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Harsha Gowda asked: Why China is not accepting McMahon Line with India, while the same has been accepted with Myanmar?

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  • M.S. Prathibha replies: The Burma-China Boundary Treaty of October 01, 1960 had settled the boundary dispute between the two countries. Though the agreed boundary mostly followed the McMahon Line, the Chinese called it as “customary boundary”. In other words, the Chinese never legally accepted the McMahon Line, but based their negotiations on what they termed as traditional boundary features. In this context, China’s refusal to agree on McMahon Line with India is more complicated than its negotiations with Myanmar.

    It is not that both countries did not make an attempt to resolve their differences. When the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited India in 1956, he had proposed a boundary agreement that was closer to the alignment of the McMahon Line. This we know from various declassified documents, where it is hinted that Zhou was willing to accept the McMahon Line. Moreover, a letter by Prime Minister U. Nu of Myanmar to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refers to earlier discussions between them, where apparently Nehru had intimated that Zhou accepted the McMahon Line but only had objections to the name. However, both Zhou and Nehru were unable to resolve their differences even at their later discussions in 1960 due to a deadlock over the issue of Chinese claim in Aksai Chin.

    The Chinese unwillingness to accept McMahon Line is of historic and legal significance. The Simla Conference of 1914 had legitimised the McMahon Line. The conference was held between Tibetan, British and the Chinese representatives. However, the Chinese representative repudiated the conference due to differences over the text and to this day, China considers it illegal. What is significant is that once China withdrew, the British Indian and the Tibetan representatives removed the Chinese privileges and concluded the accord between them. If China accepted the Simla Convention, it would seem that they are accepting that Tibet was a sovereign state, which could conclude treaties with other countries. This would be contrary to the Chinese assertion that Tibet has always been a part of China and was not an independent sovereign state.

    There is no reason why China and India cannot come to an understanding regarding the border. In fact, historians now point to the fact that the Chinese protestation in the Simla Conference mainly pertained to the boundary between Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet, i.e., the China-Tibet boundary line, not the Indo-Tibetan border. But in recent years, China has laid claim to Tawang, a town in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang was initially under the control of the Tibetan authorities, which was evicted by the Indian authorities in 1951. Even though the Chinese did not object to it at that time, nor protested against India’s actions, Tawang has become a contentious point in the border negotiations.
    The issue of legality of Tibet’s status and also that of the treaties signed during the Simla Conference will have to be addressed before China gets to accept the McMahon Line. Therefore, unlike the China-Burma boundary negotiations, which were strictly between two states, in case of China and India, the issue of Tibet’s status makes China more sensitive towards the use of the term ‘McMahon Line’ as the boundary line.

    Nevertheless, both India and China are committed to finding a mutually acceptable solution to the border dispute.

    Posted on March 07, 2016