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60th anniversary of the Panchsheel: China’s Stand on Border then and Now

In view of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel) between India and China, the year 2014 has been declared as the year of friendly exchanges, and various activities have been planned throughout the year as part of the celebrations. Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s China visit is just one of such activities. During his five day long visit between 26 and 30 June, he had talks with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Li Yuanchao. During his talks with Chinese leaders, he raised India’s concerns over border with China and China’s plans to build rail links with Pakistan through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. India and China also signed three MoUs that includes the establishment of Chinese industrial parks in India and China agreeing to allow Indian hydrological experts to conduct study tours in Tibet to monitor the flows and flood data of Brahmaputra River on its upper reaches. Given the primacy of trade relations between the two countries, Vice President was also companied by Minister of State for Commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman who in her talks with the Chinese leaders said that India was open to Chinese investment.

It is certain that China is proactive in its approach as far as Panchsheel is concerned; the principles have been enshrined in the constitution of China and China has reiterated time and again that these have become the norms of international relations in recent times. Irrespective of their incorporation in the constitution, China talked less about these and followed the ‘keeping low’ (韬光养晦) approach of Deng Xiaoping all along. Of late as the ‘keeping low’ approach gives way to more ‘assertive’ approach as regards economic and foreign policy related issues, demonstrated by its brawl with Japan in East China Sea and with Vietnam and Philippines in the South China Sea, and also the incorporation of ‘one belt one road’ (一带一路) strategy for building bridges across nations, China under Xi seems to have rekindled the spirit of Panchsheel. It is perhaps in this light that China has announced an award and scholarships to groups and individuals who have contributed to the promotion of Panchsheel. India on its part though part and parcel of the celebrations seems to have rescinded to passivity; the kind of enthusiasm it showed to these during the Nehru years is obviously not there. What are the reasons for such a passivism? Is it owing to our policies in the 1950s and 60s or is it because of lackadaisical economic and foreign policy approaches? Let’s revisit the Panchsheel and find out.

It may be recalled that the extraterritorial rights acquired by British India in Tibet was the outcome of 1914 Anglo-British Trade Agreement initialed at Simla by the British, Tibetans and Chinese plenipotentiaries. The then Chinese government had repudiated this agreement as they objected to the border alignment between the Inner and Outer Tibet. Nevertheless, the agreement between Tibet and Britain was in force, and when the British transferred political power to the Republic of India, the extraterritorial rights were also transferred to the new government. India had its representatives at Lhasa, Gyantse and Yadong accompanied by a small escort. Between Sikkim and Gyantse there was a post and telegraph service and some rest houses. India continued the British policy of recognizing Tibetan autonomy under Chinese suzerainty, however, in somewhat ambiguous manner with the Republic of China (ROC) as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, both the governments in China (ROC from 1912-49 and PRC from 1949-date) did not recognize the 1914 Agreement. Recognition to the agreement would have meant to recognize Tibetan identity as an independent nation.

After signing the 17-Point Agreement with Tibet in 1951, China had taken full control of Tibet including its foreign affairs. The erstwhile Tibetan Bureau of Foreign Affairs was abolished and replaced by Chinese Foreign Office (initially named as Foreign Affairs Support Office). Now the Indian and Nepalese Missions in Lhasa were the last two irritants in the Chinese eyes and were perceived as the residue of imperialist influences in Tibet.

On August 12, 1952, Zhang Jingwu, the Chinese representative at Lhasa communicated these guidelines to the Dalai Lama and Kashag. The Kashag remarked that they have received all the documents pertaining to the treaties Tibet had signed with the British and is prepared to discuss these with the Central Government. Yang (1992: 257) records that the process was stalled due to the interference from two Prime Ministers [Lukhangwa and Lobzang Tashi] who had opposed the Agreement of peaceful liberation of Tibet. On 14th, Zhang Guohua, the commander of the PLA in Tibet, informed the Kashag to convey it to the Dalai Lama that the Central Government has already decided to convert the Indian Mission at Lhasa into a consulate Yang (1992: 257). On 14 June 1952, Zhou Enlai met Panikkar and pointed out that the Indian privileges in Tibet were the product of unequal treaties. Therefore, the Chinese Government was in favour of re-establishing the Indo-Tibetan relations through consultations. Since the resolution of Tibet problem would require considerable time and measures, the Chinese government is of the view that the Indian Mission at Lhasa may be converted into Indian consulate. In September 1952, government of India announced from New Delhi that as the Chinese government was now conducting Tibet’s foreign relations, the designation of the Indian representative at Lhasa would be changed to consul general and the trade agencies in Tibet would be under his supervision (Richardson: 1962: 196).

