The History of Sino-India Tensions
Image Credit: Shayon Ghosh

The History of Sino-India Tensions


History in India is written almost entirely by individuals reliant for their livelihood and research on state funding. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s been almost no serious analysis here of the consequences of the 1959 decision by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ignore Chinese Premer Zhou Enlai’s warning not to give asylum to the Dalai Lama.

This is a crucial omission, because although most commentators on Sino-India affairs focus on the border issue or the economic rivalry between the two nations, the root of Beijing’s mistrust of Delhi is actually the soft-spoken monk who has been an honoured guest in India for decades.

Nehru’s decision to disregard his Chinese counterpart’s request was momentous and his welcoming of the Dalai Lama created a fissure between India and China that persists even today. It’s one which has also prompted China to hold up agreement on matters, including the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, in an effort to press India to make the Tibetan community within its borders as unwelcome as possible.

Indeed, that single decision has had so momentous an effect on Sino-Indian relations that it seems extraordinary that this ‘Tibet factor’ in India-China relations has generally been so little commented upon, with most scholars in the United States and European Union apparently reluctant to draw attention to the consequences of the decision to welcome the Dalai Lama and, indeed, any Tibetan who fled China and sought asylum.

Competing Narratives

Although often strident in language, in practice both Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru softened their positions when confronted with opposition–a stark contrast with the leaders at the cusp of taking over India’s largest neighbour, China. While the Nehruvian narrative put India front and centre of the struggle against European colonial powers, the Chinese Communist Party version was that Nehru and his team were mere quislings who pretended to be independent but were actually bound almost as firmly to the apron strings of Europe and the United States as they were when still a colony. The true heroes of de-colonisation in this competing view were China’s communists themselves, led by Mao Zedong in their battle against first the Japanese, and later the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek.

As one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and even decline a tentative US offer of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (in place of China), India under Nehru sought to ensure that Beijing became as close an ally as was Nasser’s Egypt and Soekarnov’s Indonesia. Nehru even disregarded the advice of Deputy Prime Minister Valabbhai Patel and gave up all the rights that had been enjoyed by the Indian government in Tibet, including free access.
All these sacrifices were pocketed by Mao as nothing more than his due. Of course this isn’t how Nehru saw it–he saw the moves as creating a moral debt that the Chinese needed to repay with a policy of adjustment toward Indian concerns. But China did not, meaning Nehru effectively wrote off Indian interests without getting anything in return.

In 1955, Indonesia was the venue for a gathering of African and Asian rulers, including from the Koreas, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran and Turkey. Nehru saw himself as the senior anti-colonialist present, representing the country that was among the first–and certainly the biggest–to win freedom from European powers. But Zhou returned to Beijing with a growing conviction that the smooth and sugary talk of Indian officials was actually a cover for more nefarious activities being undertaken in sync with other nations out to destabilise China.

Zhou  returned to Delhi in 1956, and it was at this point he explicitly stated to Nehru how important Tibet was to Beijing–a veiled warning over any dealings that the clearly unhappy Dalai Lama might have with Delhi. By warning Nehru about the adverse consequences should the (then visiting) Dalai Lama decide to stay back in India, Zhou was in effect cautioning Nehru against offering asylum to the monk. During that same visit, Zhou urged his Indian hosts to accept the ‘colonial’ McMahon Line (a boundary China now rejects), pointing out that the Sino-Burmese frontier too was based on this line, and offering a border settlement based on this. Nehru, for reasons that remain obscure, declined to take the Chinese up on their offer.


[...] between the two countries over India’s offer of safe haven to the Dalai Lama of Tibet since 1959 are another point of dispute. As Madhav Nalapat points out in the Diplomat, [...]

December 17, 2012 at 04:05

Well said, Rishabh. Although some people exist only to troll, their wrong statements need to be dispelled, lest they be taken as truth in the face of silence. Mr Michael above seems to be influenced by a few "factoids" that regularly make the rounds on social networking sites.

October 2, 2011 at 06:40

India is a secular democracy and the “foreign white Italian lady” is not Italian anymore, she is a naturalized Indian citizen. And as an Indian citizen she has the rights to contest elections, exactly as Arnie did in California, even though he was Austrian by birth. We dont all need to be homogeneous to succeed as a country. In my opinion what is despicable is the way China is trying to increase the influx of Han Chinese to places of debate such as Xianjiang and Tibet. And she may be the most powerful lady in India, but she in no ways runs the government, if you had any idea how the constitution of India works, you would realise for one person to run the government is largely impossible as you would need a spread consensus of at least 10. The closest any one did come to run the government was Indira Gandhi and even she had to resort to an “Emergency” to maintain her control. India and China are both fascinating ancient countries, that are making their step into the big game. Wherein China has the vision and India has the right method. Both can learn from each other and when both stop seeing each other as threats, both will learn that growing simultaneously is beneficial for all. But, all this depends on who is the next man incharge in China, who after Hu?

September 20, 2011 at 19:49

So that’s the case? Quite a rveeltiaon that is.

July 5, 2011 at 21:26

South Asia is a new term coined by Chinese out of frustration (typical Chinese slave mentality) It never existed before the year 2000.
People in Arunachal Pradesh are Hindus and Indians. They are neither the Buddhists nor the Tibetans.

Indian Maverick
February 6, 2011 at 15:05

@ Frank
The way of Tibets issue should be for china to give back Tibet to its own people and withdraw from Tibet, so as for all territorial disputes to be dissolved and be at peace once again.
That way, there will never be a territory dispute for china, with india and others.
If china wants peace with its neighbours, that is the way to go.

January 23, 2011 at 15:50


Yes, of course, the day the West gives the land back to the Aboriginals, the Native Indians, Hawaiians and many other countries!

January 23, 2011 at 15:47

“Nehru and his team were mere quislings who pretended to be independent but were actually bound almost as firmly to the apron strings of Europe and the United States as they were when still a colony”

And the truth shall set you free! The truth is that India never was given complete freedom and independence from their colonial masters, simply a little more management duties! Don’t Indians ever question why the most powerful person in India today is an FOREIGN WHITE ITALIAN WOMAN whose only connection to India is her late husbands last name of Gandhi??? Do you see any where else in this world, be it Afica, South America, the Middle East, or Asia where there is a White person running the government??? India is still a slave country and nothing will change this fact!

October 19, 2010 at 22:24

Thought about subscribing to the RSS feed then I saw the same old delusional Indian myth of being offered a UNSC seat.

Doesn’t speak well for any paper that will publish this. Reminds me of how one of India’s minister recently cited the facts from an email chain letter about NASA’s engineers being composed of 1/4 of Indians.

September 7, 2010 at 12:16

Both China and India should give up North Tibet and South Tibet and restore Tibet as an independent nation as it existed before the Chinese invasion/annexation in the 50s. Dalai Lama and Tibetans would certainly take that and establish a fine demilitarized democracy as a buffer between two giant nuclear rivals. Let there be peace in the 21st century.

March 30, 2010 at 04:49

China, India and Tibet problem can be solved easily by letting the disputed territory south of the McMahon Line in South Tibet declare independence.

South Tibet is currently under India control. The people in South Tibet are Tibetans. They are not going to be happy under India’s control. Sooner or later they will be a problem of India.

China is also claiming South Tibet.

So, if India lets South Tibet go. Give it back to Dalai Lama and his people!!!

Since China did not lose anything, China will agree. All territory related problems are resolved.

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