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The McMahon Line: A hundred years on

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • July 03, 2014

    On 3rd July 1914 nearly a hundred years ago at Simla, Tibet and India signed the Simla Convention that gave birth to the McMahon Line separating Tibet from India in the eastern sector. Although the Convention recognized that ‘Tibet forms part of Chinese territory’, the then Chinese authorities did not sign the Convention as they objected specifically only to Article 9 of the said Convention that laid down the boundaries between Inner and Outer Tibet. Other than that the Chinese Authorities made it amply clear, on several occasions, that they did not object to any other Article, including that which showed the McMahon Line.

    From the time of the signing of the Simla Convention on 3rd July 1914 till 23rd January 1959 when PM Zhou wrote a letter to Nehru, the Chinese never raised any formal objections to the McMahon Line; although they had many opportunities to do so. What then were Zhou’s main objections?

    In his letter [23 January 1959] Zhou, for the first time ever, made the following points to Nehru. Firstly, that the Sino-Indian boundary had never been formally delimited and that no treaty or agreement had been concluded between the Chinese Central government and the government of India. Secondly, that the McMahon Line was a product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibetan Region of China. Thirdly, Zhou admitted that the Tibetan Local authorities had signed the Convention but were dis-satisfied with the ‘unilaterally drawn’ line. Nevertheless, Zhou asserted that ‘the Chinese government finds it necessary to take a realistic attitude towards the McMahon Line.’

    Zhou further amplified his view-point in his letter of 8th September 1959 as follows:

    the so-called McMahon Line was never discussed at the Simla Conference, but was determined by the British representative and the representative of the Tibet local authorities behind the back of the representative of the Chinese Central Government through an exchange of secret notes at Delhi on March 24, 1914, that is, prior to the signing of the Simla treaty. This line was later marked on the map attached to the Simla treaty as part of the boundary between Tibet and the rest of China. The so-called McMahon Line was a product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibet Region of China -and has never been recognized by any Chinese Central Government and is therefore decidedly illegal. As to the Simla treaty, it was not formally signed by the representative of the then Chinese Central Government, and this is explicitly noted in the treaty. For quite a long time after the exchange of secret notes between Britain and the Tibet local authorities, Britain dared not make public the related documents, nor change the traditional way drawing this section of the boundary on maps.1

    As can be seen Zhou now totally ignored his earlier stand that China would take a ‘realistic attitude’. But what are the facts of the case?

    The Chinese representative, Ivan Chen, not only fully participated as a delegate, but on an equal footing with the Tibetan representative. All arrangements at Simla were made with the knowledge and consent of the Chinese and the Chinese Foreign Minister wrote to the British government on 7 August 1913 that the Chinese plenipotentiary would proceed to India to ‘open negotiations for a treaty jointly with the Tibetan and British plenipotentiaries’ [emphasis added]. That Tibet participated on an equal footing with China is further supported by the inescapable fact that the three countries formally exchanged and recognized the credentials of each other at the conference. In fact the then Chinese President, Yuan Shih-kai issued a Presidential Order on 21 April 1912 declaring Tibet to be an administered province of China. To emphasize the tri-partite nature of the Simla Conference, the 1912 Presidential Order was specifically revoked on 13 June 1913 and the Chinese government accepted that all three participants were on an equal footing [emphasis added].

    Not only were the frontiers of India and Tibet discussed at the conference, but at no stage either at the conference or subsequently did the Chinese object; for the Chinese representative at Simla, Ivan Chen was fully aware of the McMahon Line. It would be travesty to suggest otherwise for he was present at the signing ceremony of the Simla Convention on 3rd July 1914. Discussions on the India-Tibet boundary between the British Indian government and Tibet took place from 15-31 January 1914. At the 4th meeting of the full conference on 17 February 1914, McMahon tabled a statement on the territorial limits of Tibet. In a map attached to the statement, the ‘historic frontiers’ of Tibet were shown for acceptance that later came to be known as the McMahon Line. There was no Chinese dissent. Discussions between Britain and Tibet followed and that resulted in an agreement which is fully recorded in the exchange of letters between McMahon and Lonchen Shatra. The draft Indo-Tibet boundary was formally confirmed on 24 and 25 March 1914 and submitted at the 7th full meeting of all the delegates on 22 April 1914.

