Border Fracas With China & Nepal-II
No War Can Solve Them

Bibekananda Ray

In 1913–14, representatives of Britain, China, and Tibet attended a conference in Shimla and reached an agreement concerning Tibet's status and borders. A British negotiator, Henry McMahon proposed a boundary between Tibet and India on a map, attached to the agreement. All three representatives initialled it but Beijing soon objected to the proposed Sino-Tibet boundary and repudiated the agreement, refusing to sign the more detailed map. As the British negotiators argued that China could not enjoy rights under the agreement unless Beijing ratified it, they and Tibetan negotiators signed the Shimla Convention and approved more detailed map as part of a bilateral accord.

The basis of these boundaries, accepted by British India and Tibet, were that the historical boundaries of India were the Himalayas and the areas south of the Himalayas were traditionally Indian and associated with India and thus should be the modern boundaries of British India and later of independent India. The high watershed of the Himalayas was proposed as the border between India and its northern neighbours. Chinese boundary markers had been erected near Walong until January 1914, when T. O'Callaghan, an administrator of NEFA's eastern sector, relocated them north to the McMahon Line. By signing the Shimla Agreement with Tibet, the British had violated the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which both parties were not to negotiate with Tibet, "except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government", as well as the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, which bound the British government "not to annex Tibetan territory." Because of doubts concerning the legal status of the accord, the British did not put the McMahon Line on their maps until 1937, nor did they publish the Shimla Convention in the treaty record until 1938. Rejecting Tibet's 1913 Declaration of Independence, China argued that the Shimla Convention and McMahon Line were illegal and that Tibetan government was merely a local outfit with no power to sign a treaty. In 1947, Tibet requested that India recognise Tibetan authority in the trading town of Tawang, south of the McMahon Line; Tibet did not object to any other portion of the McMahon line. In reply, India asked Tibet to continue the relationship on the basis of the previous British Government.

The British records show that Tibet agreed to accept the new border in 1914 if China accepted the Shimla Convention. As the British failed to make it accepted, Tibet dismissed the McMahon line as invalid. Tibet continued to administer Tawang and refused to concede territory during negotiations in 1938. The governor of Assam asserted that Tawang was "undoubtedly British" but admitted that it was "controlled by Tibet, and none of its inhabitants have any idea that they are not Tibetan." During World War II, British troops secured Tawang for extra defence In 1962, China claimed areas to the south of the McMahon Line in the NEFA, asserting that they were within its traditional boundary but India rebutted, saying that China’s claim ( as in Ladakh too) has no written basis; there is no document in support except with China. Beijing added that the territory was under imperial China whereas India’s claim was based on the McMahon Line, drawn by the imperial British India government, starting at 27°45’40"N, a tri-junction between Bhutan, China and India making the main watershed ridge divide of the Himalayas as the boundary with China. It added that territory to the south of the high ridges near Bhutan (as elsewhere along most of the McMahon Line) should be Indian territory and north of the high ridges should be Chinese. During and after the 1950’s, when India began patrolling the area and mapping in greater detail, they confirmed what the 1914 Shimla agreement laid down- six river crossings that interrupted the main Himalayan watershed ridge. At the westernmost location near Bhutan, north of Tawang, they modified their maps to extend their claim northward to include features such as Thag La ridge, Longju, and Khinzemane as Indian territory. Thus, the Indian version of the McMahon Line moved the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction north to 27°51’30"N. India claimed that the treaty map ran along features such as Thag La ridge, though the actual treaty map itself is topographically vague (as the treaty was not accompanied with demarcation) in places, shows a straight line (not a watershed ridge) near Bhutan and near Thag La; the treaty included no verbal description of geographic features, nor description of the highest ridges.

In the 1950’s, communist China built a 1,200km. road, connecting Xinjiang and western Tibet, of which 179 km. was south of the Johnson Line, through the Aksai Chin which was easier to access from China than from India because of the Karakoram being in between. Curiously, India did not know the existence of the road until 1957. The Indian position, as stated by l Nehru, was that the Aksai Chin was "part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries" and that this northern border was a "firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody". Chinese prtemier, Zhou Enlai argued that the western border had never been delimited, that the Macartney-MacDonald Line, which left the Aksai Chin within Chinese borders was the only line, ever proposed to a Chinese government and that it was already under Chinese jurisdiction, and that negotiations should take into account the status quo. In 1960, based on an agreement between Nehru and Zhou Enlai, officials from both countriers held discussions to settle the boundary dispute. They disagreed on the major watershed that defined the boundary in the western sector.

Clashes At Nathu La & Cho La
Clashes at Nathu La in Sikkim occurred between 11th and 15th September 1967, when the PLA attacked Indian posts there. In October 1967, another military duel took place at Cho La but ended on the same day. Indian forces achieved "decisive tactical advantage" and defeated the Chinese. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were destroyed, as Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces.

