Investigating the India-China standoff Part Two

Hailed by India, President Trump has signed into law a bill that calls for establishing a US consulate in Tibet and building an international coalition to ensure that the next Dalai Lama is appointed solely by the Tibetan Buddhist community without China’s interference.

As Ismail Vengasseri wrote in his recent book about the India-China border standoff where Tibet plays an important role, that history is testimony to the fact that uncertain border definitions have proved to be a hurdle in maintaining friendly relations across frontiers, and this, in turn, has created clashes and conflicts. This continues to be one of the greatest concerns between neighboring nations, the ‘tripwires of war.’

Over the years, debates around fron­tiers have tended to trigger discord and disharmony, and even now, border disputes have been the source of some of the major wars. The case has not been any different in Europe, but despite their experi­ments on ‘withering walls,’ they have managed to define their borders by and large. Most of the major European wars in history were fought on the issue of territorial frontiers, and this might have prompted Lord Curzon to rightly observe, ‘Frontiers are indeed the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.’1 

And as already pointed out by   A. G. Noorani, in The Truth about 1962', in Indie-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947, these issues have been inherited as a legacy of the British colonial administration and as we added in part one by China's own creative mapmaking.

As for India, Claude Arpi says that Director, Vigilance, Ministry of Defence, issued a letter dated 12 October 2011, with the approval of the Defence Secretary, stating that none of the remaining (five) reports: (i) PMS Blackett Report 1948; (ii) Himmatsinghji Report, 1951; (iii) H. M. Patel Committee report on the functioning of the Ministry of Defence, 1952; and (vi) Sharda Mukherjee Committee report on restructuring Ministry of Defence 1967;... are avail- Arpi expresses apprehension whether these reports have lost forever. In such prevailing situations that Noorani says, ‘the nation must be told the truth, the historical truth since 1842 and the truth about Indian diplomacy since 1947’.3

In a dark corner of the main reading room at the National Archives of India, New Delhi hangs an unusual map. Rendered in the standard colors of political maps of the late British Empire, this 1950 Survey of India production has one peculiar feature. In one huge segment of its northern extreme, there is no sign of a border. Instead, the ubiquitous pink wash signaling imperial control gradually fades into northwestern Tibet's empty white space, a region now generally referred to as the Aksai Chin. In this Switzerland-sized high-altitude region, the map showed no borderline and no stark color contrast to delimit territorial control, nothing but the official acknowledgment of an absence. For the colonial and early post-colonial governments of India, the empire’s northwestern Himalayan border was a “known unknown,” to evoke a hierarchy of ignorance from a more recent moment of imperial hubris. 4 Numerous maps produced by the Survey of India from the late nineteenth century up to, and shortly after, independence and partition in 1947 show similar details. See here, Survey of India, “India: Projects in Hand.” August 1947:

Ein Bild, das Karte enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

The imperial legacy of an undemarcated boundary—an ambiguity that troubled but was tolerated by the British Raj—eventually culminated in a deadly face-off across the desolate Aksai Chin in 1962.5 This brief Sino-Indian War imposed the first effective borderline in the region, referred to in India as the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC)—through the line has yet to be demarcated by boundary commissions from either side.6 Not only is the vast territory of this virtually uninhabited region between the world’s two most populous nations still contested, but its cartographic representation has also become a major concern for the Indian state. In 2015 the Indian government banned Al Jazeera from the television airways for five days in response to the news networks’ failure to show territories now occupied by Pakistan and China in the northwestern Himalaya as part of India, a move the government labeled a “cartographic aggression.”7 And a year later legislation was unsuccessfully introduced in India’s national assembly to criminalize maps failing to represent India’s claimed border.8 In responding to these “aggressions,” India's government was also responding to a legacy of colonial borders and the inheritance of an imperial frontier. The empire had tolerated a degree of ambiguity in its frontiers and borders that the new nation-state could not. But despite the existential significance of the young nation-state’s border, how that border was created—or failed to be created—was a legacy of empire and the way the empire came to view its territory.