Under such circumstances, Zhang Jingwu and Yang Gongsu proposed to the Kashag that Tibet should sever its traditional ties with India; the Kashag was still hesitant and said it would study the matter and respond accordingly. The matter was delayed until mid October, when Zhang Jingwu and Zhang Guohua met the Dalai Lama and raised the question with him. According to Yang (1992: 259, emphasis added), the 14th Dalai expressed his approval and subsequently the Kashag made its reply on 6 September. The main points under reference were that India at present has very unreasonable footing in Tibet; we wish the Central Government would solve this proposition gradually. That India has stationed its troops in Tibet and has occupied Dawang [Tawang] etc. places. The Kashag would provide the Central Government relevant material and hope the Central Government would recover the lost territories. As regards India establishing consulate general at Lhasa, the Kashag approves of Central Government’s desire to handle Indian affairs under a unified command. It is also desired that all the traders entering India must apply for passport. Since Su Khang, the former head of the Tibetan Bureau of Foreign Affairs is dead, his responsibilities has been taken by Liu Xia, the Vice-Chairman of the Bureau in the newly established Foreign Affairs Support Office.

It is evident from Kashag’s reply that Tibet at insistence of China, attempted to express that there was no special relationship with India, irrespective of the fact that most of the Tibetan trade was with India. China was also successful in bringing up the question of “lost territories” in Kashag’s reply. This tacitly made Tibet to accept the fact that the 1914 Simla agreement with India was null and void, and more importantly, the boundary agreement signed by the Tibetan plenipotentiary Lonchen Shatra with the British had no validity. Meanwhile, China accused India for perusing the old British policies in Tibet, for Indian envoys in Sikkim and Tibet time and again referred to Tibet as a country, and in the winter of 1952 when Tibetan traders went to India in large numbers to fetch huge quantities of goods that were in demand due to increased presence of the PLA in Tibet, the Indian government is said to have refused to grant visas on the Tibetan passports issued by China, for it asked them to acquire travel documents from the Indian Trade Representative at Yadong ( Yang 1992: 260-61).

Since 1950, China had employed thousands of PLA and Tibetan labourers on road construction. Within a span of four years they built 2000 kilometres of roads. The Qinghai-Tibet Highway was completed by the end of fourth year with the first vehicle reaching Lhasa on 15th December [1954], Roads linking Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse were also proceeding at a rapid pace (Shakya 1999: 121). Secondly, a hostile Pakistan on its western and eastern fronts that was part of America’s anti-communism coalition and was receiving American military aid also forced India to initiate a friendly policy towards China. In September 1953 Nedyam Raghavan, the Indian ambassador to China delivered a letter from Nehru to Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier that expressed India’s desire to open negotiations with China on bilateral issues. The subsequent consultations between the foreign affairs officials of both the countries resolved that negotiations should be held immediately. India appointed Raghavan, the Indian ambassador to China as plenipotentiary of the government of India and China appointed Zhang Hanfu, the Vice-Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs as its plenipotentiary.

