There is an awkward – and for Tibetans, melancholy – back story to India’s employment of VIP visits by the US ambassador and the Dalai Lama to assert its sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh.
Recently US Ambassador Richard Verma visited the town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, the region in northeastern India whose sovereignty has been contested by the People’s Republic of China for over half a century.
In line with US foreign policy priorities, Ambassador Verma was giving China a public poke in the nose and a boost to India.
At the same time, the US was endorsing one of the most belaboured and discredited exercises in imperial mapmaking – the McMahon Line – and an instance of great power betrayal – the alienation of Tawang.
The McMahon Line, drawn at the behest of the British Raj in 1914, has been adopted by the Indian government as the definitive statement of its border with China in the northeast, although the line has never been accepted by any Chinese government. It was drawn by Henry McMahon and accepted by representatives of the Tibetan government in bilateral discussions that were contemporaneous but separate from the abortive tripartite British/Tibetan/Chinese negotiations on the Simla Convention.
Since the objective of the Simla discussions was to compel Chinese toleration of a special relationship between the British government and a Tibetan government characterised as subject to Chinese “suzerainty”, eventual Chinese buy-in to the convention and the boundary arrangements was deemed essential and the convention, unratified by China, was seen as imperfect.
Britain withheld publication of the Simla Convention with the notation, “The convention was initialled and sealed on July 3, 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.”
Maps drawn by McMahon with the portentous red line and initialed by the Tibetan representatives were also left unpublished as British diplomats lobbied fruitlessly for decades for the Chinese to return to negotiations.
Then, in 1935, Olaf Caroe, a senior official of the Raj, decided to retaliate against Tibetan (not Chinese) authorities who had arrested a British botanist cum spy, Frank Kingdon-Ward, in the town of Tawang. Although Tawang was Tibetan-administered, Caroe checked the archives and confirmed that Tibetan negotiators had accepted the placement of Tawang south of the McMahon map in the aftermath of the Simla discussions.
To solidify the British claim to Tawang, Caroe decided to arrange for the publication of the Simla Convention adding a misleading notation that the Simla Convention discussions had included negotiation of border demarcation.
In an indication that Caroe knew he was pulling a fast one, he did not publish a supplement to the existing record, Aitchison’s A Collection of Treaties and Sanads 1929 edition; instead he had a spuriously backdated 1929 edition printed and arranged for the 160 copies of the true 1929 edition in libraries around the world to be replaced and destroyed. The subterfuge was only discovered in the 1960s when a researcher discovered a surviving copy of the authentic edition at Harvard University.
Thanks to Caroe’s rebooting of the Simla narrative, the “McMahon Line” first appeared on an official Survey of India map in 1937, twenty-three years after McMahon drew it. Caroe also successfully lobbied British commercial atlas publishers such as Bartholomew’s and The Times to include the lines on their maps.
Despite its questionable provenance, much of modern Indian public opinion regards the McMahon Line as an immutable expression of India’s sovereign rights.
The US buttressed the Indian position in 1962, at a time when US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith was eager to exploit the shock of the war with China to wean India away from its non-aligned/anti-American stance.
Galbraith lobbied President Kennedy over the stated concerns of the State Department and the vociferous objections of the KMT government of Taiwan to affirm the McMahon Line, and received approval to state: “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.”
Galbraith’s third-party declaration was legally irrelevant and, as documents seized by the Chinese in the Potala Palace and records subsequently unsealed in London revealed, factually incorrect. Galbraith’s assertion became passé in US diplomacy for the next 50 years. But it resurfaced in 2012 with the upswing of relations with India and the chill with China, and served the basis for the US ambassador reported statement to Indian media that the McMahon Line was the legitimate border between India and China.
Another turn of the wheel came in April 2016, as the US Consul General in Kolkata, Craig L Hall, assured the governor of Arunachal Pradesh that the US regarded it as an integral part of India.
And then came Ambassador Verma’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang.
As for Tawang, it is indisputably Tibetan in culture, religion, and history and, indeed, is one of the great monastery towns of Tibetan Buddhism and birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. It also straddles an important trade route as a gateway between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian plains and was therefore doomed to become a pawn in the Great Game. The Raj coveted Tawang for its strategic significance well before Olaf Caroe and, indeed, grudging Tibetan acquiescence to alienation of Tawang was a key price tag for the British-Tibetan alliance at Simla.
The Tibetan government continued to administer Tawang throughout the Raj and, after it gave up on the Simla Convention, for a time renewed its formal claims on the town. In 1938 the British went as far as budgeting the cost of occupying Tawang, expelling both Tibetan officials and the lamas of the monastery, and implementing British rule.
The Tawang issue was forcibly resolved in 1951 when an Indian force overthrew monastic rule and seized the town. However, it remains a cultural and political touchstone for Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama, who sheltered at Tawang when he first entered Indian-controlled territory upon fleeing the People’s Republic of China in 1959, generously patronises the monastery. Until 2008, he resisted Indian pressure to accept Tawang as “part of India”.
Today, open acquiescence to the permanent alienation of Tawang to India is sine qua non for the Dalai Lama and for anti-China Tibetan activists. When the Dalai Lama pays his next visit to Tawang in March 2017, he will, in common with all Tibetan sojourners in India, do so under official permission from the central government to enter the “Protected Area” of Arunachal Pradesh as a foreign guest.
So, the American ambassador went to a stolen town to endorse an illegal boundary consecrated by a blatant forgery. Just another day in the Great Game.
Peter Lee is an analyst and commentator on Asian affairs and US foreign policy