Before arriving at any understanding on the Simla Convention, one needs to keep in mind that the Convention was mainly summoned by the British Raj to deliberate on the two major aspects of boundary settlement: one, the boundary between (the British) India and Tibet and two, the boundary between Tibet and China or the so called Inner and the Outer line. The Simla Convention, in effect, comprised of two separate border settlements. But the Chinese writings reflecting on the McMahon line do not make this distinction clear. Rather the Chinese position tends to collapse the two separate agreements into the broad question of Tibet. In their treatment of the Tibet issue they, however dwell on two, but integrated issues, one relates to the inner and outer zones and the other pertains to the status of Tibet. Significantly, if in the pre-1949, the boundary between Tibet and China acquired the primary focus, in the post-1949, the status of Tibet got the overwhelming attention.No more did the post-1949Chinese perspective was concerned with Tibet’s boundary with China after the former’s occupation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 1950 Chinese occupation of Tibet brought the reality of India sharing its border with China for the first time in history. From then on, Chinese legitimacy in Tibet loomed large in Chinese foreign and domestic policy and more specifically in India-China relations.
China’s major contestation with the McMahon line has been that it depicted the status of Tibet as independent in history,and thereby, this has kept the question of China’s legitimacy on Tibet unsettled. Quite inevitably, China stridently opposes the McMahon line. However, it may be argued that the McMahon line per se is not problematic for China. What riles the Chinese is the Tibet issue that is entangled with the McMahon line.
Chinese Views on the McMahon Line: The 1914 Position
The Simla Convention took place when the Manchu Government had fallen and was replaced by the unstable Republican government in Beijing. It was the Republican Government that appointed Chen Yifan as its representative to the Simla Convention. This is significant as it indicated China’s interest in defining the status of Tibet and deliberating on the settlement of the boundary between Tibet and China. In this endeavour, two distinct positions emerged from the Chinese side, one on the status of Tibet and the other on the status of the two zones or Inner and Outer Tibet.
On the status of Tibet, during the deliberations, it was argued by the Chinese side that Tibet could not be considered independent and that the territorial limits of Tibet as was in the Tang dynasty could not be the basis of Tibetan claims to independence. They pointed out that the reality had changed since the time Tibet was brought under the Manchu Government, particularly, the eastern part of Tibet (Eastern Kham)that saw direct Chinese control through the provincialisation of the region as Xikang. The Central Tibet was also regarded as under Chinese control merely on the basis of the appointment of the Chinese Ambans in the Tibetan court. Therefore, the Chinese side averred that the Republican Government after 1911 that followed the Qing precedence had “no right to alienate any part of the territory which it had inherited” from the Manchus.On the question of Inner and Outer zones, the Chinese side contended that the conceptualisation of the two zones- inner and outer- could not be accepted as any public record supporting such divisions did not exist in Chinese history.
Subsequently, however, during the deliberations on the McMahon line, Chen Yifan came up with Five-Point proposal that queerly had accepted the two zones in the same pattern as was done in the case of Mongolia. However, the Chinese side reserved their objection on the status of equality that was accorded to Tibet under the Simla Convention with the mention of Tibet as under suzerainty of China. But the British side tried to impress upon the Chinese that until Tibet signed it, its status would be that of an independent nation recognising no allegiance to China, thus, arguing for including Tibet as a party in the Convention. Chen reluctantly accepted the Article II of the McMahon draft that stated Tibet as being under the suzerainty, not sovereignty of China. Given the Chinese dissatisfaction on the suzerainty clause, they simply initialled the terms of the Convention in 27th April 1914. Not surprisingly, later China had declared it null and void as the demarcation between Tibet and China was not acceptable to it. Since China refused to ratify it, Simla Convention was ultimately signed by India and Tibet on 3rdJuly 1914.
What remains an ultimate truth and that which irks the Chinese is that the Simla Convention signed by the British and the Tibetans sealed the role of Tibet as an independent actor. It should also be indicated here that the Chinese objection was not on India and Tibet (the red line) but mainly on the Tibet-China boundary. This was simply because the Chinese could not have had any say on the India-Tibet boundary as it did not share a boundary with India. Further, the deliberations on the Simla Convention that went on for more than eight months suggest that the Chinese were not averse to discussion on Tibet-China border and were keen on reaching a solution. It was this eagerness that was evident in 1918-1919 when the Chinese side insisted to carry forward the talks with the British Raj but by which time British interest abated owing to the changing geo-political situation in the event of the First World War.
