“You can change friends, not neighbours.” The timeless wisdom in this statement by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee often tends to be treated as just another colourful adage to embellish clever essays, but has deserved little more than a place in the archives of wise sayings. This is unfortunate, considering it has been demonstrated time and again that some of the most bitter conflicts in history—Ukraine being the most recent—resulted from neglecting this understanding.
In the age of globalisation and the importance of cross-border trade and commerce, international relations are certainly no longer what they were. However, memories of atavistic enmities long past their eras tend to linger on, especially when stoked by politicians to whip up primal kinship loyalties, often leading to no good other than electoral dividends for some.
India and its neighbours hence need to reassess their relations, for no matter what, they are destined to remain neighbours. India-China relations is one of these. The two Asian giants share a 3,488 km boundary, with Nepal and Bhutan splitting it into three parts. Of these, the boundary in the Kashmir sector is the most ambiguous because the British left behind three unilaterally conceived alignments to address their insecurity—Tsarist Russia.
Henry McMahon spelled out this anxiety in a letter to Viceroy Lord Hardinge, quoted in A G Noorani’s India-China Boundary Problem, 1846–1947. McMahon wrote: “If we consider the existing boundary between Chinese dominion and India, it will be seen that a Russian occupation of Chinese territories in the New Dominion will bring Russia within 150 miles of Srinagar and within 300 miles of Simla....”
Karunakar Gupta, another scholar, outlined these three alignments in a 1980 article in Economic and Political Weekly:
(1) Sir John Ardagh Line (1897) which showed a boundary alignment taking the crest of the Kunlun range and placed within British territory the upper reaches of the Yarkand river and its tributaries and the Karakash river, as well as the whole of the Aksai Chin plateau. (2) Macartney-MacDonald Line (1899), which put forth a less ambitious territorial claim north of the Karakoram ranges … it left to China the whole of the Karakash Valley and almost all of the Aksai Chin proper. (3) The Karakoram Line which was based on the watershed principle.
These alignments were neither accepted nor rejected by the home government. Independent India is still facing the consequences of these ambiguities today. Viceroy Hardinge ultimately opted to go for the boundary alignment suggested by Sir John Ardagh in 1897 but without physically occupying the claimed land. However, post 1962, the Line of Actual Control in this sector is closer to the Macartney-MacDonald Line. The Sikkim sector, where there are no disputes for the Sikkim-Tibet boundary, is backed by an 1890 agreement between Lhasa and the British, Sikkim being a British protectorate then.
The border in the Northeast sector, extending up to Myanmar, is the McMahon Line, agreed by notes exchanged between Tibetan plenipotentiary Lonchen Shatra and British Indian plenipotentiary Henry McMahon during the Simla Conference in 1913–1914. I-fan Chen, Chinese plenipotentiary, not much later walked out of the conference before it concluded. Today, the Chinese do not officially recognise this line, although it remains the effective border between the two countries.
Why exactly were the Chinese invited to the Simla Conference to decide the India-Tibet boundary? It was again the British anxiety about Russia. To keep Russia away from Tibet, Britain forced the St. Petersburg Convention 1907 on Russia, then quite weakened by a humiliating naval defeat at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1905. Russia and Britain had also become allies in Europe by then. One of the clauses of this treaty was that if either party becomes compelled to deal with Tibet, it would be through an intermediary—China.
Interestingly, at the start of the Simla Conference, when McMahon asked his counterparts to table their notion of the boundary, the Chinese plenipotentiary was not even sure what their position was, as Parshotam Mehra notes in his Essays in Frontier History: India, China and the Disputed Border. Obviously, Chinese claims to territories in India now would have to be an adoption of what the Tibetans claim was their sphere of influence once.
Quite understandably, China cannot officially recognise the McMahon Line for this would amount to recognising Tibet—which it considers was always integrally a part of China—possessing sovereign power to sign international treaties. Hence, the area that could be explored is to see if China would ratify more or less the same boundary alignment through another bilateral treaty. There is also the example of Myanmar (Burma then). China settled its boundary with Burma in 1960. Notably, the Burma-China boundary is a continuation from where the McMahon Line ends. Again, at the time of the Simla Conference, Burma was part of British India. The Burma-China Boundary Treaty of October 1, 1960, though more or less the same one the British left behind, in this way, ceased to be a colonial legacy.
Another interesting example from history should also be a cause for optimism. China did not accept the Convention of Lhasa 1904, which Tibet was forced to sign after Lord Curzon’s Younghusband expedition of 1904. However, after China persuaded the British to enter into another treaty, the Peking Convention 1906, to supersede the Convention of Lhasa 1904, China had no problem including most of the terms of the Lhasa Convention in the Peking Convention. Again, in January 1951, even as China began its campaign to take over Tibet, India decided to end the concession given to Lhasa (the monastic taxes the British previously allowed Lhasa to levy) to exercise a degree of cultural suzerainty over the Tawang Tract, which is on the Indian side of the McMahon Line. China did not protest against this. Yet again, in 1962, after open hostility broke out, China attacked India and overran Assam. However, exactly a month later, on November 20, China unilaterally withdrew behind the McMahon Line.
Good fences make good neighbours. India and China must strive to mend fences then to be good neighbours at least if not good friends.
Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics