At the advent of the 20th century, in the “Great Game” between Russian and British empires, Tibet became a strategic chessboard. Russia aspired to expand its influence across Central Asia. The Manchu empire was diminishing and waning. Britain was afraid that the Russians would come to a weakened China and cause problems to British India. This perception led to the invasion of Tibet in 1903 by British troops headed by Colonel F.E.younghusband. The idea and aim behind this move were to establish a buffer between China and India, secure a border between Tibet and India and gain favourable trade deals with Tibet. The Younghusband expedition spawned a chain of events in the Eastern Himalayan region, the effects of which are still felt in Indo-China relations.
While the Great Game is quite well known, the Mc Mahon line is a less talked about story, that had an impact in East Asia. Immediately after the Younghusband mission, China was alarmed and sent troops to Tibet to occupy the region. While Britan accepted the de facto Chinese control of Tibet, it wanted Indo-Tibetan border demarcated and Tibet to remain a buffer. In 1914 a conference was arranged by Britain in Shimla in which British, Tibetan and Chinese officials were to take part. Sir Vincent Arthur Henry McMahon, a secretary in the foreign department of the British Indian Government represented India in the conference. After a lengthy and prolonged discussion that stretched across months, India and Tibet signed a convention that demarcated the Indo-Tibetan boundary but unfortunately, this convention could not get the signature from the Chinese side, despite the convention’s promise to respect China’s suzerainty over Tibet but not sovereignty. This boundary, the red line drawn by Mc Mahon on the map came to be known as the Mc Mahon linen which is also internationally accepted as a border between India and China in the Eastern sector. However, it happens to be the zone of contention between the two countries. But it must be noted that the Shimla convention, though not signed by China it had not opposed the Mc Mahon line initially. Tibet also witnessed and enjoyed decades of independent rule after the Shimla conference. But the Chinese kept changing their stance very often.
J.J.Singh, the former army chief, Arunachal Pradesh governor and the author of the book the Mc Mahon line: a century discord, happens to be highly critical of the way Nehru handled China’s reoccupation of Tibet in 1950. But china called this liberation of Tibet. Nehru an ardent idealist failed to foresee China’s evil strategy. The author J.J.Singh observes: ” The British strategy of over a century, of having an autonomous as a buffer was put to rest as India looked on passively”. The Chinese take over of Tibet by force exposed the northern borders of India to potential Chinese threat for the first time, highlighting our dangerous vulnerability.
In retrospect, one could debate that India could have done something effectively to prevent China from taking over Tibet. It was a time when one should not forget India had its own problems in Kashmir that was attacked by the Pakistan army, unification of princely states were still underway and Tibet itself had signed an agreement with China after its troops reached Lhasa. India was only a fledgeling democracy encountering multifarious economic, social and political problems. India’s resources were meagre and its army was no match to the Chinese army. Nehru, despite his emphasis on friendly relations with China, had told his ambassador to Peking( Beijing) in 1958 that he didn’t trust ” The Chinese one bit….they are an arrogant, untrustworthy, devious and hegemonic lot.” But Nehru never imagined Chinese aggression on India in 1962 that inflicted a humiliating defeat upon India that also hastened the demise of Nehru, a disheartened leader.
Both India and China have come along way since the 1962 war in spite of several peace talks between the two, the border dispute remains unsolved. However, there have been marked improvements in its bilateral relationship, punctuated by border skirmishes and violations very often. The Chinese after opening up their economy from the early 1980s has become an economic behemoth and militarily modernised with their phenomenal advancement in technology. It has become a superpower next only to the USA. A country whose geographical area, economic and military power that are far greater and beyond the reach of India will have an unquenchable urge to assert itself internationally in an arrogant and immoral manner. However, there are limits to China’s LAC adventurism. The boundary between India and China runs to several thousand kilometres in this there are several places along this border where PLA ( people’s liberation army) is militarily weak while the Indian army has an upper hand so that India could also play mischief. China is also mindful of India’s nuclear capability. The maritime domain of China is its weak spot. And most importantly China will be least inclined to seriously damage the close to $100 billion trade with India with its military adventurism on the LAC. Also, China is fully aware of a close relationship with the US economically and militarily.
The time has come to checkmate Beiing’s military aggression. India should deepen and expand its defensive, offensive and deterrent capabilities. The situation is also a stark reminder for us to get more serious about finalising a border agreement with China. The political leadership of both countries should exhibit more will power to resolve the dispute to establish a stable, political and economic environment over East Asia. India should engage in deepening its engagements with world powers including the USA and Russia. While the avowed goal is the peaceful resolution of the long dispute India should build up it’s economy powerful and militarily strong and formidable. But one should not forget the geopolitical axiom: ” the unilateral desire of a nation to live in peace cannot be a guarantee of its peaceful existence”.