Chinese Views on the McMahon Line: The post-1949 Position
The Chinese views on the McMahon line in the post-1949 no longer cared about inner and outer line as by 1950 the PLA had invaded Lhasa and brought Tibet under Chinese direct control. The views now increasingly dwelt upon the status of Tibet raising the validity of Tibet’s role in the Simla Convention. The standard opposition to the McMahon line boiled down to the fact that Tibet was not independent and had no sovereign right to sign treaties. The McMahon line was therefore, illegal and that successive governments of China had never recognized it. Further, invoking Chinese nationalism, the People’s Republic of China argued that the McMahon line “was the product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibet Region of China and aroused the great indignation of the Chinese people.”Attention may be drawn to some analyses that indicate that till 2003 Chinese studies on the Simla Convention mainly focussed on the McMahon’s blue line or the border between inner and outer Tibet.The Chinese criticism mainly centered on the division of Tibet which in essence demonstrated foreign designs to split China by supporting Tibetan independence demands.
Chinese Views on the McMahon Line: The Post-2003
In the post-2003 period, a definite shift in China’s position on the border is perceptible with its rising claim on Arunachal Pradesh as China’s South Tibet. Evidently, this period also saw an increased attention in China on McMahon’s Red line showing the Tibet-India boundary. An article in China Tibetology commented that “In the last one hundred years, hostile powers abroad and Tibetan separatists at home have continued to revisit the Simla Conference and the McMahon line, in order to pursue Tibetan independence and occupy Chinese territory and the Tibetan separatists with McMahon line as basis, allowed the British to take away China’s territory of 90000 Sq. Km step by step”. 
Arguably, this shift in China’s position is consequent to Vajpayee’s recognition of the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ (TAR) as part of China in 2003, a deviation from the earlier position of ‘Tibet region of China’. The pre-2003 Indian position as ‘Tibet region of China’essentially blurred the distinction between the geographic Tibet and ethnographic Tibet and sought to encompass both the TAR and the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan Gansu and Yunnan in the notion of Tibet.This was in line with the historical notion of Tibet as well as in consonance with Dalai Lama’s position. The 2003 India’s recognition of the TAR corroborated an essentially Chinese position that of a truncated notion of Tibet. But more ominously the Chinese understanding of the TAR also included India’s Arunachal Pradesh. India’s recognition of the TAR,in effect, emboldened the Chinese to call Arunachal Pradesh as China’s South Tibet.Of course, there is a difference between India and China on what comprises the TAR as for India Arunachal Pradesh is Indian Territory. Further, India recognized the TAR as part of China in return for China’s recognition of Sikkim as part of India.
In fact, more than the 2003 India’s recognition of the TAR, it was the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles that actually emboldened the Chinese to heighten their claims, albeit unjustified. Attention may be drawn on the Article V and VII of the 2005 Agreement. The Article V stated “The two sides will take into account, inter alia, historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas.” And the Article VII stated “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” If populated settlements are not to be disturbed then it signified that no territorial adjustments could go in favor of China. Further, since the historical evidence is to be taken into consideration, this again puts the Chinese in back foot as they had no historical presence in the region. Therefore, post-2005, China increasingly began to make new claims on Tawang on the ground of history that the Sixth Dalai Lama was born there. They also argued that Tawang was important given deep Tibetan sentiments attached to the region. Here again, China’s claim on Tawang becomes contentious as its claims are based on first ascertaining its claims on Tibet as part of China historically. Therefore, this makes China all the more sensitive on the issue of Tibet.