Thus when India became independent in 1947 and confederated several princely states into the Indian Union, China waged a civil war to define its nation’s future destiny. The timing was not conducive for either party to define the borders but to accept the existing status. So the McMahon Line became India’s north-east border, inherited from the British as the ‘legitimate’ border. However, when the newly estab­lished PRC took over Tibet in 1951, it was unwilling to recognize the British legacy as a tag on its borders. However, though disputed on the McMahon Line's validity, the LAC in this sector also runs along the same alignment.

One can ad that even though China suggests that an area of about 90,000 sq. km in this sector is disputed territory, it presents one of the most feeble disputes in this sector due to a complex political situation under imperialist intervention.

But for all their continued relevance and ubiquity, territorial borders are rarely examined through the historical practices and ideas that actually produced them.


The Birth of Geopolitics

To understand the above one has to go back to Shimla, where, between October 1913 and July 1914, plenipotentiaries of the newly formed Republic of China, the British Government of India, and the Government of Tibet met to define the territorial limits and political status of Tibet. According to Viceroy Hardinge, Tibet’s ambiguous status vis-à-vis India and China and its undemarcated limits produced a situation “of constant anxiety.”9 Even before the Younghusband expedition violently opened Tibet to the British, frontier policy had divided imperial politics. For Curzon and those who subscribed to his “forward” policies in South Asia, Tibet represented both a logical extension of a general strategy involving loose political control over the Himalayan states (Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim) and a sensitive subject, considering Chinese claims to suzerainty over the mountainous region. By 1910, following an incursion by Zhao Erfeng, India's British Government had become concerned that “China had come to the gates of India.”10 Following the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the British decided that the solution to the “Tibetan Question”—defining Tibet about China and British India—should be a condition of their recognition of the new Chinese government. The British made their diplomatic recognition of the new Chinese republic contingent upon China’s recognition of Tibetan autonomy. On October 7, 1913, Yuan Shikai acknowledged this and the British, in turn, recognized the Republic of China on the same day.11

The Dalai Lama tactfully thanked the “Great British Government” for its kindness in deciding to hold a conference “between the British, Chinese and Tibetans regarding ChineseTibetan affairs.”12 Charles Bell noted the terms by which the Dalai Lama wished to define Tibet. He wanted “Tibet to manage her own internal affairs; To manage her own external affairs, consulting on important matters with the British; To have no Chinese High Commissioner, no other Chinese officials [Ambans], and no Chinese soldiers in Tibet; Tibet to include all the country eastward as far as Tachienlu.”13 The Dalai Lama, Bell recounted, had a capacious understanding of what constituted Tibet, considering it to include most of the intervening land between central Tibet and Mongolia.14 The Chinese government, not surprisingly, wanted the opposite: a reassertion of its political control over Lhasa and the inclusion of Tibet within the boundaries of the Republic of China. 

The conference's British goals were two-fold; first, they desired to secure the maintenance of peace and order on the Indo-Tibetan border,15 and second, they wanted to ensure that the controlling influence at Lhasa was not overtly hostile to India or the frontier states.16 Some Chinese scholars have since noted that Britain clearly sought to make Tibet a British protectorate.17

After two months of talks, the British representative, Henry McMahon, decided that both the Tibetan and Chinese representatives should prepare cases to support their specific claims to territory and sovereignty. In a move that suggested that his stance as an equal arbiter was anything but, McMahon decided he would act as judge in determining which case was more compelling. The conference resumed on January 12, 1914, when Lonchen Shatra Paljor Dorje, the Prime Minister of Tibet) and  Ivan Chen (Chen Yifan, the Special Commissioner for Foreign Affairs in Shanghai) presented their evidence.

The Tibetan case was substantial: over 90 original Tibetan documents including “inscriptions of boundary pillars, census reports, tax and revenue records, extracts from written histories, registers of legal cases, lists of official appointments, monastic records, bonds of allegiance between territories and the Tibetan Government, and correspondence between the Chinese and Tibetan governments regarding certain territories.”18 The Chinese side, on the other hand, presented a single general statement for their claim, which rested on “effective occupation” and “Qing Dynasty relations with Tibet reclaimed by the new Chinese Republic.”19 As Carole McGranahan observes, “the status quo was interpreted differently by each: “autonomous to the British, suzerain to the Chinese, and independent to the Tibetans.”20

