On February 16, 1768, the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London wrote to Warren Hastings: “we desire you to obtain the best intelligence you can whether cloth and other European commodities may not find their way to Tibet, Lhasa and the Western parts of China.” This spurred the British exploration of the Himalayas, an effort that has led today to the face-off between the two giant armies of India and China, who now stand on the brink of war.

During the 18th century, chambers of commerce in towns across Britain met and demanded the British government build roads to open up Tibet. They envisioned a future in which the people of Tibet would be “wearing clothes manufactured in Manchester and eating with cutlery produced in Sheffield, and the caravans bearing silk and tea of China [would] come saving half the time and expense through the passes of Sikkim and Bhutan”. The British dreamt merchants from Paisley, Dundee, Bradford and Aberdeen “shall dip their pitchers into the sacred stream, and deal out its bounty to the people of the land”. Captain G. Chenevis, the British trade agent in Leh, wrote that “in the direction of Tibet, a commercial invasion of that mystic country with riches of Szo Chan and Kansu and Shensi in China as the objective, would I believe, be profitable”. The Bradford Chamber of Commerce declared such an outcome would boost the wool trade, while the British-run Calcutta Chamber of Commerce spelt out the international implications of this thirst for wealth: “there should be no power vacuums, no border Alsatias, which could be filled by others.”

WATCH: Indian border troops crossing into Chinese territory ‘very serious’: Chinese FM

Towards the end of the 18th century, it was the Indian Tea Association, with offices in Calcutta and London, that carried out much of the lobbying of the government to establish new markets in Tibet, Central Asia and Russia. The Indian tea magnates lamented the failure to break open the Tibetan market. The first chairman of the Indian Tea Association was Sir Douglas Forsyth, who had been in Leh and taken on the task of opening trade with Central Asia. Now, as the Tea Association’s new president, he had his eye on new markets. The Tibetan fondness for tea had been noted by numerous travellers, and until then all the tea consumed in Tibet had been imported from China using yaks and mules at a considerable cost. The Bengal Government asserted that tea could be exported from Darjeeling at “a fourth of the price” of Chinese tea. It was the high point of British imperial mercantilism, when the cities of Britain were primary producers and the rest of the world was seen as its consumers.

Dispatch from Doklam: Indians dig in for the long haul in standoff with India

The British advances into the foothills of the Himalayas did not go unnoticed in Lhasa and Beijing. The Tibetans, who described the British penetration as “oil seeping into a cloth”, resisted British attempts to establish trade routes into Tibet and watched with trepidation as the British forged a network of railways and roads on the southern edges of the Himalayas to speed up trade. The Tibetans hoped the geography of the Himalayas would provide protection against these advances, but also took other steps – in 1886, the oracles were consulted and new images of deities were installed in the Potala Palace to ward off the advancing British. This did not help the Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms to the south, which had already been annexed to British rule. Lahaul and Spiti was prised from Ladakh and became British territory, while Bhutan and Sikkim lost vast tracts of their territories to the British through inducement and coercion.

British emissaries to Tibet throughout this period were turned back, and official letters were returned unopened. The Tibetans’ refusal to engage with the British was fuelled by the fear of the Chinese response, since any attempt to engage with the British would prompt further Chinese intervention. Tibet’s isolationism suited the Chinese, who saw Tibet as a back door to their territories, much as India today views any opening of Bhutan to China as a threat to India’s security.

Road to Doklam: When will China and India start talking about the 1962 war honestly?

The initial British plan to open up Tibet involved constructing a road through Bhutan that would most likely have gone through the same location as the road now being built by the Chinese at Doklam, the site of the current stand-off. This would have been the shortest route leading to the main trading centre within Tibet at Phari. Bhutan saw the extension of roads as a slippery slope that could lead to annexation by the British and was not willing to concede. Despite repeated British inducements and threats, Bhutan refused to join the club of Princely States and managed to remain independent.

Sikkim, however, was firmly under British control, and the British sought to build a road for their goods up to Phari through the Chumbi Valley instead. Trade was in fact already flowing along this and other routes, but the problem for the British was that Tibetans would only allow Kashmiri and Newari traders from Kathmandu to export goods into Tibet, while the Tibetans traded their wool to India. The British saw no reason why their colonial subjects and Englishmen were not allowed to benefit from this trade. British bankers proposed that Britain purchase or lease the Chumbi valley up to Phari from the Tibetans, whose reluctance to agree to such demands was viewed as the result of bribes offered to the lamas by the Manchus. To counter those bribes, a British merchant living in Darjeeling, Paul Mowis, today known chiefly for his Himalayan butterfly collection, was selected to travel to Lhasa, where he would make a generous offer to the lamas; the New York Herald said the Rothschild family financed the project. But even when the British pressured the Chinese to issue travel permits for British traders and officials to enter Tibetan territory, the Tibetans still refused to recognise them.

