Batting for the McMahon Line - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 9 July 2012

Batting for the McMahon Line

(Photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla): Sunrise over Tawang, the important border town in Arunachal Pradesh, on which China has cunningly focused the border discussions

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th July 12

As this newspaper reported last week (7th July 12, “British question mark lingers over Arunachal”) a scholarly article in a Beijing newspaper has focused China’s spotlight on a troubling British policy retreat that undermines the Indian claim that the McMahon Line forms the Sino-India border in Arunachal Pradesh. This took the form of an inexplicable statement from former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2008, that back-tracked from Britain’s long-held position that Tibet was autonomous before 1950, with China having a “special position” but not sovereignty over that country. Miliband abandoned that position as an “anachronism” based on “the outdated concept of suzerainty.” Instead, he announced that, “Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.”

Why is this vital for New Delhi? The McMahon Line was formalized between India and Tibet at the Simla Convention in 1914, and its legitimacy rests on Tibet’s independence. Beijing argues that Lhasa was subordinate to Beijing and, therefore, not empowered to negotiate its borders. Miliband’s statement could add weight to Beijing’s argument. Chinese negotiators will say: the colonial power that negotiated the Simla Convention has wisely repudiated it.

What makes Miliband’s retreat especially baffling is that London got absolutely nothing out of it, except for a mouthful from Beijing for interfering in its internal matters. Having already given away Hong Kong and forsaken Taiwan with a one-China policy, Tibet was the lone card in the British hand that mattered desperately to Beijing. But London gifted it away without any apparent strategic intent.

London was not alone in kowtowing to China in 2008, when the economic recession made the East wind appear to indeed be prevailing over the West wind. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s blustering former president, responded to China’s brutal crackdown on Tibetan protestors in Mar 08 by threatening to boycott the opening of the Beijing Olympics that August. This led to a coordinated picketing of Carrefour supermarkets across China and an internet campaign that charged the French chain with funding the Dalai Lama. It was the first anti-European deployment of people’s power, a weapon that had been perfected earlier against Japan. Beijing intervened only after a few days of carefully calibrated silence, and Sarkozy got the message. After meeting Chinese president Hu Jintao in July, Sarkozy announced his attendance at the Olympics in the spirit of “peace, friendship and brotherhood.”

Miliband’s wobble and Beijing’s skilful hardball raise two big issues for India. Firstly, is China’s economic muscle reformatting foreign policy hard drives in Western Europe? This is especially relevant regarding the UK, where India’s border claim has been impacted by the inconsistency of British policymaking in the face of a resurgent China. Given the haste and secrecy that attended this policy shift, it appears that London’s eagerness to please Beijing overrode the traditional policy review process, including consultations with historical and legal experts.

New Delhi must immediately seek a public clarification from London, which would allow the British government to clarify that the pre-1950 position on Tibet remains unchanged. The big question is: “What is the UK’s current view of its pre-1950 relations with Tibet, and in particular of the Annexures to the Simla Convention of 1914.” Meanwhile, New Delhi must urge London to recalibrate how it deals with a rising China, basing policy decisions on long-term considerations and not just immediate needs.

Secondly, India must re-evaluate its own Tibet policy. Having provided asylum to the Dalai Lama, the Central Tibetan Administration, a vibrant Tibetan clergy and a hundred thousand Tibetans, India is probably the world’s only country with serious leverage in Tibet. Sadly, New Delhi bends over backwards to convince Beijing that India has no designs on Tibet. This submissiveness has yielded only disadvantages: the Tibetan presence in India cannot but make China deeply suspicious of India; while New Delhi’s periodic clamp-down on Tibetan refugee activity --- portrayed as a neighbourly concern for Chinese sensitivities --- leads Beijing to conclude that sustained pressure on India will make the Tibet card unplayable.

India must abandon this practice of dealing with China through concessions. Over thousands of years of history, successive Chinese rulers have seen concessions as a sign of weakness. The Chinese Communist Party wholeheartedly embraces this belief.

Another Chinese diplomatic tradition involves centring the public debate on relatively minor issues, while consigning the crucial central issues --- such as Tibet --- to the shadows. Robert Barnett of Columbia University, a noted Tibet and China expert says, “My hypothesis is that we can understand Chinese diplomatic strategy better by regarding the things they make a big noise about as less important because they want to protect from public debate the really important things.”

China will cheerfully discuss human rights, labour protection legislation, environmental degradation and a raft of issues that could well be fobbed off as “internal affairs”. But say the word “Tibet” and the shutters come down. China’s expansive claim over Arunachal Pradesh is hardly backed by history. But it is designed to keep the discussion off Tibet, an increasingly sensitive issue for Beijing as its thuggish militias fail in stamping out a deep-rooted identity struggle.

Rather than continuing to play by Chinese rules, where Arunachal is discussed but not Tibet, and while concessions like Miliband’s reshape the ballgame to India’s disadvantage, New Delhi must begin raising the issue of Tibet in the Special Representatives’ dialogue. As long as talks are about only the border, no settlement is likely. But by strategically repositioning the Sino-Indian dialogue, and shifting at least some of the spotlight onto Tibet, New Delhi can create incentives for Beijing to loosen its untenable positions. India has legitimate and non-provocative interests in Tibet: including the reopening of India’s consulate in Lhasa that was shut down in the 1950s; border trade; religious linkages and tourism and people-to-people contacts.


  1. @Ajai sir

    Whats happening, you do 2 pieces on China-Tibet-AP-LAC and then comes the note from RAW of a impending China inflicted skirmish anywhere along the LAC.

