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History Wars: A Long View of Asia's Territorial Disputes (Page 3 of 5)
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Utpal Baruah

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Utpal Baruah

3. Arunachal Pradesh/South Tibet

The dispute over the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet, is particularly complex since it rests largely on the interpretation of two colonial legacies: that of Britain as the colonizer of India, and that of China as the colonizer of Tibet.

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After British forces had invaded Tibet from their base in India at the start of the 20th century, the 1914 Simla Accord fixed a permanent border – known as the McMahon Line – between the two territories. The Tibetan and British representatives were in agreement about the line, but the Chinese representative did not sign the deal, and China has never formally recognized the border.

But was the Tibetan border even China’s to demarcate? Much of the discussion at the Simla Conference centered on whether China rightfully claimed suzerainty over Tibet, which had de facto independence at the time. The Accord set out that Tibet was part of China (even the Tibetans themselves accepted this during the talks), but added that “Outer Tibet” – effectively what is now the Chinese province of Tibet – was fully autonomous and would not have any Chinese officials within its borders. In any case, China refused to sign the Simla Accord, and so cannot fall back on the document in asserting its claim.

Instead, China’s claim to Tibet is more ancient – and arguably more tenuous. Tibet first fell within the sphere of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (which some say wasn’t really Chinese at all), and thereafter moved in and out of China’s control, as the relative power of the two neighbors waxed and waned.

However, arguments about China’s claim to Tibet have relatively little bearing on China’s territorial dispute with India, since India recognizes Tibet as a Chinese province. What matters is whether India is right to insist that the British-imposed McMahon line should stand, even though China has never recognized it.

Newly independent India was understandably uncomfortable with the colonial-era Simla Accord, and supplanted it by signing a new treaty with China – the Panchsheel Agreement – in 1954. However, the deal did not address border issues, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stuck with the McMahon Line despite abandoning other elements of the old colonial framework.

Some landmarks which are obviously Tibetan in character but which ended up on the Indian side of the line suggests that the Tibetan representatives at Simla – who were negotiating from a position of weakness – may have ceded rather too much territory to the British. The best example is Tawang, the birthplace of a 16th century Dalai Lama at Arunachal Pradesh’s western edge – a site on which China largely bases its claim.

Had Arunachal Pradesh been the only disputed area along the Sino-Indian border, then it might have been easier to settle, since the McMahon Line served both Chinese and Indian purposes in terms of protecting their main strategic interests. Crucially, Premier Zhou Enlai wrote to Nehru in 1959 offering to “take a more or less realistic attitude towards the McMahon Line.” In other words, China could probably accept it if other territorial conditions were met. However, by pressing India’s claims in other areas, such as Aksai Chin, where China’s claim appeared stronger, Nehru bound Arunachal Pradesh together with those other contested areas, over which China and India eventually went to war in 1962 – after which neither side has felt able to back down.

Tentative conclusions: No formal border existed between India and Tibet before the McMahon Line, and though it was a primarily British creation, both the Tibetans and the Indians appeared to view it more or less as the “natural” border – with the exception of places like Tawang. So China’s claim, latterly based on anomalies like Tawang, appears weak. Zhou Enlai implied that China would have ceded Arunachal Pradesh to India, if India had been more flexible over other disputed areas – but that window of opportunity has long since closed.

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