Today, Doklam has become a household name. In 1888, an insignificant rocky crack called Lungdar (known as Lingtu in the British sources), just a few kilometres from Doklam, became known across the British Empire. In the summer of 1886, the Tibetan government dispatched 900 soldiers to start constructing defensive walls along the ridge at Lungdar. Reports in the colonial press of the construction of the wall caused uproar, with missionaries, traders and colonial cadres calling for it to be torn down immediately. Lord Elgin was unmoved by the commercial lobby and described Lungdar as a “dispute about a worthless piece of territory”. But for the press and public, the Tibetan wall represented a challenge to the British Empire. The government in London summoned the Chinese ambassador and demanded that China use its influence to secure the withdrawal of Tibetan troops. Qing China, however, was in no position to influence Lhasa. After more than six months of stalemate on the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet border, the British decided to launch the first military invasion of Tibet and bring “Tibet to its knees”. The British Indian Foreign Secretary, Mortimer Durand, wanted to “put an end once for all to our troubles with Tibet and to our exclusion from that country, which would then be opened to our trade”.

It was an outcome which, he added, would “raise our reputation in the Himalaya States”, much as India today sees stopping Chinese road construction on the border of Bhutan as a matter of national prestige and reputation as well as a strategic interest.

The Tibetan refusal to cease construction at Lungdar was compounded by British fears of Russian expansion into Tibet: the British press was filled with reports of the coming expansion of the Trans-Siberian railway to Lhasa and of Russian gold mining in Mongolia. In March 1888, a force of 2,000 men under the command of Brigadier-General Graham crossed into Sikkim and defeated the Tibetan army. The British press reported “a few shells from the beautiful little mountain guns settled the whole business in a few minutes”. In reality, the campaign to remove the Tibetans from Lungdar lasted nearly nine months, and at one point the Tibetans nearly managed to capture the Governor-General of Bengal.

This standoff is China telling India to accept changing realities

The defeat of the Tibetans sealed the fate of Tibet. At that time, China’s power in Tibet was in decline and its authority was ineffectual, but the defeat at Lungdar broke the Tibetans’ belief in their capacity to resist. For the British, the ensuing treaty legitimised their protectorate over Sikkim and led to the now much-debated 1890 agreement between the British and the Qing over the Tibet-Sikkim boundary. The border was not the main objective of that agreement, and its actual description in the treaty was vague and contradictory; the agreement was far more important for China and Britain because it provided legitimisation of the British position in Sikkim and the tacit acknowledgement of China’s authority in Tibet.

At ground level, the demarcation of the border and trade rights sought by the British proved to be worthless. China was not in a position to make the Tibetans comply. The Tibetans viewed the agreement as two arrogant fools signing an agreement over rights on the moon. Sir Henry Cotton, the Chief Secretary to the Bengal Government, noted perceptively that “[the result] is that people who are in the real power [the Tibetans] are not those whom we deal with, that the people we deal with [China] with have no powers to carry out their engagement with us”. The Tibetans simply ignored the agreement and continued to occupy territories stipulated in the agreement as part of Sikkim and even after the defeat refused to allow the British free entry into Tibet.

In 1899 Curzon became the Viceroy of India. He took a more menacing view of the absence of British presence on the Tibetan plateau, seeing Russia as the chief adversary, whose ambition was the total domination of Asia and thus a potential threat to the British Empire. In 1903, under Curzon’s leadership, the British invaded Tibet and marched to Lhasa. The first clause of the treaty that the British then forced on the Tibetans was the acceptance of the 1890 treaty. But again, the British victory resulted in minimal benefit in terms of either trade or security. By that time, Britain was no longer the centre of world manufacturing; that role had been taken on by the United States, and British ambitions in the region waned. Modern India and China emerged out of the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, with both going on to claim their imperial inheritance.

A century and a quarter after it was signed, the 1890 agreement between the Qing and the British, over peoples and territories they had conquered, has now been elevated to a sacred text. The centre of world manufacturing and economic power has shifted to China, where commercial organisations and businesspeople are demanding roads and trade in the Himalayas. Now, it is China that talks about trade and connectivity, it is Chinese businessmen who dream of every Indian being furnished with Chinese-made mobile phones, and China’s neighbours who perceive risks of foreign hegemony across the Himalayas.

Tsering Shakya is the Canadian Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society at the University of British Columbia, and author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947