Doklam: China needs a history lesson on the 1890 Convention – Claude Arpi

Indian and Chinese soldiers on the border at Nathu La

Claude ArpiWhile some in India are satisfied with preventing the construction of the road, the other aspects of the standoff should be looked into—and indeed India does have strong legal and historical arguments [for its position]. – Claude Arpi

India has won a battle on the ridge in western Bhutan by not allowing China to change the status quo and build a strategic road near the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan.

But Delhi has lost other battles.

In 2003, China’s Central Military Commission approved the concept of “Three Warfares”: one, the coordinated use of strategic psychological operations; two, overt and covert media manipulation; and three, legal warfare designed to manipulate strategies, defence policies, and perceptions of target audiences abroad.


While some in India are satisfied with preventing the construction of the road, the other aspects of the standoff should be looked into (and indeed India does have strong legal and historical arguments).

For example, Delhi has been unable to explain to the Indian public the background about the Chinese “trick” regarding the 1890 Convention repeatedly quoted by the Chinese authorities.

The spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing vociferously managed to convince many that it was a valid treaty.

However, the fact that the main stakeholders, Tibet and Sikkim (and Bhutan for the trijunction), were not even consulted, made it an “Imperial Treaty” with no validity (in any case, the survey of the trijunction was done several decades after the agreement was signed; so China can’t justify “fixing” the trijunction by quoting this treaty).

In Tibet: a Political History, Tibetan politician and historian Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa explained: “In 1890 a convention was drawn up in Calcutta … without consulting the government of Tibet.

“The first article of the convention agreement defined the (northern) boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, and the second article recognised a British protectorate over Sikkim.”

Three years later, the trade regulations about increasing the trade facilities across the Sikkim-Tibet frontier were discussed: “Again, the provisions of that agreement could not be enforced because Tibet had not been a party to the negotiations,” says Shakabpa.

The Convention of 1890 and the Trade Regulations of 1893 proved to be of no use to the British as Tibet never recognised them; this eventually led London to directly “deal” with Lhasa and send the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa in 1904 and open the doors to organise the Tripartite Simla Convention in 1914, with British India, Tibet and China sitting on equal footing.

Today, Beijing speaks of “renegotiating” the 1890 Convention; it would imply that the treaties signed with the Tibetans, particularly the Simla Convention and the border agreement (defining the McMahon Line) in 1914, would be scrapped and India would have no defined border with Tibet in the Northeast.

The Chinese have tried similar tricks earlier. One factor which has led to losing the battle of information is the lack of a Historical Division in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

In the early years after Independence, the Nehru government established a historical division with S. Gopal (President Radhakrishan’s son) as its first head.


Shivshankar Menon, the former foreign secretary and national security advisor, in a book review of Gopal’s Collected Essays recollects: “For reasons I find incredible and incomprehensible the Historical Division was wound up by MEA in the nineties…. Some of our present difficulties may indeed be due to a lack of memory”.

Menon mentions the decision of the government of the doubling of MEA posts approved by the Cabinet in 2008 and says that he hopes that “[it] will be used to revive the ministry’s memory and Historical Division”.

The former top Indian diplomat adds: “As head of MEA’s historical division from 1954 to 1966, Gopal led the Division’s work not just on diplomatic history but on the intersection of policy and history, making significant contributions to both”. An interesting case in point is the 1960 negotiation of the “officials”.

In April 1960, Nehru and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, had several meetings: “The talks, however, did not resolve the differences that had arisen and the two Prime Ministers decided that officials of the two governments should examine the factual materials in the possession of the two governments in support of their stands,” said a joint communiqué.


Subsequently five rounds of talks were held between officials of India and China; the Indian side was headed by J.S. Mehta, Director, China Division, and Gopal, the then Director of MEA’s Historical Division.

The historian was assisted by knowledgeable colleagues such as T.S. Murthy, G. Narayana Rao and K. Gopalachari.

The first two meetings were held in Peking, in late June and late July 1960; the next two in New Delhi, in late August and late September 1960, and the last in Rangoon in early December 1960.

The outcome is the Report of the Officials, still today a reference for any study on the Tibet-Indian border. The border issue could probably have been sorted out at that time.

Ironically, the Indian point of view was so well documented (by the Historical Division) that the MPs were in no mood to agree to a compromise solution; India and China probably lost a chance to solve the dispute.

Many examples of the usefulness of the Historical Division could be cited. Incidentally in 1960, the Chinese refused to discuss Tibet’s border with Sikkim and Bhutan; Beijing had probably no clue where the trijunction was.

The point remains that a strong Historical Division in the MEA is a crying need today, like it was in the past.

When the time comes to draw lessons from the present confrontation, let us hope that the ministry realises that it is a worthwhile investment, even if it has to be “outsourced” outside the service. – Mail-Online-India, 25 August 2017

» French historian Claude Arpi is an expert on Tibet and China and is the Director of the Tibetan Pavilion in Auroville, Tamil Nadu.

Does the Global Times really reflect Beijing's official policy?

One Response

  1. India China Border Dispute

    Doklam Resolution: A message to China’s other small neighbours – Rajeev Deshpande – TNN – August 29, 2017

    NEW DELHI: India’s success in holding out in Doklam against Chinese threats is likely to be seen as proof that China’s attempts to bully smaller neighbours into submission can be countered by determined diplomacy and alliances backed by military resolve.

    The Army’s swift response to China’s road-building on Doklam near the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan trijunction took China by surprise and they never quite regained the initiative as India dug in and decided to out-wait an adversary whose perceived invincibility has suddenly taken a knock.
    As with the surgical strikes, there was an element of risk in PM Modi’s decision to confront China.

    Despite Beijing’s war talk, the odds seemed to favour a peaceful resolution given the real costs to both sides.

    The possibility of armed conflict was, however, not ruled out and the Indian leadership went by the military assessment that despite China’s better border infrastructure, it would not find India a pushover. “They would have got in here and there (along the border), we would have done the same. There would be casualties on both sides,” said a well-placed source.

    The Doklam saga will encourage countries like Vietnam, Mongolia, Singapore and Japan that have been pushing back at China, and cause others like Philippines, who looked as it they might cave in, to reconsider. Japan’s support to India’s argument that China acted unilaterally to change the status quo angered Beijing no end, but it underlined that efforts to paint India as “intruder” were not working.

    Under Xi Jinping, China’s historic revisionism has become more pronounced as it expects Asian nations to accept its military and economic dominance and accede to its island grabbing in the South China Sea. Backed by its economic and military clout, China has sought to settle disputes on its terms.But the bare knuckled policies are facing a backlash.

    Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy’s dean and ex-diplomat Kishore Mahbubani’s suggestion that Singapore should hold its words on issues concerning China produced a strong denunciation. Singapore, it was said, had a strong interest in ensuring navigation in South China Seas is not restricted. Mongolia displayed the temerity of hosting the Dalai Lama.

    Though it sought to mend fences, it has only shown a rebellious streak, refusing to endorse China’s position that the 1962 India war was Jawaharlal Nehru’s fault. Vietnam has been discomfited by US President Trump scrapping the trans-Pacific partnership but is not ready to tolerate even an unauthorised Chinese oil rig in its waters.

    Even as it offers billions of dollars in aid and big opportunities for foreign students at its top universities, China’s bid to use raw power and intimidation has run into unanticipated resistance. Its sponsorship of rogue nations like North Korea and the threat of military means to redraw maps has created an arc of distrust from Japan to Africa. Even far off Botswana said it is not a colony when China asked it to cancel Dalai Lama’s visit. On the other hand, India showed it can stand by allies like Bhutan and is a benign and trustworthy partner.


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