The Myth of the McMahon Line
The McMahon Line is notorious since India unilaterally—and with some help from the United States and zero agreement from the PRC—asserts that the McMahon Line is the indisputable boundary between India and the PRC in India’s Northeast.
The McMahon Line is a hot-button issue for Tibetan nationalists as well, since Great Britain negotiated it directly with the government of Tibet, so supporting the McMahon Line delivers the dual benefits of supporting the narrative of the existence of a recognized independent Tibetan government and giving aid and comfort to the Tibetan diaspora’s Indian patron.
The actual situation and significant consequence of the McMahon Line is complicated but, I believe, accessible thanks to some deft historical research by several scholars and despite some litigating by Indian and Tibetan partisans.
Having said that, I welcome correction and instruction, so in this post I’m going to lay out the arguments behind the assertions in my SCMP piece in greater detail. For sourcing, I lean on Neville Maxwell India’s China War (Maxwell was the Times of London’s India correspondent during the 1962 war and a key figure in revisionist analysis of the roots of the war), and an unpublished dissertation by Dr. Heather Spence, British policy and the ‘development’ of Tibet, 1912-1933, that I found very informative on the diplomatic and geopolitical context of the Great Britain-Tibet relationship pre-and-post-Simla.
The story of the McMahon Line is inseparable from—but not identical with—the story of the Simla Convention negotiations between Great Britain—represented by Henry McMahon–China, and Tibet at the hill town of Simla in India in 1914.
First off, the key and most interesting aspects of the Simla Convention are both the de facto independence of Tibet (which had expelled the Chinese by 1914 and had a government in Lhasa under the Dalai Lama with effective control over much of the area of Tibet)…and Great Britain’s consistent and overriding interest in denying de jure independence for Tibet.
Great Britain was obsessed, perhaps unhealthily so, with playing the “Great Game”: forestalling the southern creep of Russian influence in Asia toward India.
In India’s northeast, this translated into the desire to establish Tibet as a buffer state that was pro-British and secure.
“Pro-British” was not an issue in 1914, since the Dalai Lama at the time was an ardent Anglophile who had spent several years of exile in the sympathetic company of the British administrator Charles Bell.
“Secure” was the problem. The Raj had no interest in rolling the geopolitical dice by endorsing Tibetan independence and with it the possibility that a hostile new regime and adverse set of circumstances might bring the Chinese or Russians into Tibet and up to India’s doorstep; but it also lacked the will or capacity to assert and enforce a unilateral protectorate over Tibet.
It was deemed necessary that, if and when China emerged from the chaos of the 1911 Revolution as a power-projecting state, it would acquiesce to the existence of an autonomous Tibetan government that had a special relationship with Great Britain.
So Henry McMahon summoned Tibetan and Chinese representatives to Simla to order the relations between Tibet and China, and between Tibet and Great Britain. The Tibetans were eager to attend; the Chinese were compelled by McMahon’s threat that he would conclude a bilateral agreement with Tibet if they didn’t show up.
One can speculate—and I will—that the Chinese showed up primarily to stall and throw a spanner in the works. Simla acknowledged China’s role—and also gave China the chance to act as the spoiler, by participating in the negotiations but refusing to endorse the outcome.
The core of the British agenda at Simla was to partition Tibet into “Inner” and “Outer” Tibet as the Russians had just done with “Inner” and “Outer” Mongolia. Inner Tibet, the parts abutting Sichuan in which Chinese control was stronger, would be incorporated into China. Outer Tibet—the big part, the strategic part, the highlands run out of Lhasa by the Dalai Lama—would not become independent: it would be an autonomous government lacking control over its foreign affairs.
Autonomy, but autonomy of a specific type was preferred. McMahon came up with the idea of “suzerainty”.
“Suzerainty” served multiple purposes. By invoking a Chinese aegis, “suzerainty” was a legal fig leaf providing diplomatic cover to Great Britain, which had concluded an agreement with Russia in 1907 that promised neither state would conduct direct negotiations with the Tibetan government. At the same time, “suzerainty” was intended to forestall any claims from Russia and other nations that “Outer Tibet” was part of China and therefore subject to the Open Door policy declaring that the rights and access of one state in China were to be enjoyed by all.
But most importantly, “suzerainty” was used to assert that, by China’s leave, Tibet would be autonomous, but still conduct its foreign affairs independently with respect to only to one, and only one country: Great Britain.
