When India in 1947, and China after two years in 1949, emerged into the international stage, neither of them at the time of their establishment inherited a defined space and there was considerable ambiguity about the extent of the territorial limits of the new sovereign state. In fact the alignment of these frontiers had never been properly surveyed or delimited.
In the north the Himalayan hill states of Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and even Tibet, had been brought within the fluid frontiers of British India through a variety of separate arrangements. For India the problem was aggravated because it was the British in Delhi or London, who had conducted surveys, negotiations and even war on border matters.
On the other hand the people’s Republic of China had come into existence on October 1, 1949, as a consequence of the Chinese civil war. After its proclamation China took hard decisions regarding its imperial heritance of far- flung frontiers and tributary states. . Thus, in 1949 the frontiers or limits of PRC’s, sovereignty had been clearly defined and it had taken concrete steps in this regard.
Emergence of China and India’s dilemmas
From strategic and security considerations the emergence of a strong and stable PRC posed a new challenge to the Indian Policy-makers. Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to K.M. Panikkar, the then India’s Ambassador to China, had said that whenever China had a strong government, it had tended to expand beyond its frontiers. He viewed the happenings in China not a palace revolution, but a grass root revolution and later told the parliament while presenting the budget demand for the Ministry of External Affairs on March 17, 1950, “It was a basic revolution involving millions and millions of human beings. It is not a question of approving or disapproving; it is a question of recognising a major event in history, of appreciating it and dealing with it.”
While dealing with China, as most of us viewed, the only area where our interests overlapped, was in Tibet.
As expected the newly established Government of the People’s Republic of China announced on January 1, 1950 that one of the basic tasks of People’s Liberation Army would be to ‘liberate’ Tibet. When determination of the Chinese leaders found expression, K.M. Panikkar met Chinese Premier Chou En lai in which the latter had assured the Indian ambassador that though the liberation of Tibet was a sacred duty of China his government would seek this goal through negotiation and not by military action.
However, despite assurance China launched a full scale invasion on Tibet in October 1950. With the use of force by China in Tibet it became apparent that the event would alter the geo-politics of the region. It made India and China immediate geographical neighbours for the first time in history and gave rise to such security concerns for India as was previously unknown . More important, it raised the vital question of where the territorial limits of a partitioned and weak Indian state lay.
Developments in Tibet
Regarding Tibet, India was interested in preserving its autonomy that it was maintaining for decades. On number of occasions Jawaharlal Nehru had made it clear that India had no territorial or political ambition in regard to Tibet and our relations were cultural and commercial. He also made it clear that we did not challenge or deny the suzerainty of China over Tibet.
In fact after the establishment of strong government in China there was a physical limit to what the Government of India could do to support the independence of Tibet. The most, India could do was to protest against the use of force and to insist that the autonomy of Tibet should be respected. In dealing with the crisis the Government of India had not only to take into account the practical possibilities of the situation, but the long-range results of any policy which they might adopt.
The occupation of Tibet by force not only brought China to India’s very doors but made India anxious and its anxiety became all the more acute in view of its awareness of its own military weaknesses against China.
Following Chinese action in Tibet Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister of India, in a letter drew Pandit Nehru’s attention to the problems of India’s security in the north and suggested measures to strengthen them. He expressed the apprehension that the Chinese and the Russians would not miss any opportunity of exploiting weak spots in the north.
Nehru himself was not unmindful of India’s northern frontier and responding to the changed situation declared that the McMahon Line would be India’s non-negotiable border in the north-east ‘map or no-map’, but significantly made no statement regarding the frontier in Ladakh. In line, Nehru decided further to draw the Indian security perimeter along the Himalayan range, taking in Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim and to warn that any breach of the Himalayas would be regarded as a threat to India.
Years following the occupation of Tibet, India did not want to start their relations on the wrong foot and supported China on several international issues including latter’s support when the United States of America intervened in Korea and advocated PRC’s place in the United Nations. This led to the warming of the Sino- Indian relations, culminating in signing of a trade treaty with China in April 1954 whose preamble incorporated the much trumpeted five principles of peaceful co-existence.
Signing of Panchsheel and thereafter
The signing of Panchsheel was the last laugh for India in its relations with the PRC. In spite of the fact that Tibet had been referred as the ‘Region of China’ in this treaty, the PRC had accused India of being influenced by the imperialist power. After the signing of a treaty between China and Tibet on May 23, 1951, Dalai Lama left Tibet and then made unsuccessful attempts to raise the issue of its autonomy at the UN. Dalai Lama’s mobilisation of world opinion in Tibet’s favour was considered by China as an imperialist design and it held India responsible for it partially, if not wholly.
On the other friendship with China was the cornerstone of the entire edifice of Nehru’s worldview and structure of policy, and he placed his trust on the ‘Chineseness’ of communist China, on its national pride and its ‘Asianness.’ Despite strong domestic pressures and fears following the extension of Chinese sovereignty to Tibet and the harsh Soviet and Chinese criticism of him, non-alignment and India, Nehru took deliberate measures to avoid confrontation.
However, in years to come the question of frontiers and borders became alive and immediate issue for both which it had not been in 1950.
In post- Panchsheel phase, though in a mild tone, India and China began to warm up the issue of territorial delimitation. Basing himself on the view that India’s northern frontier was a traditional one and that there was no doubt as to where it lay, Nehru had decided in September 1954 that the whole boundary should be shown on maps as a continuous line and no reference need to be made to undermarcated areas.
But unfortunately, no map on a larger scale could be issued. In the meantime, China had been issuing maps of varying scale showing boundary alignments which were never the same but included Aksai Chin, NEFA and various little pockets of Indian territory within China. When India objected to this they simply said that they were merely following Kuomintang maps and it did not satisfy India.
Later on, the nature of the border dispute enlarged and the Government of China stated that they had not as yet undertaken a survey of their boundary nor consulted with the countries concerned and they would not make changed on their own. Thus, for the first time they virtually repudiated the traditional alignment shown on Indian maps and implied that the boundary was an open issue which should be the subject of discussion.