There is little wonder that the Chinese studies on the border have started to build a case for China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh and consequently the red line demarcating India-Tibet border has gained attention among the Chinese scholars. At the political level, the Chinese leadership has ratcheted up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh by calling the entire state as ‘disputed’. Therefore, when Indian Prime Minister or Defence Minister visits Arunachal Pradesh, China does not leave any opportunity to show its displeasure and call it “irresponsibility” of the Indian government. This is a typical Chinese strategy to first pose the issue to the international audience as disputed and then make the issue a matter of contention for sovereignty between India and China. This strategy is similar to China’s handling of the Senkaku Island dispute with the Japanese where the Chinese first incrementally posed the Island as disputed and once the Island was branded disputed, the Chinese moved to the next stage of questioning the Japanese sovereignty over the Island and increasingly lay its own claim there.
The Contradictions in the Chinese Perspective on the McMahon Line
There are several contradictions in Chinese views on the McMahon line that in reality reveal the hollowness of their claim on Arunachal Pradesh. First of all, the very fact that the Chinese side participated at the Simla Convention for more than eight months and had sent the Chinese representative, Chen Yifan to deliberate on the status of Tibet and demarcate the border between Tibet and China suggests that China did not regard the Simla Convention as illegal. In fact, Yuan Shih-kai was “sincerely anxious” to arrive at an amicable arrangement on the question of Tibet. In principle, China had no major objection on the terms of the agreement except on the exact division marking the Tibet-China border. However, China repudiated the agreement soon after.
This sudden U-turn could be explained by the rationale of domestic political struggle between the northern Beijing government of Yuan Shih-Kai and the southern Nanjing government of Chiang Kai-shek.Though after the fall of the Manchus, Republican government was set up, in reality China was disunited with several Warlords ruling over different regions of the country. In Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek condemned Beijing’s acceptance of the Outer and Inner Tibet and began to build the rhetoric that China could be saved from dismemberment only under the leadership of the Nanjing government. Indeed as Hsiao Ting Lin’s insightful study reveals that the Nationalist regime played “ethno-political games” by “utilizing the Tibetan agenda” to reinforce and legitimise Nanjing’s role as the true unifier of China.In other words, Tibet emerged as a national issue owing to the competing claims for leadership among the divisive groups controlling China.
Further, China has settled the border with Burma based on the same McMahon line. This squarely validates the McMahon line and questions the Chinese logic of calling it an imperialistic relic. In this regard, Zhou Enlai, in his letter to Nehru (23 Jan 1959) acknowledged “one cannot, of course, fail to take cognizance of the great and encouraging changes: India and Burma, which are concerned in this line, have attained independence successively and become states friendly with China”…the Chinese government “finds it necessary to take a more or less realistic attitude towards the McMahon line.” Again during his 1960 visit to China, Zhou Enlai, said that the territorial dispute was “an issue of a limited and temporary nature” connected to something else, that is, Tibet. He called for “an overall settlement.” Also, in a letter (4 November 1962), Zhou conceded to Nehru that in the Eastern sector, the Line of Actual Control coincided in the main with the so-called McMahon line. In a meeting between Chen Yi (foreign minister) and Krishna Menon (defence minister) on the sidelines of the Geneva conference on Laos in July 1962, the Chinese side said that “they were not thinking of disturbing the McMahon line. What was important to them was to gain clear title to the territory through which they had modernized the road to Xinjiang.”From this statement it becomes apparent that the Chinese had no real issue with the McMahon line but their principal concern squarely centered on Tibet.
The present Chinese dispensation argues that they had accepted McMahon line with Myanmar (Burma) as a gesture of benevolence to the smaller power. If that is so, then it could be argued that why such benevolence is not discerned in China’s disputes with Vietnam over the disputed Islands in the South China Sea.
Vulnerability of China’s Position on Tibet
The reasons for Chinese intransigence on the McMahon line are not unfathomable.Tibet declared itself independent in 1913. Sir Henry McMahon had involved Tibet in the Simla Convention based on this existing reality. Tibet was thus accorded treaty making powers and sovereignty rights. Further, the 1914 Convention also validated that India did not share a border with China but with Tibet and hence the Convention had two parts, one to demarcate the border between Tibet and China and the other between Tibet and British India. This also indicated why the British did not deem it necessary to involve Chen, Yifan on discussion of the India–Tibet border. Both the above facts expose the hollowness of Chinese claims on Tibet. This exposure lies at the root of China’s vulnerability on the Tibet occupation.