So, in essence, the Simla Convention was designed to secure a special relationship between Great Britain and Tibet with Chinese endorsement to compensate for the fact that Great Britain lacked the resolve to secure Tibet as a formal British protectorate.
The Chinese, however, did not endorse. The Chinese representative initialed the draft agreement, but the Chinese government withheld authorization to sign.
To explain its refusal, the Chinese government placed the onus on the issue of boundary delimitation.
The Chinese foreign affairs office formally notified Great Britain that “This Government has several times stated that it gives its support to the majority of the articles of the Convention. The part which it is unable to agree to is that dealing with the question of boundary. [Spence, pg. 36]
I expect it was McMahon’s fallback plan from the gitgo to try to take in the bilateral what China refused to cede in the trilateral.
McMahon had been instructed by London not to sign bilaterally with just Tibet, but he decided to exceed his instructions, concluding an agreement with Tibet that finessed the Chinese non-participation in the Simla Convention with a declaration that China, by not signing, had simply forfeited the privileges for China negotiated in the Convention.
According to this formula, Great Britain and Tibet would execute the parts of the Convention that pertained to them—mainly diplomatic (Tibet would not enter into agreements with any other foreign power without Britain’s OK) and trade. The agreement waived all tariffs between British India and Tibet, a piece of free-trade maneuvering that advantaged the Raj but caused no small fiscal problems and resentment of the Tibetan government (which had relied on taxing exports of wool to India for a significant part of its revenue) in the 1920s.
At Simla the Chinese representative, Ivan Chen, was excluded from these discussions, unaware of the content of the bilateral undertakings, and invited to go to a separate room while British and Tibetan representatives signed them. Unsurprisingly, he declared the Chinese government would not recognize any agreement concluded bilaterally between Great Britain and Tibet, a declaration that was repeated by the Chinese Minister in London.
No one regarded the gains of the bilateral track as an adequate replacement for a trilateral pact.
It was understood by all concerned—Great Britain, India, Tibet, China, indeed, McMahon himself—Simla was a bust. McMahon reported to London:
It is with great regret that I leave India without having secured the formal adherence of the Chinese Government to a Tripartite Agreement…The fact is that the negotiations at Simla…broke down… [Maxwell, 49]
Mindful that without China’s formal participation the agreement at Simla was in conflict with the 1907 convention with Russia, Great Britain did not publish the Simla Convention. Instead, it belatedly took notice of the negotiations in its official compendium, Aitchison’s Treaties and Sanads 1929 Edition Volume XIV, with the terse remark: “The convention was initialled and sealed on 3 July 1914. As this Convention was not signed and ratified by all three parties, the current Chinese Government does not consider itself bound by the terms of this convention.”
As for the McMahon Line, it was a separate bilateral sideshow to the main issue of trying to demarcate a border between Tibet and China a.k.a. “Inner” and “Outer” Tibet trilaterally at Simla.
Prior to and contemporaneously with the tripartite negotiations on the Simla Convention, the British and Tibetan teams had conducted bilateral discussions in Delhi and Simla as to the position of the boundary between India and Tibet.
Since Great Britain regarded Tibet as de facto autonomous in its dealings with Great Britain (and presumably hopeful the special relationship would be shortly confirmed at Simla as de jure) , no effort was made during the negotiations to involve China, with rather disastrous implications for the future.
In 1962, India would be facing not the Tibetan government across the McMahon Line but the People’s Republic of China, which with very good reason considered itself in no way bound as a successor to any previous border negotiations.
With equally disastrous consequences for Nehru and India in 1962, McMahon, instead of drawing the boundary in the foothills of the Himalayas, drew it along the crestline, in easy reach of attackers from the north but virtually indefensible from the south.
The key horsetrading occurred in the matter of the “Tawang Tract”. Tawang was an indisputable locus of Tibetan control, with a big monastery dominating a fertile valley at the southern reaches of the Tibetan plateau and also dominating, in a less than admirable way, a local population of ethnic Manpo serfs exploited in the most dire fashion.
By virtue of its riverine topography, Tawang straddled an important trade route between Lhasa and northern India and was therefore seen as a potential military threat/power point that the Raj wished to control.
In the bilateral British-Tibetan boundary discussions, the western terminus of McMahon’s line crept north until it included all of Tawang. The Tibetan delegation was apparently not happy about this state of affairs but accepted it as the price of British support and with the reassurance that they could continue to tax Tawang despite its inclusion into British India. The Indian-Tibetan boundary agreement was enshrined in an 8 mile to the inch map and held in two copies, one by the British and one in Lhasa.