The negotiations started in Beijing on 31 December 1953 and went on for four months. Contrary to the Indian approach towards these negotiations, China attached great importance to its “first ever negotiations with a non-socialist country” and set up an eleven member “Commission for Sino-Indian negotiations.” Yang (1992: 226, emphasis added) who represented the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with Zhou Enlai, writes that the Commission had its first meeting on 7 January 1954. Zhou Enlai made a speech and remarked:

“India has inherited some British privileges in Tibet. However, since the return of Tibet to the folds of motherland’s big family, India has accorded China an equal and reciprocal treatment albeit it still desires to maintain its privileges in Tibet. Nonetheless, it has agreed to recall its forces when it saw the futility of keeping them there. We may surmise that the stronger we emerge and the firmer all nationalities unite, Indian attitude is bound to change. China’s India policy should be to win India for peaceful-coexistence with us on the basis of five principles, to make her fight against the American invasion and war. On the other hand, the UK and the US exert great influence on India, and we have dispute with her on several issues. We should endeavour to influence and make her believe that our policy of peace has the force. During present negotiations, we are only prepared to negotiate the problems that are ripe, the problems that are not ripe, for example, the border problems including the “McMahon Line” by way of which Tawang and Loyul etc. regions that originally belonged to Tibet were ceded to India, would be regarded as outstanding issues and would not be raised due to insufficient material, however, would be raised at an opportune time.”

It could be gleaned from Zhou’s speech that China was willing to discuss the issues, which it thought were remnants of imperialist influence in Tibet. It was only interested in negotiating the issues of trade representatives, post and telegraph facilities and the Indian garrison in Tibet for now. China wanted to discuss Tibetan trade with India, as there were no effective supply routes with mainland China at that point of time. China was successful in scuttling Indian trade a few years later when it laid a strong network of roads that connected Lhasa with other Chinese cities. On the boundary question, China preferred to maintain silence and had decided that in case the Indian side raised the issue, it would simply say that it was difficult to reach an agreement at this stage. It is evident from the negotiations that China was bent on to “drive away the last imperialist influence” from Tibet. It is rather strange that why Indian side didn’t raise the border issue. The problem in fact would have opened the entire issue of boundary for discussion or negotiations. It would have been a trade off between India relinquishing its interests in Tibet and accepting it as a region of China, and the Chinese accepting the 1914 border alignment between Tibet and India. Therefore, it could be regarded as a diplomatic disaster for India.

Nevertheless, the negotiations went on and after four months an agreement was reached on various issues. On 29 April 1954, India and China signed the “Agreement Between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse Between Tibet Region of China and India.” The main provisions of the Agreement and notes exchanged between the two governments provided:

1. The Government of India agrees that the Government of China may establish Trade Agencies at New Delhi, Calcutta and Kalimpong. Similarly, India may establish trade agencies at Yatung, Gyantse and Gartok. 2. Government of China agrees to specify Yatung, Gyantse and Phari as trade markets, India in turn named Kalimpong, Siliguri and Calcutta as trade marts. 3. Pilgrims from India may visit Kailash (Rimpoche) and Mansarovar (Mavam Tso) in Tibet and pilgrims from Tibet may visit Indian Buddhist sites such as Benaras, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Sanchi. 4. The traders and pilgrims from both India and China would carry passports and other travel documents issued by respective governments. 5. The Government of India would withdraw within six months from now; the military escorts stationed at Yatung and Gyantse in Tibet, and would hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price 12 rest houses, the postal, telegraph and public telephone services together with their equipments.

It was the preamble of this agreement that included the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence or the Panchsheel, and it was agreed that the Agreement would remain in force for eight years. The Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) of 30 April 1954 lauded the “reestablishment of relations between India and China on new basis.” The Daily editorialised that relations between India and China in the “Tibet Region of China” were remnants of the British aggression against China in the past and therefore, were not the responsibility of the Government of India. In turn India thought that it had won the tacit acceptance of the McMahon Line by China, and that Panchsheel would guarantee her good neighbourliness from China.

The agreement of 1954 was indeed first confidence building measure (CBM) between India and China. Lauding the agreement Nehru spoke in the Parliament that “By this agreement we ensure peace to a very large extent in a certain area of Asia” and that by subscribing to these principles, “one could create an environment wherein it becomes a little more dangerous to the other party to break away from the pledges given (Deepak 2005: 154).”