China’s position on Tibet is indeed vulnerable merely because Tibet was never a province of Imperial China. When under the rising threat of the imperialistic forces Xinjiang was turned into a province in 1884 and Taiwan in 1887 by the Manchu government, Tibet escaped such a fate thanks to the Great Game of the 19th century, and, more particularly, the British aim of using Tibet as a buffer between its domains and advancing czarist Russia. Inevitably, in the post-1949 era, Mao’s China had to invade Tibet to bring it under the People’s Republic of China (PRC). What this essentially meant was that China had no legitimacy over Tibet. And it was primarily to remove the tag of an invader that China signed the 1954 Agreement with India. It was all the more necessary to gain India’s approval on China’s occupation as the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan was recognized in the United Nations, not the PRC.
China’s vulnerability was further accentuated by the Cold War politics and the threat of the American forces using Pakistan as a base for operations against China. The role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Tibet is well documented that was however, not intended to support Tibet’s independence but mainly to use Tibet for creating tactical pressure on China. This spelt a formidable challenge for China as with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the Cold War had reached its northeastern frontier.
However, by far the most important reason for China’s vulnerability on Tibet was caused by the persistence of the Nationalist Guomindang challenge on China in the minority-frontier regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.This critical issue does not figure in any studies on India-China border so far. Hsiao-ting Lin’s work on China’s frontiers has thrown light on the role of the Nationalists in reviving former ties with ethnic minority communities to fight the Communist in the post-1949 era. The Nationalists not only collaborated with the CIA but also sought the help of Tibetan Buddhist prelates who had fled to Taiwan in 1949 with the Communist takeover of Tibet.  This was the gravest challenge for the nascent Communist state.
Arguably, this vulnerability was specifically due to the strategic geo-political location of Tibet. Right from the 1890s, the reformist writings of Qing China echoed the strategic location of Tibet, noting that Sichuan would be rendered defenseless if Tibet was lost. By identifying Sichuan as a “courtyard” and Tibet as a “screen” or a wall, the writings articulated the importance of the periphery in the defense of the core.
This vulnerability drove the Chinese to construct an all-weather road through Aksai Chin region to consolidate its control over Western Tibet and Xinjiang. Notably, Xinjiang abutting Central Asia in the past had witnessed Soviet occupation of the Yili region. Arthur Lall notes that Xinjiang grew in importance by 1951 with the identification of the region as China’s nuclear testing site at Lop Nor. Therefore, the construction of the 2,143-km road linking Yecheng County in Kashgar prefecture in Xinjiang to Lhatse in Western Tibet was mooted in 1951 to increase accessibility and connectivity.
As noted above by signing the 1954 agreement with Beijing recognizing Tibet as part of China, India sealed China’s legitimacy over Tibet. This was a huge unilateral concession, made by India without a reciprocal recognition of the Indo-Tibetan border. Once India recognized Tibet as part of China, China then used that as a rationale to officially demarcate an Indo-Tibetan border. It was at this juncture that Tibet got entangled with the general India-China dispute over borders. More importantly, it suggested a Chinese belligerence that led to deterioration in Sino-Indian relations. The 1962 War happened because India had questioned China’s intrusion in Aksai Chin which India regarded as its own region. But China interpreted this as India operating in collusion with the US to subvert Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Nonetheless, China could not end its vulnerability in Tibet, despite defeating India in the 1962 War. This is merely because Tibet remained entangled with the differing perspectives of India and China on the border.
In 1988, India-China relations normalized only when India had agreed to keep aside the border issue. China, however, implied this normalization as India’s acceptance of non-interference on the Tibet issue. But normalization meant keeping aside the contention, not resolving it. Any resolution of the border would also require resolution of the Tibet issue. Therefore, vulnerability for China on Tibet continues.
The internationalization of the Tibetan issue under the Dalai Lama further revived Chinese vulnerabilities. Due to the rising vulnerability China entered into talks with the Tibetan envoys. But as is well known, the talks failed when the Dalai Lama refused to accept the Chinese position on Tibet as being historically part of China.