The McMahon Line was introduced into the Simla negotiations through the back door, as it were, by presenting it as a fait accompli on the large-scale map intended for attachment to the Simla Convention as a continuation of the crucial line defining the boundary between Inner and Outer Tibet which had indeed been the subject of genuine tripartite negotiations.
Interestingly, the British and Tibetans also bilaterally extended the boundary to enclose Aksai Chin, a barren waste to the west of Tibet, as Tibetan (not Indian) territory in order to give Tibet the incentive or responsibility to keep the Russians out of that sensitive strategic area.
Ivan Chen initialed the treaty and map—the sole, shaky basis for India’s subsequent insistence that China had accepted the McMahon Line—but was rebuked by Peking for exceeding his instructions and, as noted above, declined to sign the final Convention.
At the time, as recorded in Aitchison, it was universally understood that China had rejected the Simla Convention, and that this was a problem that overshadowed whatever informal gains had accrued to Britain through the bilateral agreements with Tibet. We know this thanks to documents demonstrating that both the Tibetans and Great Britain clung to the Simla “suzerainty” gambit, and that they labored fruitlessly for decades to get China back to the negotiating table to validate the policy.
The key concern was that China, by refusing to sign the tripartite Simla Convention, had refused to countenance the Inner/Outer Tibet arrangement that would have fixed the Sino-Tibetan border, assured the autonomy and security of the government in Lhasa– and justified to Lhasa Great Britain’s extensive, unique, and increasingly onerous diplomatic and trading privileges in “Outer Tibet”.
Immediately subsequent to the Simla negotiations, 1915, internal British correspondence characterized the Simla Convention as “invalid” [Spence, pg. 59] and, in the context of the Great War, without basis as an obligation for arming Lhasa to forestall Chinese mischief. In 1919, the Tibetan chief minister evocatively expressed his concern that Tibet would find itself abandoned “like tiny fledglings on an open plain.” [Spence, pg. 48]
As for China, instead of returning to negotiations and acquiescing to “suzerainity” over a virtually independent Tibet–an arrangement it was perhaps only pretending to countenance before it backed out at Simla, when China was flat on its back and the Raj was at its zenith—it preferred to mass troops on Tibet’s Sichuan frontier and agitate for direct engagement with Lhasa.
It soon became apparent that China was, shall we say, the “rising power” in the Himalayan regions, the British were the “declining power”, and it became a matter of considerable anxiety in Lhasa that China was piling up troops in the eastern marches and the Tibetan government was being forced to confront these forces without any significant military or diplomatic support from Great Britain.
Faced with niggardly and tardy provision of guns and ammunition by Great Britain, Lhasa began playing footsie with Russia and Japan via Mongolia to pursue the supply of arms; amazingly, Great Britain was able to veto these initiatives thanks to the special position in Tibetan security affairs it had negotiated bilaterally at Simla.
The Tibetan government came to understand that the Simla Convention and the idea that Britain had the sincerity and capacity to protect Tibet against China were, at best, on life support.
By 1936, a British political officer reported on the mood in Lhasa as follows:
They regarded the adjustment of the Tibet-Indian boundary as part and parcel of the general adjustment and determination of boundaries contemplated in the 1914 Convention. If they could, with our help, secure a definite Sino-Tibetan boundary they would of course be glad to observe the Indo-Tibetan border as defined in 1914… [Maxwell, 59]
With Simla moribund, the McMahon Line was never demarcated on the ground and as a result it never acquired any customary force as a precedent.
Notably, there were no serious efforts to assert effective British rule in the remote tribal reaches of the McMahon line, or even over Tawang until the 1930s. Then, with the Japanese menace replacing Russia as the focus of the Great Britain’s anxieties concerning northern encroachment, the Raj adopted a policy which might be characterized as “F*ck Tibet”: unilaterally extending British control northwards without reference to the original and unrealized vision of backing Tibet in return for the trade and territorial privileges that Great Britain had negotiated two decades before.
At this point, Olaf Caroe enters the picture. Caroe was a key official in the British Raj and an enthusiastic geopolitical strategist. In 1935, Tibetan authorities in Tawang arrested a British spy/botanist and the government in Lhasa made the decision, unwise in retrospect, to issue a protest to the British authorities and thereby bring Lhasa’s claims to Tawang to Caroe’s attention.
