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China: Why Scholars Are Revisiting The Tibet-India Border fixed by the British-Tibet Treaty (1914)

The consistent claim of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been that the then Central Government was not a party to both the Simla Convention (27 April 1914) and the subsequent separate British-Tibet Treaty (3 July 1914) which fixed the Tibet-India border and as such, the two agreements are “illegal and invalid” from the PRC’s point of view. It is also being seen that Beijing, both at official and academic levels, is continuing with its efforts to produce evidences to justify its perceptions about the two documents. A new trend is however being noticed in the recent period, in the form of unprecedented attention of China’s scholars exclusively to McMahon line and the Tibet-India Border fixed by the 3 July 1914 treaty. In that context, the question as to what is the significance of such a trend for the present stage in Sino-Indian relations, assumes importance.

A signed article (in Chinese), carried recently by a prominent journal specialising on South Asia1 , alleged that a map of the Tibet-India border, marked by Red line, which came to be known later as McMahon line, was ‘secretly and illegally’ finalised on 24-25 March 1914 during talks between British and Tibetan representatives (Charles Bell and Lonchen Shatra respectively). The same map, at some point subsequent to the eventual ‘collapse’ of the Simla Conference, underwent some, but not basic, amendments and appended to the 27 April 1914 draft Chinese-British-Tibetan tripartite Simla Convention. Most important, according to the article, was that when the Chinese representative Chen Yifan, blackmailed by his British counterpart Henry McMahon, ‘initialled’ the Convention, but without the Central Government’s permission, there was no attachment showing Tibet-India border in Red line; there are doubts that somebody manipulated to insert this line into the Convention at a later stage. The write-up disclosed that indicators to such doubts could be specifically found in the message sent by the Chinese representative to the Central Government on 11 May 1914, in which there had been a mention only about the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Tibet proposals, with no word at all about a Red line- marked Tibet-India border. On the other hand, the message had stressed that the Tibet-India border needed to be demarcated clearly in order to avoid any forcible occupation.

The write-up stated further that the Tibet-India border map in Red line was again appended to the 3 July 1914 British-Tibet treaty, of which the then Central Government was not a party. Noting that there was a connection between the Simla Convention and that treaty, it observed that the Tibet-India border had been born out of a deal between McMahon and the Tibetan representative Shatra , to push the traditional China-India border up north by more than 100 miles, in the interests of British India’s Northeast ‘strategic borders’, conceived as stretching from the southern foot of the Himalayas to the northern ridges. As part of the deal, McMahon promised his support to Shatra on the question of Tibet’s border with other provinces of China. The article then declared that the inclusion of Tibet-India border in the 3 July 1914 treaty through an appended map, was an illegal act, carried out behind the back of China representative Chen Yifan. In conclusion, it made an appeal to other scholars in China to come out with further evidences to prove that no red line- marked map showing the Tibet-India border was appended to the Simla Convention.

On the Simla Convention, the main objective of the Chinese officials and scholars till 2003-04 remained confined to focussing on McMahon’s Blue line-marked border between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Tibet, along with the criticism that such separation of Tibet, was in essence supportive of Tibetan independence demands. Since end 2003 however, signs of a new attention in China to McMahon’s Red line- marked map showing the Tibet-India boundary, are being noticed. “In the last one hundred years, hostile powers abroad and Tibetan separatists at home have continued to revisit the Simla Conference and the McMahon line, in order to pursue Tibetan independence and occupy Chinese territory and the Tibetan separatists with McMahon line as basis, allowed the British to take away China’s territory of 90000 Sq. km step by step”, commented an authoritative Tibet journal2. “No one paid attention to McMahon’s Red line showing Tibet-India border”, complained a prominent Tibetan News Agency report3. The article mentioned above appears to be a response to such complaints.

Why McMahon’s Redline-marked Tibet-India boundary is getting the focus of China scholars now? It can be said that same could be at the behest of the PRC Government, which may have realised that the outside world still sees a degree of legality in the Simla Convention and the British-Tibet fixed Tibet-India border and that it is necessary to take counter steps in order to demolish, both from the points of view of history and law, any semblance of such legitimacy. For e.g., Beijing may be finding it difficult to face the argument that the then Central Government’s agreement with the Tibetan representative Shatra to negotiate the Tibet-China border, would implicitly mean the China’s recognition of the right of Tibet to independently talk with the British on the Tibet-India border. For many outside China, the Simla Convention meant world recognition to Tibet as an independent nation with which binding agreements could be negotiated. Secondly, by virtue of the clause in the Convention that any non-ratifying Party would be unable to enjoy the privileges contained in it, some view that China by not joining the Convention, stood to lose qualifications to object to the British-Tibet Treaty of 3 July 1914, which fixed the India-Tibet border on the basis of McMahon line and that China’s claims to Arunachal Pradesh now could suffer on this ground. To deal with such unfavourable aspects and prove that the Convention as well as the British-Tibet fixed Tibet-India border enjoy no legal basis, Beijing may be relying on the collection of more and more historical and legal evidences by its scholars. One such evidence has now emerged – Even the representative of the then Central Government was not aware of McMahon’s Tibet-India borderline. More evidences may be in the offing.

The new focus of scholars may also mean China’s indirect message to India on the border issue. Coupled with Beijing’s uncompromising views noticed so far on Arunachal Pradesh, it may signal that the PRC may persist with its hard-line stand towards McMahon line, contributing to possible long and difficult phase in the ongoing Sino-Indian border negotiations. The PRC’s State controlled media are claiming that the territories of Lower Zayul, Lho Yu and Mon Yu, all located south of the high ridge of the Himalayas, are Tibet’s parts since ancient times and that China enjoys undisputable sovereignty over these areas, which include Tawang, described as the birth place of the 6th Dalai Lama and administrative centre of Mon Yu area. They are also alleging that that the shadow of colonialism still exists in South Western Tibet and Western Tibet, that India occupied Tawang in 1951 and that India, though once a colony, regards itself as semi master of Tibet4.

The key to a solution to the Sino-Indian border dispute in the Eastern sector lies in respective perceptions of India and China about the McMahon line. While India is in favour of the line, Beijing remains uncompromising on the legality of McMahon line. This is despite the fact that the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, in his letter to his Indian counterpart Nehru (23 Jan 1959) had said that his country wanted to have a realistic attitude towards McMahon line, about which friendly nations like India and Burma are concerned5. In another letter (4 November 1962), Zhou conceded to Nehru that in the Eastern sector, the Line of Actual Control coincided in the main with the so-called McMahon line. The Sino-Indian agreement on Political Parameters notwithstanding, the PRC’s present policy seems to aim at ruling out in toto the McMahon line as basis for border negotiations, on a premise that then only, it can have a rationale to lay its claim over the entire Arunachal Pradesh, a territory now called by China as part of “Southern Tibet”. It is clear that China and India face a long road in solving the thorny border issue.

(The Writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. He was formerly Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The relevant Chinese material was translated into English by the Writer. Email:,


1. “Doubts exist on whether a Red line- marked map was attached to the Simla convention”, contributed by three authors-Lu Zhaoyi, Wu Yunhong and Yang xiaohui, South Asian Studies journal(Chinese), No.2/2006, dated 1 January 2007, repeated on 19 May 2007 in website

2. “China Tibetology”, December 2003 issue, “Further comments on the Simla Conference”.

3. China Tibet Information Centre article, “Internal Dissension Invites Outside Bullying”,, February 2004.

4. As in 3 above.

5. FEER, 28 February 1963, Article by PHM Jones on the Sino-Indian border dispute.

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