McMahon then presented the British position: a non-negotiable “compromise” that included the radical division of Tibet into two zones: “Inner Tibet” and “Outer Tibet,” a bifurcation that had no historical precedent but was based loosely on the traditional regional divisions of central Tibet, Dbus-Gtsang, one of three historical regions of Central Asia (the other two being A-mdo and Khams) into which Tibet was once divided. As Political Officer in Sikkim and friend to the thirteenth Dalai Lama noted that in “Outer Tibet the Dalai Lama retained practically complete control. Inner Tibet was to a large extent opened to the Chinese. However, the Dalai Lama retained full religious control, and the right of appointing the various local chiefs throughout the territory.”21

After six months of discussions, a draft of the treaty was initialed by all three representatives and sent to their respective governments for final approval. Great Britain and Tibet approved the draft on July 3, 1914, but China did not.22 As Charles Bell wrote: Two days after the Chinese, Tibetan, and British plenipotentiaries had initialed the Convention, the Chinese Government telegraphed repudiating it. Tibet and Britain, however, recognized it as binding on themselves. Having repudiated the Convention, China was of course entitled to none of the advantages, for instance, the opening to Chinese of Inner Tibet, which the Convention would have conferred upon her. […] In due course the British and Tibetan Plenipotentiaries signed the agreement in respect of the frontier and respect of the trade regulations, thus making both a part of the Simla Convention.23 Just one month after the conclusion of the conference, Great Britain entered the First World War. Tibet had found—it believed—an ally in Great Britain and the Dalai Lama offered to send a thousand Tibetan soldiers to fight alongside the British.24 The empire would prove, however, a fickle friend. The “Simla Agreements of 1914” and early British documents relating to Tibet’s political, diplomatic, and trade status, have long been used to fight over historical recognition of an independent Tibetan state.25 Ironically, the McMahon Line, used by the British to craft its vision of a buffer region with China became the principal model on which the People’s Republic of China created its Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) model.26

Progress at the Shimla Conference was principally slowed by the boundary between Tibet and China and the broader and ambiguous definition of Tibet’s relationship to China. As a “perfectly equal” arbiter between the two other parties, Britain had the final say in drafting the treaty.27

Thanks to the combined survey work of multiple boundary commissions in the eastern Himalaya and Burma, McMahon’s line rested on an emerging vision of the Himalayan watershed. Surveys completed in 1911 and 1912 in the North-East Frontier “so added to [the Government of India’s] geographical knowledge” that it became possible for the first time to  “make a general definition of the frontier line.”30 The surveyors began at the northernmost demarcated point of the Burma-Yunnan boundary and worked westward. With only two minor exceptions in Sikkim, the main watershed of the Himalaya formed the natural and strategic (i.e. scientific) frontier between India and Tibet. This was in keeping with Henry McMahon’s demand at the Simla Conference that the line followed the watershed limit. McMahon’s “heart was set on having the boundary lines along high water partings” instead of the border points already established as noted by Charles Bell.31 Bell also observed that although at present the Indo-Tibetan frontier, “some 1,600 miles from Kashmir to beyond the north-eastern corner of Assam,” was the “least troublesome” of India’s frontiers, that situation could change with the granting of self-government.32 Responding to a request from the Foreign Department regarding the impact of giving self-governance to the people of India, Bell noted that to avoid “constant friction” and “serious trouble” along the frontier, the government of India should implement and directly govern “a strip of land dividing [the border] from the self-governing communities of India.” While never implemented, Bell’s plan spoke to the continued anxieties regarding the indirectly ruled territories along the frontier. Such a critical element of the imperial state should not be left in the hands of local powers. The frontier's growing importance as the razor’s edge” determining “life or death to nations” revealed just how intimately tied politics and geography had become.33                                                            

Taken together, the growing concerns over-penetration from beyond the frontier by transfrontier groups, the need to gather and restrict trans-frontier information, and the imperial preoccupation of determining the lines that would mark the imperial perimeter reflected a broader change in how geography and the state functioned together. By the turn of the twentieth century, the imperial state came to see space in a new and particular mode, one where territory and the state were co-terminus entities and where the border was the sine qua non of the state’s existence. This process of “re-visioning,” as John Agnew has noted, had its roots in Renaissance European notions of the world as “a structured whole.”24 But it only emerged as a self-conscious science in the late nineteenth century. With his usual dramatic flourish, Thomas Holdich summed up this transformation. “Time was (and not so very long ago either) when the whole wide area of scientific knowledge embraced in the broad field of geography was narrowed to a ridiculous little educational streamlet which babbled of place-names and country products.”25 But by the time Holdich became a leading member of the RGS, the days of the babbling “educational streamlet” of geographical knowledge were over. Geography was not only a science, it had become a political science. 

