India-China Border Dispute: The McMahon Line and Tawang


India and China have a long shared history of what could be arguably defined as one of the world’s most intense, vulnerable and complex border disputes with the origins of the same could be traced back to the nineteenth century when the British attempted to fix the borders between India, China and Russia.

The China-India border dispute is an amalgamation of separate territorial disputes that can be ramified into three segments: the Western sector (covering proximate areas of the Ladakh with Tibet, along with the segment which technically is now Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, with Sinkiang), the Middle sector (proximate areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh with Tibet) and the Eastern sector (the proximate areas of Arunachal Pradesh with Tibet).

Of these three sectors, the Eastern sector accounts for the most vulnerable and diplomatically important of the territorial disputes. The dispute in the Eastern sector revolves around the state of Arunachal Pradesh, and more specifically Tawang – which China claims as part of South Tibet. Tawang is a Buddhist enclave that lies at the intersection of the two most sensitive areas in the Sino-Indian rivalry – Tibet and the border dispute.

The issue in this sector stems majorly from the infamous McMahon line and the uncertainty surrounding it. This article explains the history behind this controversial line and the region of Tawang with respect to India and China.

McMahon Line and Tawang

Following the collapse of the Chinese Imperial government in 1911, Tibet gained de facto independence. The 13th Dalai Lama, who had fled Tibet again to British India in 1910 during a Chinese crackdown, returned in January 1913 and re-established his Kashag (ruling council) while declaring Tibetan independence. The new Republican Government of Yuan Shikai in China rejected these claims. Ultimately, a ruthless conflict erupted throughout eastern Tibet between the local Tibetan rebels and those troops still loyal to Beijing. In this context, the British saw an opportunity to establish Tibet as a genuine buffer state and clearly define the borders within the troubled region in order to mitigate any future tension. The British decided to position themselves as a mediator between China and Tibet, albeit one with its own strong interests.

Britain at the time was afraid that Tsarist Russia, which was expanding into Central Asia towards the end of the 19th Century, would take Tibet, creating a European rival next door. This triggered the Great Game between Britain and Russia. In 1907, the British forced the St. Petersburg Convention on Russia which was greatly weakened at the time after a humiliating naval defeat in 1905 at the hands of Japan. This convention required both the empires to keep away from Tibet and if any of these powers had to deal with Tibet, they could do so only through the mediation of China. Hence, when the Shimla Conference was organised in 1913-14, and the British needed to settle India’s northern boundary, it had to invite the Chinese to provoke the Russians, thus aiming at fulfilling both the above-mentioned goals.

Thus, the intention of the British was to establish Tibet as a buffer state while also wanting to open it up to British trade and influence; and with Tibet wanting allies and international recognition, the tripartite conference was organised. The proceedings began on 6th October 1913 and China reluctantly agreed to participate in these tripartite negotiations to establish the status of Tibet. What followed was the Chinese and Tibetan sides detailing their rather irreconcilable positions on Tibet’s status in China and arguing at great length the exact boundaries of Tibet.

McMahon proposed a division of Tibet into two zones: an “Inner Tibet” that would be under China’s full administrative autonomy and an “Outer Tibet” that would enjoy substantial autonomy. China rejected this proposal but as the meetings proceeded into 1914, a series of private and parallel negotiations between Britain and Tibet produced an exchange of notes and a map that outlined a new Indo-Tibetan boundary 20 kilometres north of Tawang. When this accord was tabled on 27 April 1914, Chinese representative Chen initialled but did not sign the draft and Beijing rejected the agreement two days later.

Hence, to this day, China does not accept the McMahon Line and maintains that Tibet did not at the time possess the sovereign authority to renegotiate its borders in 1914.

Thus, the reluctance of the Chinese to accept the McMahon Line and its consequent assertion over Tibet has complicated the status of Tawang. China’s claim on Tawang has been quite controversial with the nation asserting that Tawang was historically a part of Tibet and Tibet is a part of China. China’s interest in this region spurts for a number of strategic and historical reasons. In terms of geographical contiguity, Arunachal Pradesh provides security to Bhutan in its entire eastern stretch. If Tawang is absorbed by China, then Bhutan would be surrounded by China on both its sides which would then be rather unfavourable for India’s security and very alluring for China. Also, if any future conflict with China were to arise, then Arunachal Pradesh being the shortest route to China, makes it a location of key strategic importance to India which is highly disadvantageous for China. Another area of core importance is that if China manages to encroach upon Tawang; it would also give China easy access to the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken’s neck of India which is a location of key strategic importance.   Additionally, since Tawang lies on the southern slope of the Himalayas and on the outer fringe of Tibet’s sphere of influence, it has always enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy.

On the other hand, India’s attachment to Tawang also lies on shaky grounds. The precariousness surrounding the drawing of the McMahon line followed by the Chinese resistance along with Britain’s concern that the line violated their earlier treaties with China and Russia proved to be a huge setback for the acceptance of the McMahon line. Ultimately, when India gained freedom, no official provision was made for Tawang.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Tawang has thus always been a region of conflict between India and China because of the precariousness of the McMahon Line and the historical as well as strategic importance surrounding it. Up until 2008, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile maintained that Tawang was historically part of Tibet.  Consequently, officials of the Tibetan Government in Exile also maintain that Tawang is an integral part of India and that the Simla Treaty (1914) should be respected. However, China to date does not recognise Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of the Indian Territory and has on multiple occasions stated its claim over the area.

Because of the historical complexities surrounding this region, the border conflict in this sector has till date remained a point of contention. If not resolved mutually, tensions could escalate and prove fatal for both the Asian giants.

Thus, recommendations to resolve the differences are as follows:

  1. To carefully mutually and gradually demilitarise the armed forces deployed by both countries will help to pave the way to build more trust through increased diplomatic relations and reduced threat perceptions.
  2. Setting up a committee to further analyse the historical relevance and current situation and thus, proposing solutions for better development of strategic and economic relations.
  3. Increased systemic and sincere conversations through diplomatic channels. For example External Affairs Ministries of both the nations.
  4. Develop the economic and industrial trade windows which is one of the common major strengths of both the countries along with armed forces. This, in turn, will help to develop better diplomatic relations which will ultimately reduce border tensions.




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