In response, Caroe pulled off a rather notorious subterfuge in order to buttress the British claim to Tawang: he published the Simla Convention for the first time in 1938 with a note misrepresenting that it had included settlement of the border (and alienation of Tawang); and he arranged for the publication of official Survey of India maps that, for the first time, showed the McMahon Line as the official boundary. To advance the narrative, he also corresponded with commercial atlas publishers to put the McMahon Line on their maps as well.
In a telling indication of Caroe’s jiggery-pokery, to avoid the awkward question of why he was first publishing the Simla Convention twenty-four years after the fact in 1938, he instead arranged for the surreptitious printing of a spurious back-dated edition of Aitchison, deleting the original note about the Chinese government’s non-signature, and replacing it with a lengthy note stating, quite falsely, that “The [Simla] Convention included a definition of boundaries…”
Since 1) the McMahon Line had been concluded in secret bilateral negotiations between Tibet and Great Britain outside the Convention and 2) the Chinese had officially refused to recognize any bilateral agreement, boundary or otherwise, between Tibet and Great Britain and 3) had declined to sign the Simla Convention itself and 4) had notified Great Britain in 1914 that the specific sticking point was “the boundaries” this was hoo-hah.
The replacement copy was distributed to various libraries with instructions to withdraw and destroy the original edition.
The subterfuge was only discovered in 1963 when J.A. Addis, a British diplomat, discovered a surviving copy of the original edition at Harvard and compared it to Caroe’s version.
That was too late for Nehru, who apparently sincerely accepted Caroe’s maps as holy writ i.e. the accurate depiction of borders that had been trilaterally negotiated at Simla, published, openly acknowledged, and a moral imperative and worthy object of Indian military defense in 1962.
It was also too late for Harvard’s own John Kenneth Galbraith, who as ambassador to India successfully lobbied President Kennedy to declare the McMahon Line as India’s recognized border, apparently as part of his campaign to support India and elevate the PRC-India conflict beyond the mundane sphere of “clash over disputed border” to “Chicom aggression against India”.
In response to Galbraith’s urgings, President Kennedy overrode the concerns of the State Department and the vociferous objections of Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan (the government of China in 1962 as far as the US was concerned) to give Galbraith the leeway to announce “The McMahon Line is the accepted international border and is sanctioned by modern usage. Accordingly we regard it as the northern border of the [North East Frontier Agency] region.”
Well, “accepted international border sanctioned by modern usage” is something of a stretch. As noted above, not only the Chinese but the Tibetan government of the 1930s, itself to be extinguished by the Chinese in 1959, regarded the McMahon Line as a dead letter.
In discussions with Nehru in the 1950s, Zhou Enlai had made the rather telling statement that “he had never heard of the McMahon Line”. The Chinese government only understood the full extent of the boundary understandings between the Tibetan and British governments in 1914 after the PLA seized documents in the Potala Palace during the 1959 invasion, and Zhou subsequently declared the McMahon Line a piece of imperial fraud. Imperial historians—Addis, Maxwell, and Lamb–had the opportunity to examine British records a few years later, when the fifty-year embargo on government records expired, and agreed with Zhou.
The revelation of these contacts made a good case for de facto Tibetan independence between the two world wars; unfortunately, they also at the same time clearly demonstrated that the Chinese government had never been party to them, or to the McMahon Line.
Much has been made in Indian and Tibetan nationalist circles of Zhou Enlai’s willingness to use the McMahon Line as the basis for a border settlement between India and the PRC. However, this had nothing to do with any acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the line (which, after all, had never been demarcated in the field) and perhaps had something to do with the fact that, as the 1962 war demonstrated, the task of defending the McMahon Line on the edge of the Tibetan plateau is a tremendous strategic burden for India.
The truth about the legal and military aspects of the 1962 Sino-Indian War are, I would venture, still a matter of denial and disinformation, especially in India. The Henderson-Brooks Report, which details the strategic and operational failings of the Indian military establishment in 1962, has never been declassified, despite Prime Minister Modi’s previous promises in that regard; only portions of it are in the public domain thanks to Neville Maxwell, who somehow got his hands on a copy.
Asserting the purported sanctity of the McMahon Line (and Chinese perfidy in refusing to honor it) is a staple of the patriotic narrative.
In its combination of nationalist posturing and pseudo-historical bullsh*t, the Indian position on the McMahon Line bookends the PRC’s claims in the South China Sea in interesting ways.
And, of course, the United States, as part of its pro-India/anti-China tilt is more interested in enabling the myths of the McMahon Line than supporting resolution of the Sino-Indian border dispute through equitable negotiation.
By Peter Lee
Source: China Matters