But as explained in part one a century after Governor-General Hardinge had requested “clear and well-defined boundaries,” the British still lacked a satisfactory border in the northwestern Himalaya. 

Just as memories of 1962 begin to get less intense with the younger generations in both countries, the legacies of 1962 continue to shape our attitudes and perceptions. This was witnessed rather dramatically when the Galwan Valley clash took place between India and China in 2020. Among the number of lessons that it drove home, the most significant one might have been how the complex and knotty ‘historical’ legacies resurfaced, and the extent to which confusions and obfuscations continue to cloud the average understanding.

Ein Bild, das Karte enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

In part one we see how mapmaking by both the British and the Chinese showed the growing concerns over-penetration from beyond the frontier by transfrontier groups, the need to gather and restrict trans-frontier information, and the imperial preoccupation of determining the lines that would mark the imperial perimeter reflected a broader change in how geography and the state functioned together.

In part three we will detail the CIA's involvement in the 1962 war and what all of this means for today.


1. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Frontiers in Oxford Lectures on History 1904-23, Vols. 1-58 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), 7. Quoted in Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law, 240.

2.  A. G. Noorani, The Truth about 1962', in Indie-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3.  Noorani, 'The Truth about 1962'.

4. Though earlier instances of the phrase can be found, it was made famous by President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, during a Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002. Rumsfeld used the term in response to evidence linking the Iraqi government's alleged supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

5. As well as the equally inhospitable terrain of the northeastern Himalaya in the region now a part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, but referred to by the Chinese government as Zàngnán (“South Tibet”)

6. Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “India and China Need to Demarcate LAC,” The Economic Times, September 6, 2017, 

7. Avaneesh Pandey, “India Bans Al Jazeera for 5 Days Over ‘Incorrect’ Kashmir Map,” International Business Times, April 23, 2015. 

8. Officially titled The Geospatial Information Bill of 2016.

9. “Viceroy on Indian Affairs: British Foreign Policy,” The Times, 18 September 18, 1913. 

10. Premen Addy, Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard: The Making of British Policy Towards Lhasa, 1899-1925 (Calcutta and New Delhi: Academic Publishers, 1984), 212.

11. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999)., 283; and Jerome Ch’en, Yuan Shih-k’ai (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972)., 142. 

12. IOR, L/P&S/10/400, Gould’s translation of a letter from Dalai Lama to Basil Gould, July 10, 1913. 

13. Charles Bell, Portrait of a Dalai Lama: the life and times of the Great Thirteenth,2000, 204. Dajianlu, i.e. Kangding. 

14. Bell recounts this in Portrait of the Dalai Lama, or Tibet: Past and Present.

15. Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line: A Study in the Relations between India, China and Tibet, 1904 to 1914, vol. 2, 2 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966). 

16. Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967), 252-3; and extract from Viscount Morley’s speech the House of Lords, 17 October 1913 (Hansards Debates). McGranahan has examined three sets of contemporary materials on the conference and found them all to agree (note 18, p. 289: “The texts are as follows: (1) original documents in the India Office Library, London, especially in MSS Eur F 80/177, (2) the Tibetan text shing.stag rgya.gar ‘’i.yul du.dbyin bod.rgya gsum chings.mol mdzad.lugs kun.gsal me.long (The Mirror of Clear Reflection about the Simla Treaty between Britain, China, and Tibet in the Wood Tiger Year), and (3) an English text published in China: The Boundary Question between China and Tibet: A Valuable Record of the Tripartite Conference between China, Britain, and Tibet held in India, 1913—1914. Peking, 1940).” 

17. Wang Hui, for instance, writes: “Britain’s position was that Tibet should become a British protectorate and stay on only nominally as a highly autonomous region under China—this so called high degree of autonomy did not mean that Tibet should actually be autonomous, but was an indication of the authority of the British protectorate.” Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2011), 158. While his political views of Tibet confirm, in many ways, to the Communist Party’s standard argument regarding Tibet’s integral historical position within the Chinese state, Wang’s articulation of British aspirations towards Tibet at the time of the Shimla conference is insightful.

