Three important themes in International Relations or more precisely in geopolitics are the ideas of Realism, Imperialism and Nationalism. These three can be considered to be centered on the nation; a central actor in their interactions. A common thread which runs through the tree is the idea of self interest in a situation which can be deemed anarchic. It is in the background of the three isms that the Simla Agreement of 1914 between British India, Tibet and Republican China can be situated. Many would argue that such an understanding simply generalizes the whole issue, which is true to a certain extent as these three dehumanizes individuals and communities alike, turning them into pawns in the hands of greater powers. The emphasis on these three also denies agency to certain important elements which are beyond the purview of a state. However, seeing the Simla Agreement in this context is an important way and one of the ways which helps us in a better understanding of the dynamics of the historic convention that was signed. This understanding has also shaped the present day interactions between India and People’s Republic of China. Both are post colonial nation states in the making and do strongly adhere to the principles of the “three isms”. Furthermore, the outcome of the Simla Agreement; the McMahon Line is deeply steeped in this tradition. The dispute between the two over territory in modern day Arunachal Pradesh, more precisely in Tawang is strongly colored with notions of the “three isms”. While India mentions about the demarcation of the border between Tibet and British India then emerging from the Convention, the Chinese have termed it as being null and void as they had not signed it.
China further sees it under the screening of imperialism as practiced by Britain then. Moreover, to argue their case for claims over the region south of the McMahon line, the PRC in the late 80’s had deployed strong sentiments of nationalism to put their case forward. This is seen through the publication of historical materials and memoirs in Tibetan and Chinese by a number of Tibetan historians and former aristocrats who had ties to the region in question. These were published by the Tibet branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which were too whip up Tibetan emotions in China over the territory which they historically claimed as being part of Tibet. Historians and Aristocrats such as Chabel Tsetan Phuntsog, Lhalu Tsewang Dorjee, Thubten Chopel etc were assigned to write about the Tawang area, perspectives which were critical of the Indian takeover of land and also the lining of the areas to the Chinese nation since historical times. In all of these writings, they have been portrayed as strong, patriotic and nationalistic figures for China. However, the Chinese Communist narrative on these individuals comprises of negative ideas. From the sense of nationalism in modern China, regarding the Simla Agreement and its results, an argument can be constructed that the claims over Tawang is a way to delete the status of Tibet as a nation, which was quite independent in the past and had theoretically settled its borders with British India then. Hence, the Simla Agreement can be understood as a part of history which China desires to change in its favour.
Moving to the period in which the Simla Agreement had been signed, one needs to understand the context in which the Convention was held. It is extremely important to know the historical background to any event as it does not occur in isolation. The Simla Convention was signed on the eve of the First World War, in which Great Britain and its colonies would play a highly important role. Therefore for the British, they were faced with an urgency to resolve the “Tibet problem”, secure a buffer zone between British India and China and ensure peace and stability in the region. As the leading imperial power of the day, the British was strongly inclined to save their precious Indian empire, which was the jewel in the crown. Tibet was seen as a problem as it was strategically important and moreover did not fit in the regular Westphalian idea of a nation state, which had repercussions in British India’s Himalayan and North East Frontier Region areas (NEFA) which shared strong cultural and religious ties with Tibet. It was this realist paradigm of security and sovereignty of the British in these regions which drove its policies towards Tibet. Furthermore it was able to do this as its power capabilities were much higher than the others. The other players, China and Tibet were also experiencing strong vigours of nationalism, seen in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and the modernizing process initiated by the 13th Dalai Lama. Both were late comers in the process of modern nationhood, in which the Tibetans subsequently lagged behind.
The Simla Agreement, hence can be observed as a platform on which the three powers could stake their claims. For instance, the Dalai Lama had instructed the Tibetan plenipotentiary Lonchen Shatra to ask for the right for Tibet to look after its own internal affairs, while regarding foreign matters, the important ones would be in consultation with the British. Two highly important demands were that no Chinese Amban or official should be posted in Tibet and Tibetan territories should include all the Tibetan speaking areas to Dartsedo in the east and Kokonor in the northeast. Lonchen Shatra also asked for the recognition of the independence of Tibet and the Dalai Lama to be acknowledged as the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet. These are clear indications of the Tibetans exercising a strong sense of nationalism then. However, as it goes with realism in International Relations, the most powerful state exercises considerable advantages over the others, the British tried harmonizing the conflicting positions offered by Tibet and China. This was done through dividing Tibet into two parts; Outer and Inner Tibet, the former comprising of Central, Western Tibet and also parts of Chamdo, which ironically corresponds to present day Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The other part would include Amdo province and parts of Kham. Outer Tibet was supposed to remain completely autonomous, with no interference from China and it would be under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Inner Tibet would be under the nominal control of the Chinese. This was specifically done to create a buffer in the form of Tibet to safeguard the precious Indian empire of the British.
Under such a framework, the wishes of the community residing in these regions were not taken under consideration, which is one of the central elements of realism, which dehumanizes the territory that is under consideration. Imperial interests of the great powers especially of Great Britain always stood in the way of Tibetan independence. The British never withdrew the idea of Chinese suzerainty over the Tibetans. An example can be given of the Chefoo Convention of 1876, where the agreement was made between the British and the Qing, with no involvement of the Tibetans whatsoever. This is clearly an indication of the recognition of Chinese authority in Tibet by the British. Even in the early 20th century when Britain was dealing more directly with the Tibetans, the recognition of Chinese formal authority in Tibet was never withdrawn. The idea of Chinese authority in Tibet can be specifically deemed as a fiction that Great Britain formulated to partly appease the Chinese; which was highly important for trade and economic growth. This was however rejected by the Tibetans themselves on several occasions. For instance, a Russian explorer Prejwalski, who had acquired a Chinese passport in 1878 to visit Lhasa, took it for granted that the Dalai Lama was subservient to the court in Beijing. The Tibetan authorities were much annoyed by this incident and simply refused entry to Prejwalski. In 1886, a British expedition led by Colman Macauley tried entering Tibet carrying a Chinese passport, which was denied by the Tibetan authorities. A much stronger show of power was done by Tibetans in the same year when they had sent aid in the form of military assistance to Sikkim, whose ruler had sought aid from China and Tibet to drive out the British. This act by the Lhasa government can be seen as a defensive positioning being adopted by the Tibetans in lieu of the expanding British power in the subcontinent.