It was sold aggressively by both India and China at various forums such as during the Afro Asian Conference in Bandung; and Colombo Conference in May 1954. During his India visit in 1954 and 1956, Zhou Enlai time and again emphasized the need to adhere to these principles. In a press conference on 27 June, Zhou further elaborated the principles of Panchsheel and allayed fears of neighbouring countries about Chinese brand of communism. He said,

“It is possible for various countries of world to have a peaceful coexistence irrespective of their size and social system. The people of each country should have the right to choose its way of life and system of governance, and should not be interfered by other countries. The revolution cannot be exported. At the same time, the common will of a nation in any country should not be interfered with. If all the countries of the world handle their relations in accordance with these principles, then the question of threat and invasion of one country by another does not arise, and the possibility of peaceful coexistence between the countries could be realised (Wang 1998: 97).”

According to Wang, Zhou also proposed to Nehru that by adhering to the Panchsheel, India and China should set an example to the world, proving that countries can coexist peacefully. Nehru in fact had been doing exactly the same thing. This is evident from his speeches during Colombo Conference. In a broadcast from Colombo Nehru (1996: 253) had emphasized the significance of Panchsheel and had remarked that although the political and economic structure of India and China were different, India was nevertheless able to sign an agreement with China on the basis of these principles. Since the Panchsheel in his view would guarantee peace in Asia, he recommended the concept to other members of Colombo Conference

Going by the arguments given by Nehru and Zhou Enlai, the CBM was aimed at creating trust and confidence in each other, and it did create the environment of peace and friendship, the atmosphere of Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai (Sino-Indian Brotherhood) could be rightly attributed to this CBM, albeit was hyped beyond reality by both the sides. Also as Swaran (1998: 505) puts it, “Indian response has to be understood in view of Nehru’s personality and beliefs, He had been India’s sole spokesperson on foreign relations and following the death of Gandhiji (1948) and Sardar Patel (1950) Jawaharlal Nehru had clearly emerged as the single most important leader of the monolith Indian National Congress…a man who sought security in peace..” The academics have looked these issues from differing perspectives. While some argues that the Dalai Lama’s escape and India granting asylum derailed the CBM (Swaran 1998) for India refused to renew it in 1962 at its expiry after eight years; Swaran also maintains Bhai-Bhai atmospheric and Nehru’s single handily China policy could be another reason; I believe more than anything, it was the Indian perception of entire border issue as well as the obduracy it showed towards the border negotiations with China. Had India handled the relationship carefully, perhaps we would not have wasted time on other CBMs including the latest Border Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2013. Many experts including the Chinese posits that the swap of Eastern and Western Sectors that points to the ground realities on border is the best possible and plausible solution to the border, it still remains, however, going by what Zhou Enlai meant in 1954, the contest for territories may indeed be a protracted one!


Deepak, B R (2005) India and China 1904-2004: A Century of Peace and Conflict, Manak, New Delhi Nehru, Jawaharlal (1996) Selected Speeches 1953-57, Vol 3, Publication Division, New Delhi Richardson, H. E (1962). Tibet and its History. Oxford University Publication, London Shakya, Tsering (1999). The Dragon in the Land of Snow: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. Pimlico, London. Singh, Swaran (1998) “Building Confidence with China” in Tan Chung (ed.) Across the Himalyan Gap, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Gyan Publishers, New Delhi Wang, Hongwei, (1998). 喜马拉雅山情节:中印关系研究 ximalayashan qingjie: zhongyin guanxi yanjiu (The Himalayas Sentiment : A Study of Sino Indian Relations). China Tibetology Publication, Beijing. Yang, Gongsu 杨公素(1992). 中国反对外国侵略干涉西藏地方斗争史 zhongguo fandui waiguo qinlue ganshe xizang difang douzhengshi ( History of China’s Struggle and Resistance to Foreign Invasion and interference in Tibet). China’s Tibetology Publications, Beijing.

The writter Prof. B.R. Deepak, is professor of China Stuides at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-Mail:

Disclaimer – The views expressed are of the author.

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