18. Carole McGranahan, “Empire and the Status of Tibet: British, Chinese, and Tibetan Negotiations, 1913—1934,” in The History of Tibet, Vol. III: The Modern Period: 1895—1959, the Encounter with Modernity, ed. Alex McKay (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 270-1. 

19. McGranahan, “Empire and the Status of Tibet,” 271. 

20. McGranahan, “Empire and the Status of Tibet,” 280.

21. Sir Charles Bell, Portrait of the Dalai Lama, 204-206. 

22. McGranahan, “Empire and the Status of Tibet,” 269. 

23. Sir Charles Bell, Portrait of the Dalai Lama, 204-206. 

24. K. Dhondup, The Water-Bird and Other Years: A History of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and After (New Delhi: Rangwang Publishers, 1986), 54. The offer was not accepted. 

25. Until 2008, the British Government's position remained constant regarding China’s suzerainty—but limited sovereignty—over Tibet. Britain was the sole state to maintain this view. However, its position was revised when, on 29 October 2008, it recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet by stating on its website. India’s current claims to a part of its northeast territories, for example, is largely based on the same agreements—notes exchanged during the Shimla convention of 1914, which set the boundary between India and Tibet.  articulate theories about military strategy on land and at sea.

26. McGranahan “Empire and the Status of Tibet,” 288. 158 The language of the Simla Agreements of 1914 is filled with the language of diplomatic equality: “settle by mutual agreement.” For a discussion of “perfect equality” in British diplomacy, see James L. Hevia, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in NineteenthCentury China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003). 159 I.e. dividing Tibet into two regions (Outer and Inner) while “recognizing that Tibet is under the suzerainty of China,” while also “recognizing the special interest of Great Britain in virtue of the geographical position of Tibet” and prohibiting China and Tibet from “enter[ing] into any negotiations or agreements regarding Tibet with one another.” 160 See, for these ambiguities, Articles 2, 3 and 5 of the Simla Agreements of 1914, in Goldstein, History of Modern Tibet, 833.

27 The language of the Simla Agreements of 1914 is filled with the language of diplomatic equality: “settle by mutual agreement.” For a discussion of “perfect equality” in British diplomacy, see James L. Hevia, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in NineteenthCentury China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003). 

28. I.e. dividing Tibet into two regions (Outer and Inner) while “recognizing that Tibet is under the suzerainty of China,” while also “recognizing the special interest of Great Britain in virtue of the geographical position of Tibet” and prohibiting China and Tibet from “enter[ing] into any negotiations or agreements regarding Tibet with one another.” 160 See, for these ambiguities, Articles 2, 3 and 5 of the Simla Agreements of 1914, in Goldstein, History of Modern Tibet, 833.

29. See, for these ambiguities, Articles 2, 3 and 5 of the Simla Agreements of 1914, in Goldstein, History of Modern Tibet, 833.

30. NAI, Foreign, Secret E., September 1915, nos. 76-101. “India. Definition of Indo-Tibetan Boundaries.”

31. Charles Bell to the Political Officer in Sikkim, October 5, 1919. NAI, Foreign, Secret E., February 1920, keep-with no. 112. “Tibetan question. Chinese proposals for the final settlement of the Tibetan question. Acceptance of offer and decision that negotiations should be re-opened, with Chinese Government at Peking at which Tibet should not be represented.”

32. Charles Bell, P.O. Sikkim, to A.H. Grant, November 13, 1917. NAI, Foreign, Secret E., May 1918, nos. 146-147. “Effect on the Indo-Tibet Frontier of the grant of Self-Government in India. Question of the creation of a non-self-governing belt of India to act as a buffer between selfgoverning India and Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Kashmir.”

33. George Nathaniel Curzon Curzon, Frontiers Hardcover, 2016, 7. 

34. John Agnew, Geopolitics: Re-Visioning World Politics 2nd Edition, 2003,11-12. 

35. Thomas H. Holdich, “Some Aspects of Political Geography,” The Geographical Journal 34, no. 6 (1909): 593.


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