    I bet you have sniffed something, also the incidents like setting up Mountain Strike Corps, buying 145 M777 guns and other brigades gives indication that preparations are well underway from our side for whats coming. Not to forget the feverish pitch of work done by DRDO, DRDL, RCI on missiles.

    I sincerly hope the Chinese dont loose their senses. They have a habit of believing what they already claim is theirs and no discussion on that and what can be discussed is what else they claim.

    The problem with regard to Tibet depends on what will ordinary Tibetan do once HH Dalai Lama is out of picture. China will be happy to finally get chance to strangle Tibet completely and cause irreparable damage to India.

    India has been wrong in keeping the Tibetans in a 'Trishanku' position, the govt. needs to rejig its strategies and most importantly perhaps revive E22.


    Joydeep Ghosh

  2. Ajai Sir the problem lies within the political brass in India. Still remember the ire and hatred George Fernandez got when he said China not Pakistan is more dangerous, any sane person would know that this statement is true.

  3. Mr. Shukla,

    Thank you for bringing clarity on this complex issue. The Tibet-Arunachal issue just shows how desperately India needs a strong leader.

    I request you to please write more on this issue especially on the historical blunders commited in the past like Nehru giving China UNSC seat which was offered to India and Sardar's letter to Nehru warning about China's designs/intentions.

    Many people, including myself, would like to know that if there were to be a border war with China in the near future what could be its likely outcome ?

    Thanks again !!

    Tushar Rathod

  4. "Rather than continuing to play by Chinese rules, where Arunachal is discussed but not Tibet, and while concessions like Miliband’s reshape the ballgame to India’s disadvantage," ... this is absolutely the heart of the matter!!! It's not just China's hegemonism at play, equally too "the Miliband wobble" is subtle and perfidious strategy intended to embroil very significant conflict between India and China, to salvage the sagging economic and political fortunes of the West. Foolish China may well take the bait, question is will India pre-empt this by revisiting her position on Tibet at every local and international forum?

  5. @Anonymous @11/7/12 08:18

    What India needs is not a strong leader, but a substantial increase in general level of intelligence of the voters to understand the threats they face. Assuming that a strong hawkish leader does exist in India, and China decides to repeat its 1962 action with a tactical nuclear twist, given the current nature of the indian public, what happened at the Delhi airport during the Kandahar hijacking will be enacted throughout the country and even a strong leader will have to withdraw with his tail between his legs. However, I highly doubt if aam aadmi in India has the intelligence or the balls for a confrontation with China if a genuine need arose or was imposed upon them. Until that is rectified the idea of India pulling a reverse 1962 on China will just that - an arm chair hawk's pipe dream.

  6. the terminator11 July 2012 at 21:01

    Chinese History shows it has been mauled by invaders after invaders from the North and even a small country such as Japan, compared to China had inflicted humiliation on them.

    China has risen to its present economic and military power through their authoritarian communism where the people's welfare and safety come last.

    China is flexing its muscles and trying subtly and sometimes overtly to bully all the countries in its sphere of influence because of is trillion dollar economic might. It steals IP rights, reverse engineers and engages in commercial spying and outright stealing of whatever will strengthen and promote its technological prowess. Wherever you go you will find China made goods aplenty. They are not cheap by Asian standards and are shoddy quality-wise. You can even come across Hindu deities made in China anywhere in the world where Hindus reside, not to mention in India itself!

    China is just tolerating India because of its bilateral trade. MMS is placating the Chinese with an annual increase in bilateral trade which is in China's favour.

    As it is China's economy is still buoyant but when it finds it on the decline it would not hesitate to take over countries having the resources that it needs. It may show its military clout to others by teaching a lesson to India like in 1962.

    India would be in a better position if it increases its defense budget and raises more rapid action forces and mountain battalions to counter any Chinese adventure. Rapid action forces (commandos)behind enemy lines especially helping the Tibetans would teach China not to take India for granted.

    India need not be hawkish. At the same time it doesn't pay to be a wimp in the face of a bully.

    If the Pakis decide to initiate a conflict at the behest of the Chinese, India should engage it such a manner (even despite international intervention under the guise of peace initiatives) that it should be crippled militarily, never to rise again.

    That would also teach China and any other would be adventurer to think twice.

    Do we have the political will and the proactive initiatives for the above scenario?

  7. Colonel Shukla,

    "India’s border claim has been impacted by the inconsistency of British policymaking in the face of a resurgent China."

    Do not concur with such view. Why should our claim be corroborated by others? That too the conniving British! Read the book "Breaking India" by Rajiv Malhotra to understand what Britain has & CONTINUE to do so to weaken our republic. Also, take a hypothetical opposite case. Had Miliband said something favorable for Tibet's sovereign nation theory would the Chinese have said, oh Lord, our claim/hold on Tibet is now in limbo or jeopardized?

    It is rather because of our weak defense posture and policies(& of course weak PM) that we have to depend on others in matters which are strictly bilateral.


    Well said. Sadly, agree with your pipe dream comment.

  8. Elect me Prime Minister and I will change the nuclear no first use policy to declare that it is valid only for geographical areas outside of India's claimed boundaries, and will make it a constitutional amendment with the provision that it can be withdrawn or changed or overridden only by a parliament whose members will be shot dead by a firing squad before such a vote. ;-))

  9. What is it with indians and

    the general lack of strategic planning,
    chalta hai atitude,
    acceptance of sub-standard quality in deliverables,
    aiming to fly before learning to walk and then underfunding the development task,
    lack of commitment to agreed upon schedules,
    thinking that procrastination is a solution to contentious problems,
    the lack of discussion of strategic policy and its implications in the public space,
    the idea of equating surrender with moral superiority,
    and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at almost every available opportunity?

    Unless we address these cultural shortcomings, we will be the conceited beggars of this world.


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