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Restoring India-China Reciprocity on the Border

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • June 05, 2014

    Under the new dispensation of Modi, it is necessary to put India-China border dispute in a correct perspective. Incidentally, 2014 coincides with the centenary of the McMahon line. At this juncture, the question arises whether the two Asian giants could reach a resolution on the McMahon line given the emerging amenability between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping.

    The principal opposition of the Chinese on the McMahon line is that it is illegal and a mere product of British imperialistic designs on China. Quite a few sinologists also regard that it is India’s intransigence of holding on to the British-drawn border-line that has precluded any resolution of the border dispute. However, such assessments completely disregard the fact that the McMahon line is entwined with the Tibet issue- the lynchpin of China’s territorial sovereignty and party legitimacy. More than India being a bottleneck, it is China’s intransigence rooted in its profound vulnerabilities on the Tibet issue that has caused the border dispute to linger on.

    The reasons for China’s vulnerabilities are manifold. First, in 1913, Tibet declared itself independent from China. Recognising this altered reality, Henry McMahon, the British plenipotentiary in India involved Tibet and China in the Simla Convention to deliberate on first demarcating the Tibet-China border and second defining the Indo-Tibet border. Quite significantly, China was concerned only with the Tibet-China border and quite rightly so as it did not share a boundary with India. During the Simla Convention, Republican China’s principal objections were on the sovereign rights accorded to Tibet and on the exact boundary dividing the inner and outer Tibet. On these two counts, the Chinese refused to sign the Simla Convention. Ironically, their failure to sign had reinstated Tibet as an independent country and the Simla Convention was ultimately signed by India and Tibet on 3rd July 1914. This became the principal ground for Chinese steadfast opposition to the McMahon line.

    Second, China’s sovereignty on Tibet is contestable since Tibet was never a province of Imperial China. When under the rising threat of the imperialistic forces Xinjiang was turned into a province in 1884 and Taiwan in 1887 by the last ruling Manchu government, Tibet escaped such a fate thanks to the Great Game of the 19th century, and, more particularly, the British aim of using Tibet as a buffer between its domains and advancing czarist Russia.

    Third, the role of the CIA in Tibet spelt a formidable challenge to the newly emerged Chinese Communist government post-1949. The other most persistent challenge came from the clandestine activities of the Nationalist (KMT) that had fled the Chinese mainland post the civil-war, and attempted to revive its former ties with the ethnic minority communities of Tibet and Xinjiang, often in collusion with the CIA.

    Fourth, with the lack of accessibility to Tibet owing to difficult terrain and absence of infrastructure in the immediate period of Communist era, the security of Tibet loomed large. In addition to geography, the non-Han minority Tibetans professing no loyalty to the Chinese added to Beijing’s insecurities.

    Finally, once India recognized Tibet ‘a region of China’ by signing the 1954 agreement, China then used that as a rationale to officially demarcate an Indo-Tibetan border. It was at this juncture that Tibet got entangled with the India-China border dispute. This border dispute finally dragged the two countries in the 1962 War. In 1988, with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, the relations normalized but this normalization came at the behest of keeping the border dispute aside, not resolving it. Since then, China’s vulnerability over Tibet has continued.

    The Tibet question remains alive and threatens China in four principal ways: it poses China as an aggressor; it validates Tibet as an independent entity in history; it keeps China’s periphery vulnerable; it demonstrates the failure of Chinese nationalism based on the rhetoric of the unity of five races weaved to buttress China’s claim on the non-Han regions and thereby, threatens the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

    Sinologists have contended that had it not been for the Tibetan revolt of 1959, the India-China border dispute could have been resolved through negotiations since the physical existence of the McMahon had never been problematic for China but its legal foundations were. This is validated by the fact that China has resolved its boundary dispute with Burma (Myanmar) based on the same McMahon line.

    Indeed, the border dispute is resolvable and China could take the initiative. Since Tibet is the primary security concern, China should focus on consolidating its sovereign claims on Tibet by addressing the Tibetan ethnic identity issues within its borders and by giving up its exaggerated and fictitious claims on Indian territories. In fact, China needs to restore the true essence of the 1954 Agreement whereby Nehru had recognised Tibet as a ‘region of China’ in return for China’s reciprocity on the Indian claims on the McMahon line, albeit unstated. Arguably, India’s intransigence on the McMahon line does not emerge from holding true to the British drawn line but essentially from the feeling of betrayal caused by China’s failing to honour the 1954 Agreement. The 1962 War though led to the defeat of India, did not settle the Tibet issue. The renewed Tibetan unrest since 2008 attests to China’s failure in handling the Tibet question. So long China refuses to treat Tibet and border as integral, any resolution of the border problem would remain elusive. By restoring the 1954 reciprocity, India and China could resolve the protracted border dispute.

    Abanti Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.