However, the 1959 revolt and the series of later revolts in 1987, 2008 and current Self Immolations have all invalidated China’s sovereign claim on Tibet. In fact, the Tibet question is kept alive and threatens China in four principal ways:
- It poses China as an aggressor;
- It exposes the truth that Tibet has historically never been a province of China;
- It keeps China’s periphery vulnerable;
- It demonstrates the failure of Chinese nationalism and the rhetoric of the unity of five races weaved to buttress China’s claim on the non-Han regions and thereby threatens the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
Will China accept the McMahon line?
Sinologists like Dawa Norbu contend that had it not been for the Tibetan revolt of 1959, the India-China border dispute could have been resolved through negotiations.The physical existence of the McMahon had never been problematic for China but its legal foundations were. For China Tibet is a strategic frontier. The security of the Chinese core is contingent on securing the periphery, so Tibet has to be part of China. The reason for China’s present belligerence on the border with India is Tibet. Given the Tibet issue at the heart of the India-China bilateral relations, resolution on the border is contingent on the resolution of the Tibet issue. Neither the 1962 War nor the normalization of relations post -1988 has resolved the Tibet issue.
Rather the continued Tibetan unrest is testimony to the unresolved status of Tibet. In fact, from a purely religious and cultural identity until the 1950s, Tibet incrementally acquired a decisively political identity through its struggle against the PRC.The rise of Tibetan nationalism is incredibly rooted in Chinese minority policies. However, resolution of Tibet issue today is far more problematic than it had been earlier because of its enmeshment with Chinese nationalism, the bedrock of CCP’s legitimacy and survival.
Post the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Communist ideology lost popular appeal. More specifically, with the 1978 economic reform strategy, China ceased to be a socialist economy. With the economic base transformed the superstructure no longer could hold the communist ideology. In this context of the erosion of Communism, the Chinese leadership resurrected nationalism to legitimise the Communist Party rule. The crux of this new nationalism was to retrieve China’s glorious past and catapult it to the rank of a super power status. To avenge the century of humiliation that the West had inflicted upon it, Chinese nationalism harped on retrieving lost land and protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Chinese territories. The CCP became the vanguard of this new nationalism. Tibet thus became integral to the narrative of the CCP’s new nationalism. Given the geopolitical location of Tibet and its significance to China’s strategic frontiers, Tibet represents a national mission. When ideology is enmeshed with strategic interest, the combination is lethal and possibilities of resolutions are distant. In the context of Chinese nationalism pitted against Tibetan nationalism, the resolution of the Tibet issue is difficult. With the Tibet question unresolved, the fate of the McMahon line is left in a ‘hopeless tangle’.
Quoted from Parshotam Mehra, The McMahon Line and After (Delhi: Macmillan, 1974), p. 209 (“British statement on the limits of Tibet”, Annexure 1 in No. 200 in Foreign, October 1914, Proceedings, 134-396).
Ibid., p. 210.
Ibid., p. 216.
Ibid., p. 233.
 Cheng Ruisheng, “The Sino-Indian Boundary Talks and Its Future Prospect,” Foreign Affairs Journal, No. 71(March 2004), p.70.
D.S.Rajan, “China: Why Scholars Are Revisiting the Tibet-India Border fixed by the British-Tibet Treaty (1914)? C3S Paper No.27, July 8, 2007, http://www.c3sindia.org/tibet/104
Quoted in ibid.
 Parshotam Mehra, The McMahon Line and After.
 Hsiao-ting Lin, Tibet and Nationalist China’s Frontier: Intrigues and Ethnopolitcs, 1928-49 (Toronto: UBC Press, 2006).
Cheng Ruisheng, “The Sino-Indian Boundary Talks and Its Future Prospect,” p 71.
DawaNorbu, “Tibet in Sino-Indian Relations: The Centrality of Marginality,”Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 11 (November 1997), p. 1088.
 Arthur Lall, The Emergence of Modern India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 156.
 Hsiao-ting Lin, Modern China’s Ethnic Frontiers: A Journey to the West (London: Routledge, 2011).
DawaNorbu, “Tibet in Sino-Indian Relations: The Centrality of Marginality.”