‘The McMahon Line Saga’
This critic had always considered the real dispute between China and India not arising from their conflicting claims over sparsely inhabited or uninhabited land but from the fact that Beijing denied India its legitimate sphere of influence. It now transpires that Beijing has similar concerns. It considers its questioned rights over Tibet to be the real cause of Sino-Indian discord.
This is brought out lucidly in a new book by Mr. Claude Arpi, 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, produced by Lancer Publishers. The wealth of information contained in this book provides a treasure-trove for any research scholar of China studies. I will not attempt a formal review of the book which is best left for a specialist on China studies. But one can cull some nuggets of information from its contents that are most relevant to the crisis in Tibet and a rational solution for resolving it.
The starting point of the current crisis in Tibet was the Simla Conference of 1914 attended by Britain, Tibet and China. After various expeditions to Tibet the British had concluded that China had no tangible presence or influence in Tibet. The status of Tibet was nebulous. Imperial Britain hosted the Simla Conference to formalize its status. The British and the Tibetans considered Tibet fully autonomous. They denied sovereignty but conceded suzerainty of China over Tibet.
Years after their departure the failure by the Indian Ambassador to China Mr. KM Pannikar to clearly demarcate between sovereignty and suzerainty worsened Sino-Indian relations. The truth is that Tibet was an independent country which was annexed by the Mongol and Manchu rulers of China after they had conquered it to create their empires. With the weakening of the Chinese government at the end of Manchu rule Chinese control over Tibet had vanished. This becomes evident from the fact that both China and Tibet were separately represented at the Simla Conference.
The claims of Chinese and Tibetan representatives at the Simla Conference were in conflict. While the Tibetans insisted on full autonomy, conceding only notional suzerainty, the Chinese claimed Tibet to be part of China. But interestingly enough the Chinese representative, Ivan Chen, rested his claim on the fact that the Mongols under Genggis Khan had conquered Tibet.
Was this argument valid? Tibetans today point out that authentic China was limited to the territory within the Great Wall built by the Han Chinese. The rest was part of empires created by foreign conquerors of China. Going by Ivan Chen’s logic India could as well claim that Myanmar is part of India because Britain when it ruled British India had included Burma to be part of India.
With World War One clouds hovering over Europe Britain was anxious to secure an agreement with China. Finally an acceptable formula was adopted in the Simla Conference. Tibet was divided between Inner and Outer Tibet. China agreed not to make Tibet a province of China and also agreed to give full autonomy and promised non-interference in the affairs of Outer Tibet to be directly under the Dalai Lama. The agreement was signed by the British and the Tibetans but was only initialed by the Chinese. Interestingly enough the Chinese baulked at signing the treaty not because they objected to its other terms but only because agreement could not be reached on the exact location of the boundary separating Inner from Outer Tibet.
After India became independent in 1947 to inherit the British policy on Tibet the crisis created by the intransigence and distortion of history by the Chinese was compounded by the vacillating and confused policy pursued by Prime Minister Nehru. In November 1950 China announced its intention to “liberate“ Tibet. Sardar Patel wanted to consolidate British policy on Tibet by securing our borders. He wrote a note to Nehru suggesting concrete steps to achieve this. But Nehru changed his stance by accepting that Tibet was not a country “verging on independence” but was to be treated as an “occupied country”.
Nehru declined to reply to Patel but instead drafted his own policy on Tibet with its disastrous consequences. He based policy on his assumption that China as an Asian nation would consider friendship with India paramount. Mr. Claude Arpi comments in his book:
“Sardar Vallabhai Patel ... probably was the one Indian politician who could have balanced Nehru; the destiny of India could have taken a different direction; it was not to be. With the demise of Patel, for the sake of the newly-found “friendship” with China, Tibet policy was buried.”
However history has moved on. In the final analysis the fate of a nation is not determined by quibbling over maps and treaties. It is decided by ground realities. That is what needs to be focused on in order to resolve the Tibetan crisis which bedevils relations between India and China. Tibet was India’s neighbour for centuries and there was no serious border problem. China annexed Tibet and a serious border problem has arisen. Without resolving it normalization with China seems unreal. Can the Tibetan crisis be resolved?
Mr. Claude Arpi concludes his book on a somewhat pessimistic note. He writes:
“The border issue between India and China is not going to be solved very soon, for the good reason that both the Indians and the Tibetans are not ready to rewrite history and admit that Tibet had no power to sign an agreement with another independent nation. It practically means that India will continue to stand by the McMahon Line.”
I am not that pessimistic. I think a glimmer of hope exists. Thanks to his sense of realism Dalai Lama has publicly agreed that Tibet could be part of China as long as its full cultural autonomy and religious freedom are respected. This is a huge concession that is unacceptable to the younger generation of Tibetans. Nevertheless if it comes to the crunch I believe that His Holiness could prevail over his young followers.
Within China the intransigence of the government could be traced to the fact that President Hu JIntao had been appointed by Deng Xiaoping as the administrator of Tibet. He was the author of Beijing’s hard line approach and repression in Tibet. Any reversal of that policy would have entailed loss of face for President Hu in a society where keeping face matters so much.
Mr. Xi Jinping on the other hand was brought up by a father who despite being Mao’s General was also very liberal in his approach towards Tibet. Would Mr. Xi reverse Beijing’s Tibet policy to accommodate Dalai Lama’s generous offer?
On the eve of the leadership transition in China there are political ripples emanating from exposures on corruption that affect even China’s army. Dare one hope that these will lead to a more liberal China? Resolution of the Tibetan crisis by granting full autonomy to Outer Tibet would establish normalcy on the Sino-Indian border. Normalcy would allow New Delhi to accept some arrangement to legitimize China’s Aksai Chin road connecting Xingjian to Tibet. That would lay the foundation for a meaningful India-China partnership.
Will Mr. Xi Jinping deliver? Tibet will be his litmus test.