers). —Editor)]

by Neville Maxwell

This year marks the centenary of the inception of the territorial dispute over India’s north-eastern border. Where did the north-east frontier of Britain’s Indian Empire lie in 1911, and what lay beyond it?

The frontier lay on what the rulers of the Raj called the Outer Line, which they unilaterally drew along the foot of the hills, where the valley of the Brahmaputra River ends and the terrain begins its tumultuous rise, over some 60 miles, up to the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Beyond it to the north, for most of its length, lay a jungled wilderness of steep ridges running generally north/south, scarcely populated by warrior tribes lethally hostile to intruders but not inclined to raid down onto the plains: it made a “prickly hedge” quite comfortable as an imperial border feature. But at the western extremity of this area, adjacent to Bhutan, a settled salient of very different territory reached from Tibet’s great monastery of Tawang right down to the plains. Lightly populated by a tribe that had largely converted to Buddhism, and governed as part of Tibet under monastic authority, this “Tawang Tract” had for decades been seen by the British as no more than a useful trade passage through the “hedge”.

Chinese cartographers showed the same alignment for China’s border in that sector, extending eastward from Bhutan the “foot of the foot-hills” delineation that marked off from India its protective chain of Himalayan protectorates—and thus marking the entire zone between the plains and the Tibetan plateau and between Bhutan and Burma as Chinese territory. There was in this area no Sino-British territorial dispute at this time.

But by 1911 the situation that had obtained since the conquest of Assam in 1826 had begun to worry the rulers of the Raj on security grounds —or, to put it another way, the irrepressible imperial urge to expand was making itself felt again. Strategic and political arguments in favour of advancing the Outer Line far from the plains, to create a “strategic frontier” against the threat of China’s resurgence consequent on the overthrow of the imperial dynasty, began to be mustered. The British began to probe into the tribal territory with small military expeditions, punitive or exploratory, all under the guidance that what was sought was a new strategic border alignment.

At first the planning looked only to annexing the tribal belt, which was, so far as exercise of state power was concerned, a no-man’s land: even the boldest strategists conceded that the Tawang Tract, having long been accepted as sovereign Tibetan/Chinese territory, would have to left alone. But as the discussion developed and the military pressed its claim to be the best judge of India’s security needs, so the idea of annexing too what was now perceived as a “dangerous wedge” of potential Chinese intrusion became ascendant.

By 1913 planning had become purpose. The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, now converted to the “forward school”, persuaded London into summoning Tibet and China to confer, under British mediation, to negotiate settlement of their chronic dispute over the limits, political and physical, of China’s authority. The Raj had two ulterior aims at this Simla Conference: first, to support and encourage the Tibetans in their hopes of distancing themselves from the political authority of Beijing; second, to persuade or induce the Chinese and/or the Tibetans to agree to the realignment of the north-east Indian frontier, thus ceding an area of some 35,000 square miles to India. It was to fail in both.

Sir Henry McMahon, who as India’s Foreign Secretary presided over the Conference, did not even broach the north-eastern border claim to the Chinese, instead he worked on the Tibetan delegation alone. Opening covert side-negotiations in Delhi, he induced the Tibetans to accept the advanced alignment of the north-eastern boundary that he drew on the prepared maps. What much later was to be dubbed “the McMahon Line” would have taken into India not only the entire tribal belt and the Tawang Tract, but also the Tawang monastery itself. Demeaning himself further, McMahon engaged in cartographic trickery with the Chinese delegation, obtaining their leader’s meaningless initialling of another deceitful map.1

He had gone too far in these negotiations, and to no avail. The Tibetan authorities in Lhasa vigorously disavowed the concessions wrung from their delegation in Delhi (and disgraced its leaders). Beijing declared, repeatedly, that no bilateral agreement made between the British and Tibet could be regarded as legitimate and binding on China. Thus nothing diplomatically legal and lasting emerged from McMahon’s duplicitous efforts. An American analyst of the Simla records wrote that they showed the British side to have “acted to the injury of China in conscious violation of their instructions; deliberately misinforming London of their actions; altering documents whose publication had been ordered by Parliament; lying at an international conference table; and deliberately breaking a treaty between the United Kingdom and Russia”.2

In his report on the Conference to London the Viceroy tacitly repudiated McMahon’s actions, disavowing any governmental responsibility for them. Later events suggest that, with private words to friends in high places, Hardinge may have arranged that McMahon did not continue in the Indian Government. After a spell of home leave he was posted as the British Commissioner to Egypt.

The failure, indeed fiasco, of the Simla Conference must have left the “forward school” frustrated, perhaps abashed, certainly leaderless. The Outer Line continued to form India’s north-eastern border with Tibet/China, and the collapse of the new-born Republic of China into war-lordism and civil war meant that the sense of potential threat to India from that quarter faded away. There was no “McMahon Line” except as a marking in red ink on map sheets filed away in the Potala in Lhasa and the Foreign Department’s archives in Delhi. After a few years it was forgotten, indeed the very idea lapsed from the institutional memory of the Indian Government. Its only trace was a curt entry in the 1929 issue of the government’s official record, Aitchison’s Treaties, listing the failure at Simla with the sentence: “The Chinese Government … refused to permit their plenipotentiary to proceed to full signature [of a tripartite agreement].” The omission of any allusion to McMahon’s privy dealings with the Tibetans or his other aborted frontier aspirations was calculated and deliberate.

THE years slipped by into the mid-1930s without significant change in the situation on India’s north-east frontier and it appeared to be stable. The border in the sector between Bhutan and Burma was still on the Outer Line, an eastward extension of the alignment along the foot of the hills that separated India from its Himalayan protectorates, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. It had even been demarcated (that is, marked out on the ground) for a few miles at its Bhutan end in cooperation with Tibetan monastic authorities in Tawang. While it had not been delimited (that is internationally agreed and diplomatically formalised), the four governments concerned, those in Delhi, Assam, Beijing, and Tibet, were unanimous in regarding and treating the Outer Line as the de facto international border in the sector between Bhutan and Burma—and it was marked accordingly in authoritative cartography in India, Britain and China. The files that told the story of the failed attempt in 1913/14 to advance the border to the edge of the Tibetan plateau, thus annexing the tribal territory and Tibet’s Tawang Tract, gathered dust in the archives. There was still no Sino-British territorial dispute about this area.

Enter Francis Kingdon-Ward, famed “plant hunter”, intrepid botanist-explorer, popular author—and, on an avocationary basis at least, most likely a British Intelligence asset. He had several times previously visited Tibet with Lhasa’s permission, and in 1935 chanced his luck that the Tibetan authorities would not object to his returning, this time without their permission. He lost the gamble. The monastic authorities in Tawang, catching this unexpected and unknown intruder prying in their area of responsibility, arrested him; and in Lhasa the government registered a formal complaint with the British Resident. This trivial incident (no harm was done to Kingdon-Ward and before long he was externed) was to set off a chain of ill-consequences with one climax in the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 and still no end in sight.

In Delhi the task of sorting out the Kingdon-Ward imbroglio was passed to an officer in the Political Service, Olaf Caroe—a momentous assignment. Caroe was brilliant, forceful and ambitious (he climaxed his service to the Raj as the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province and after Independence was much heeded in London and Washington as a geostrategist). Looking into the Tibetan charge that Kingdon-Ward had trespassed, he disinterred the files on the Simla Conference period and learned of what he now named “the McMahon Line”. Seizing on that as grounds to argue that the Tibetans had been acting extrajudicially when they laid hands on Kingdon-Ward at Tawang, he saw in it too the potential for a strategic re-alignment crucial to Indian security. Thereupon he devoted all his energies and influence into a renewed attempt to transfer the McMahon Line from the secret maps to the ground as India’s north-east border, making himself a one-man lobby in that cause. This effort necessarily engaged him, and all those he involved, in the false assertion that at the Simla Conference the alignment McMahon sought was agreed and legitimised by formal actions of the Chinese and Tibetan governments. The “true position” of the border was the line as McMahon had drawn it, Caroe now proclaimed, urging that India must swiftly undo the dereliction that for twenty years had left everyone acting under the delusion that the Outer Line formed the international border.

