Back in the 1950s, Chinese troops marched in and took control of Tibet in what the then newly founded Communist government called a “peaceful liberation.” After an uprising against the Communist rule was thwarted, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s Buddhist spiritual leader, fled into exile in India, where he lives to the present day.
Tensions between India and China rose after the Tibet episode, culminating in a war over the border in 1962, which ended in India’s defeat. Days of clashes also took place in 1967. Since then, although border incursions still occur from time to time, the two Asian giants have mostly showed military restraint and engaged in diplomatic solutions to settle border disputes.
Suddenly now, India and China seem to be on the brink of a war.
For over a month, the two nations have been involved in a stand-off in the Doklam plateau, which is currently disputed between China and Bhutan, a close Indian ally. The plateau, also known as Donglang in Chinese, lies at the junction of India, Bhutan, and China, near the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim. Doklam is strategically important due to its adjacency to the Siliguri Corridor, the so-called “chicken’s neck” connecting India’s seven northeastern states to its mainland.
The stand-off began in June when India opposed China’s attempt to build a road over the Doklam plains. Delhi says it intervened on behalf of Bhutan, while Beijing accuses India of trespassing in its territory. Bhutan, for its part, says China’s road-building is a violation of a 1998 agreement that calls on both sides to maintain the status quo in the contested area.
From Beijing’s perspective, its claim to the Doklam region is well supported by a series of documents, which the Chinese foreign ministry has been citing in press conferences in the past few days. All of the documents, though, date back to the years before the 1962 India-China War—and at least some of Beijing’s interpretations of them could be misleading.
The Sino-British convention in 1890
In a regular briefing on June 29, the Chinese foreign ministry pointed to an 1890 border agreement between Britain and China for the first time to support its Doklam claim. Article I of the Sikkim-Tibet Convention, signed on March 17, 1890, by Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, then British Viceroy of India, and Sheng Tai, the Qing dynasty’s “Imperial Associate Resident” in Tibet, states:
The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nipal territory.
Citing this text, Doklam falls to the Chinese side of the water-parting, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who then displayed a photo allegedly showing that a group of Indian soldiers and vehicles had overstepped the crest into Chinese territory on June 18.
The next day, Lu added some human context to the territorial claim. He said: “Before the 1960s, if border inhabitants of Bhutan wanted to herd in Doklam, they needed the consent of the Chinese side and had to pay the grass tax to China. Nowadays the Tibet Archives still retain some receipts of the grass tax.”
Nehru’s letters in 1959
Beijing went on to state that leaders of independent India endorsed the British-era territorial understanding. On July 3, spokesman Geng Shuang pointed to two 1959 letters from then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai regarding Sikkim’s border with China. “There is no dispute over the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet, China,” Geng quoted Nehru as saying in one letter written on Sept. 26, 1959.
But Nehru’s letter seems not to refer to the Sikkim-Bhutan stretch that is in dispute today. According to the Hindustan Times, which has viewed the Sept. 26 letter, Nehru wrote:
This Convention of 1890 also defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet; and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is thus no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region. This clearly refers to northern Sikkim and not to the tri-junction which needed to be discussed with Bhutan and Sikkim and which is today the contentious area. And once more, let us not forget that the 1890 Treaty was an unequal treaty as Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan were not involved.
The term “unequal treaty” is often used by China to refer to treaties in its own history with Western powers.
The Hindustan Times also reported that, in the same letter, Nehru said that “Chinese maps show sizeable areas of Bhutan as part of Tibet,” and that “the rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector.” One journalist referred these lines to Geng on July 5, and the spokesman said he would need to verify them.
A 1960 note from India’s embassy in China
The same day, Geng offered additional material to support Beijing’s assertion that India recognizes the 1890 treaty:
In the note it sent to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 12, 1960, the Indian Embassy in China said, “the Government of India welcomes the explanation given in the Chinese note relating to the boundary with Sikkim and Bhutan on the one side and Tibet on the other. The note states that the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet of China has long been formally delimited, and that there is neither any discrepancy on the maps nor dispute in practice. The Government of India would like to add that this boundary has also been demarcated on the ground.” These contents in that note were all written down in black and white.
Geng did not clarify whether that was the full text of the note.
Over China’s many briefings on this issue, the note above has been the most recent document it cited in support of the idea that India has acknowledged China’s Doklam/Donglang jurisdiction. That might be because relations were frosty for decades after the 1962 war.
It was only after then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi paid a visit to China in 1988 that the two nations started their formal boundary talks in recent history, and then signed a series of border agreements. Some of the most contentious issues between them are still pending resolution.
“Do you have any post-1962 document which proves that India recognizes Doklam as part of China’s territory?” one journalist asked Geng during the July 5 briefing. The spokesman dodged the question.