    On 26 April 1914 Ivan Chen, the Chinese plenipotentiary, officially communicated the Chinese government stand to McMahon and stated:

    With the exception of Article 9 of the draft convention, we are prepared to take the main principles, embodied in the other articles, into favourable consideration.2 And just prior to the signing of the Simla Convention on 3 July 1914 by the British and Tibetan representatives, the Chinese government, once again, conveyed as follows:

    This government has several times stated that it gives its support to the majority of the articles of the Convention. The part it is unable to agree is that dealing with the question of the boundary.3

    So how could Zhou claim that the negotiations were held behind the back of the Chinese representative? Much is made by some scholars that the Simla Convention was not signed but only initialled by the Chinese delegate; thereby suggesting that it was not a legal document. The fact of the matter is that the Tibetan Plenipotentiary [Lonchen Shatra Paljor Dorje] put his full signature, as per Tibetan custom, for it is not possible to initial in the Tibetan language.4 The two maps of 27 April 1914 and 3 July 1914 showing the India-Tibet boundary bear the full signatures of the Tibetan Plenipotentiary. The map of 27 April 1914 bears the full signature of the Chinese Plenipotentiary, Ivan Chen. The British Plenipotentiary, McMahon initialled the map of 27 April 1914 and the Convention of 3 July 1914, but signed in full the map attached to the 3 July 1914 Convention as also the Trade Regulations of 3 July 1914.

    The above contention falls flat for even the Chinese PM Zhou never denied that the Tibetans did not sign the Simla Convention. Zhou’s objection was that Tibet had ‘no right to conclude treaties separately.’5

    The British government in a further effort to convince the Chinese government to accept the Simla Convention informed the Chinese government on 25 June 1914 that:

    As it is the patience of HMG is exhausted and they have no alternative but to inform the Chinese government that unless the Convention is signed before the end of this month, HMG will hold them- selves free to sign separately with Tibet.

    Similarly on 8 August 1914 the British Foreign Office told the Chinese Ambassador that:

    Chinese adherence or recognition was not necessary for the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 3 July 1914 and the boundary agreement of 25 March 1914 for it to be valid.

    Therefore there was no attempt by the British government to sign the Simla Convention ‘behind the backs’ of the Chinese delegate; for otherwise why would the British government go to all the trouble of informing the Chinese government?

    Later on 13 June 1914, the Chinese made fresh proposals to the British government on the Inner-Outer Tibet boundary. There was no mention of the India-Tibet boundary. Similarly, five years later, on 30 May 1919 the Chinese again made fresh proposals suggesting modifications of the Simla Convention. These again related to Inner Tibet and Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet and China. Significantly, there was no reference to India-Tibet boundary [McMahon Line]! Similarly the Chinese Foreign Office issued the China Year Book 1921-22 and in it published the Chinese official version of the Anglo-Chinese negotiations over Tibet. Here again there is no mention of the McMahon Line or that there was a dispute over it!

    From the time the Simla Convention of 1914 till 23rd January 1959, the Chinese government has never officially, in any document, ever challenged the McMahon Line. Even International Law is quite clear on the subject:

    If a state acquires knowledge of an act which it considers internationally illegal, and in violation, and nevertheless does not protest; this attitude implies a renunciation of such rights, provided that a protest would have been necessary to preserve a claim.6

    This view is further reinforced by the ICJ judgement in the Indonesia vs Malaysia Case.7 [See also ICJ judgement in the Prea Vihar case] And that is why Zhou rejected Nehru’s offer outright to take the dispute to the ICJ conveyed in his letter of 1 January 1963.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. WP II, p. 29.
    • 2. L/P&S/10/344.[File No.P.464/1913, Pt. 5] Proceedings of the 7th Meeting/Annexure 3. Chen to McMahon, 26 April 1914.
    • 3. L/P&S/10/718.[File No. P.3260/1917 Pt.6] John Jordan to British Foreign Office No. 250 dated 30 June 1914 contains memo from Wai Chiao Pu [Chinese Foreign Office] dated 29 June 1914 containing paragraph cited.
    • 4. Aitcheson Treaties, Vol. XIV, 1929 edition, pp.37-38.
    • 5. Report of the Officials of the government of the PRC and the government of India (Peking; 1961/Chinese Report), p.30.
    • 6. Oppenheim. International Law: A Treatise (London: Longman, Green & Co 1955), pp. 874-5.
    • 7. ICJ Reports 2002, pp. 685-6, para. 149.