The British however had subsequently gained a decisive victory in Sikkim turning it into their protectorate and also signing a treaty in 1890 and on trade regulations in 1893. These, especially the trade regulations were not accepted by the Tibetans as these had been concluded between the British and the Qing government. This can be interpreted in terms of a policy of realism adopted by Lhasa with regard to the fear of British encroachment over their spheres of influence. During the period of 1985-1905, China’s influence over Tibet had reached to a minimal as it was involved in the Sino Japanese war of 1894-95, in which it suffered humiliating defeats. These are strong instances of Tibet and Tibetans exercising a considerable degree of agency in the geopolitical situation of that period as well as adopting policies which can also be deemed as being realist or nationalist. Towards the end of the 19th century, Tibet turned into one of the sites of the so called “Great Game” between Russia, China and Britain. However the role and the agency exerted by Tibet needs to be emphasised whether as a participant or an object of the Great Game. The Russian involvement in Tibet started with the Buryats and Kalmyks especially through the individual Agvan Dorjiev who was also a debating partner of the 13th Dalai Lama and was considered to be the liaison between Lhasa and the Tsarist government. In 1900-01, the reported visit of a Tibetan delegation to St. Petersburg truly alarmed the British as they felt it to be a major threat to their precious Indian empire. This game was further complicated by the visit of Prince Henry d Orleans of France to Tibet in 1888 who declared that France was ready to have diplomatic ties with Tibet. The French were already a power entrenched in South East Asia and seen as a threat to the British.
The British were further alarmed when rumours of a secret agreement between China and Russia on Tibet and China’s integrity was brought up, which coupled with the fact that the Tibetans refused to comply with the trade regulations of 1893 led to Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India to initiate a forward policy in Tibet. This was seen in the form of the Younghusband mission, which can be interpreted more as an invasion of Tibet by the British in 1904. The Tibetans were subsequently defeated and with the 13th DalaI Lama going into exile, the British imposed a treaty on the defeated Tibetans, with no intervention from the Qing dynasty. However, in 1906 the British signed a treaty with China bringing back the notion of China’s suzerainty over Tibet. This was supplemented with a forward policy by Beijing with regard to Tibet in the form of the imperialist machinations by General Zhao Er Feng, who in 1905-06 invaded large parts of Eastern Tibet and by 1910, the Chinese troops had entered Lhasa with the Dalai Lama going into exile in India. During this period, a more realist step was taken by the Chinese through bringing and settling Chinese population in Zayul, near Rima on the Tibetan side of the Lohit River. This along with the planting of boundary flags as far south as Walong where the Lohit joined the Lepuk River rattled the British authorities in India. In 1911, the Chinese authorities had sent officials to the villages of the Mishmis; a local tribe in the then North East Frontier Region (NEFA) of British India, distributed certificates pledging submission to Zhao er feng. These rang the alarm bells for the British authorities in India, thus wanting them to resolve the borders between British India and Tibet especially in the NEFA. With the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911, the 13th Dalai Lama’s subsequent return to Tibet offered the Tibetan government to exercise strong rights in removing the Qing officials and soldiers from Tibetan soil.
Furthermore in 1913, the Dalai Lama did proclaim Tibet as being an independent entity, which however was not recognized by others. It is in this background that the Simla convention of 1914 needs to be studied and understood. The Convention can be deemed as a realist move by Britain to secure the Indian empire, while the aspirations of Tibet can be deemed as bordering of nationalism, while China tried to reclaim its imperial ambitions of the past. The Simla Convention along with demarcating the Indo Tibetan border in the NEFA as the McMahon line also led to the administrative division of Tibet into Inner and Outer Tibet. While Outer Tibet would exercise considerable autonomy under the Dalai Lama, still Chinese suzerainty was emphasised. It is in the creation of Inner Tibet that strand of realism emerges as the cultural and demographic factor of these regions were not taken into consideration. Furthermore, the British truly wanted the resolution of the Indo Tibetan border as Great Britain was expecting to be engulfed in an upcoming war with Germany. The real politic pursuit by the Tibetans is seen to be played out in the Rongbatsa agreement of 1918. The Great 13th Dalai Lama, as an assertive act had sent troops in 1917 and reversed the troops in hostilities along the Tibet-China border. However, the British being committed to the resolution of the Sino Tibetan issue, it authorized its Consul Eric Teichmann to mediate between the Chinese and the Tibetans, thus signing the Treaty of Rongbatsa. Assertion of Tibetan nationalism was also seen in the 1930’s when it was involved in the disputes between Beri monastery and Dhargyal monastery in Eastern Tibet, where eventually the Chinese warlords and the Kuomintang government were also involved. Hence, in conclusion the Simla Agreement can be understood or contextualized in the discourse of imperialism, realism and nationalism and also can be termed as an event which brought certain degrees of agency to the Tibetans in the immediate geopolitics of that period.
Rahul, Ram (2000) March of Central Asia, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, India.
Arpi, Claude (2012) 1962 and the Mc Mahon Line Saga, Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, India.
Khan, Chandrakanta (1997) Trans Himalayan Politics – China, Britain and Tibet, Y K Publishers, Agra, India.