On 20th October 1975, four Indian soldiers were killed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. A patrol of the Assam Rifles, comprising a NCO and four other soldiers was ambushed by about 40 Chinese troops from an area well within Indian territory. New Delhi made a strong protest with the Chinese. In April 2013 India claimed, based on perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), that Chinese troops had established a camp in Daulat Beg Oldi sector, 19 km on their side of the LAC. Chinese military helicopters entered Indian airspace to drop supplies to the troops. Troops from both sides briefly set up camps on the ill-defined frontier facing each other; the tension was defused when both sides pulled back in early May. In September 2014, India and China had a standoff at the LAC, when Indian workers began constructing a canal in the border village of Demchok, and Chinese civilians protested with the army's support. It ended after about three weeks, when both sides agreed to withdraw troops. The Indian army claimed that the Chinese military had set up a camp three km inside territory claimed by India.In September 2015, Chinese and Indian troops faced-off in the Burtse region of northern Ladakh after Indian troops dismantled a disputed watch tower the Chinese were building close to the mutually-agreed patrolling line.

Doklam Standoff
In 2017 a standoff occurred between India and China at Doklam, near the Doka La pass in Sikkim. On 16th June,that year, the Chinese brought heavy road-building apparatus to the region and began constructing but India protested on 18th June. Due to the ambiguity of earlier border talks dating back go 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, signed in Kolkata on 17th March 1890, each country referred to different agreements. On 28th June, the Chinese military alleged that India had halted construction of a road that was taking place in Chinese sovereign territory. On 30th June, New Delhi claimed that China's road construction impinged on India’s security. After the conflicts, Chinese troops withdrew. A stand-off occurred at Depsang in Ladakh’s eastern border too in 2019; the dispute remains unresolved.

2020 Skirmishes
The night-long brawl and skirmishes in the Galwan river valley, ending in the death of 20 Indian Armymen and death or injury to 43 Chinese on 15th-16th June 2020 are recent and well-known, although it is not clear whether Indian troops crossed the LAC , or the PLA. Prime Minister Modi who visited the area on 3rd July in characteristic bravado denied any Chinese intrusion, raising a doubt about how else Indian troops were killed. High-level dialogue between military offivcers defused the tension for the time being.

Fraca With Nepal
The 240-year monarchy (1768–2008 ) in Nepal did not raise any border issue with India; after being a democratic republic it was silent until June this year. India shares a border with Nepal from three sides. On 8th May, this year, Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh ‘virtually’ inaugurated a 80 km road, connecting to the border with China at Lipulekh pass. Kathmandu protested immediately, contending that the road crosses territory that it claims as its own. On 18th June, its Parliament passed a Constitution Amendment Bill to endorse a new map that includes three Himalayan passes sprawling over 400 sq. km.- Limpiadhura, Lipulekhhh and Kalapani that now belong to India. Nepalese Prime Minister, K P Sharma Oli of the Communist Party refused to talk to India on the boundary issue, because the new boundary has been endorsed by Parliament. New Delhi questioned the amendment, as it has artificially enlarged its territorial claims; they were not based on historical fact or evidence. This also calls for a defacto demarcation of our borders with the Himalayan republic along with that of the rest of the range.

The cursory account above confirms that although British Indian government did try to delineate the Himalayan border with China and Tibet (before it was annexed) Beijing and Nepal did not accept them. What can India do in such an intractable milieu? The Himalayas alongwith Karakorum and Hindukush on atlas looks like a crown on the subcontinent but probably no holy text or scripture delineated its boundary with countries to its north, east and west. In such a situation, taking the issue to an international forum by the UN, or a third-party mediation, is the only viable option, because bilateral parleys and jingoism can yield no solution. A U N Commission can study each concerned country’s claims and recorded boundaries and then reach a consensus. Jingoism and boast of military prowess and even an armed conflict will not solve it; by all accounts, China is a superior military power, both in conventional and nuclear weaponry. The issue can be referred to the ICJ at the Hague too, if India has an impeccable case but both will be a long-drawn processes but there is no escape from this hard option. Mr. Modi went thrice to China since he became Prime Minister in 2014 but inspite of diplomatic bonhomie China made incursions at Doklam and Galowan valley’. If Mr. Modi attempts a military retaliation for Galowan incursion and wins, despite China’s superior nuclear capability, the disputes will not end. He must not repeat the mistakes of Nehru by trusting Beijing’s assurances of solving the disputes by diplomatic means. The need of the hour is therefore a fresh bid to delineate and demarcate the Himalayan border.


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Jul 28, 2020

Bibekananda Ray

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