Caroe’s urgings found a ready hearing with his colleagues. The Japanese were on the rampage in China, a revolutionary army had emerged to resist them, and either force might one day turn against India: clearly then the custodians of India’s security should anticipate such an eventuality by establishing an advanced “strategic frontier”. Caroe went to London with the mission of winning over the Imperial Government to Delhi’s new “forward policy”, and succeeded. He then began to falsify evidence so that the aggressive annexation intended could be disguised as a belated administrative correction.

The first task was diplomatic forgery. The recall and destruction of all copies of the relevant edition of Aitchison’s Treaties was ordered—only one or two escaped—with the substitution in 1936 of a newly printed version.3 That carried a heavily revised and wholly misleading account of the Simla Conference, and of course still gave 1929 as the date of publication. By order, persuasion, or imitation cartographers in Britain and India began to show the McMahon alignment as India’s frontier.

Meanwhile a steady extension of adminis-tration into the tribal belt began, British officers with their armed escorts providing medical help to win tribal “hearts and minds” when they could, using force when resistance called for it, inflicting punishment when it was due. Diplomatic protests from China at these intrusions were disregarded.

ONE officer with much experience on the ground pointed out that good as it might look on the map, the McMahon Line would not make a “natural boundary, whereas the frontier along the plains is the natural one”, but of course he obeyed orders anyway.4 The question of what was to be done with the Tawang Tract, however, aroused debate and dissension within the counsels of the Raj. That territory was recognised as being “a settled, civilised land” wholly different from the tribal area, and no one could deny that it was historically Tibetan: in 1940 London was informed that on second thoughts it had been decided in Delhi not to pursue the scheme for establishing control over Tawang. But when after their attack on Pearl Harbour the Japanese became a real and immediate threat to India such hesitations were banished, and the drive to make the McMahon Line good on the ground as India’s de facto border accelerated. Still however the British held back from taking over the great Tawang monastery.

In 1944 a British official moved with troops into the eastern fringe of the Tawang Tract, over-riding and expelling the local Tibetan authorities and setting up a permanent occupation based on a lesser monastery at Dirang Dzong. Lhasa protested what they described as armed aggression. The British, trying the “soft answer that turneth away wrath”, replied that Tibet should not get excited over “minor considerations” but be “far-sighted”, considering broader interests. Protests from China (then still under the Guomintang Government, hanging on in Kunming), echoing the Tibetans’ indignation and demanding withdrawal, followed, continuing the series of protests about British intrusions into Chinese territory.

Pursuing their attempt at emollience, the British, in the Raj’s last moments, made Lhasa a final offer, what among themselves they called a “sop”. If the Tibetans would now at last formally accept the McMahon Line as their border with India for almost its full length, then as a concession the alignment at its western extremity would be modified so as to leave the Tawang monastery and its immediate area unchallenged in Tibet. Lhasa spurned the “Tawang sop” and reaffirmed the refusal to recognise any part of the McMahon Line.

Thus the Raj at its demise in 1947 bequeathed the major territorial dispute with China it had deliberately created in its final decade. As the British departed they were assured by their successors that independent India would pursue in the north-east an “even more forward policy” than they had. And sure enough, as soon as possible (February 1951), Nehru’s India seized Tawang, establishing the McMahon Line as its de facto border and making the Sino-British dispute Sino-Indian. 
[Full references for this Note may be found in the author’s
India’s China War (1970) Chapter 1 Section (ii).]


1. A detailed account of the Simla Conference, with full references, may be found in the writer’s India’s China War (New Delhi, London and New York, 1970) Chapter 1, Section (ii).
2. A.P. Rubin, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 61 (19767), p. 827
3. The substitution of the revised edition was exposed by J. M. Addis in a 1963 paper for the Harvard Center for International Affairs. He had found in the Harvard Library a surviving copy of the original version: another was later discovered in the India Office Library by the Indian scholar Karunakar Gupta.

4. J.P. Mills, Royal Central Asia Journal, 1950, p. 161.

The author is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU Contemporary China Centre.

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