McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin

Chinese Kashmir - Aksai Chin
The McMahon line runs through the eastern Himalayas and constitutes a psychological border between India and China. Drawn up and agreed to during by British India and Manchu China, its subsequent repudiation by China made it the major irritant plaguing the relations the two countries. Meanwhile Maoist China built a road through the Aksai Chin plateau that further complicated territorial boundaries. Eventually, India and China fought a border war in 1962 ended with India defeated and Nehru personally humbled.
A G Noorani writes that the dispute over Aksai Chin was really due to India’s unilateral interpretation of a previously undefined border.

The McMahon Line is clearly shown as India’s boundary in the east. But for the entire western sector, right from the Sino-Indo-Afghan trijunction to the Sino-Indo-Nepalese trijunction, the legend reads: ‘Boundary Undefined’.

This legend was used for this sector in all the three maps attached to the two white papers on Indian States published by Patel’s ministry in 1948 and 1950 also. The Aksai Chin belonged to nobody. This was the position when the Panchsheel Agreement was signed on April 29, 1954. But on July 1, 1954, Nehru ordered: “All old maps dealing with the frontier should be… withdrawn… new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated territory… this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody.” Unilateral changes are legally ineffective. [A G Noorani/Hindustan Times]

The problem with Noorani’s analysis is that it assumes negotiations with China can be based purely on legal considerations. That is obviously not the case. For example China’s stance on India’s annexation of Sikkim: as Datta-Ray reveals, the Chinese government did not accept India’s annexation of Sikkim for over two decades in spite of the fact that Sikkim was nowhere near the McMahon line which China first accepted and then unilaterally repudiated.

Earlier, the Chinese had removed Sikkim from the list of independent countries on their official website. The gesture made headlines in India where commentators, echoing official briefings, claimed gleefully that China had also thereby accepted the McMahon Line over which the two countries went to war – disastrously for India – in 1962.

That is not so. The McMahon Line is nowhere near Sikkim. It lies far to the east, linking Bhutan with Myanmar and separating the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet. Sir Henry McMahon, British India’s foreign secretary, drew this 1,360km border on a map at the 1914 Simla Convention attended by British, Tibetan and Chinese delegates, thereby adding 129,500 sq km to India.

Though Mr Chen I-fan, the Chinese representative, initialled the map, his government disavowed it. China has never recognised the McMahon Line. [S K Datta-Ray/Straits Times]

The way ahead on the India-China border disputes is to accept ground realities as a basis for reaching a negotiated settlement, an pragmatic approach based on maintaining the status quo, rather than a legal-doctrinal solution which is neither party can enforce on the other.

5 thoughts on “McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin”

  1. Hello! Sir, With reference to modern history, I think that Arunchal Pradesh is belonged to China and Mcmahon line is illegal! Chinese Government had never signed any agreement for this unfair treaty. The devilish colonist-Great Britain wanted to invade Tibet (China) from India in 19th century. The British officials designed such dirty line and then had taken 9 million from china to their great colony (India)in map. The old India map had never showed such part of land. Although Arunachal Predesh is still occupied by India, I hope chinese army will defeat the Indian invader very soon. ( will be continuous)

  2. There is precedent for the sort of legalism that ails Mr. Noorani: the Kellogg-Briand pact, which basically declared war illegal. We all know what happened to that treaty.

    Nitin, I would go further and say that legality (in the sense of the sort of legality that is the life-blood of the lawyer) has not much role, not only in Sino-Indian relations, but in the relations of most countries to each other. At bottom such attempts aspire to exclude inter-national relations from the realm of politics (just as, for instance, a murder trial theoretically would be). One problem is that this approach suffers from a crippling contradiction, as nation-states are inherently political animals; another problem is that this approach must feign blindness to the politics that are already encoded into the legal construct sought to be created (i.e. the “system” presents itself as neutral, and will not acknowledge that it has itself been politicized). Take the example of nuclear non-proliferation; while certainly true that countries like India did well not to sign the treaty (a consistent theme for several decades now) and are hence technically not bound by it, in any event any discussion of the non-proliferation regime without discussion of the “winners make the rules” system that undergirds it would be superficial (at best) and in bad faith (at worst).

    [I do not mean to suggest that principles, ideals or any other value held dear by the people or governments of countries has no place in discussions of international relations; but what Mr. Noorani is here guilty of is conflating the “legal” with the “good”; as far as international relations are concernes, he certainly hasn’t made his case that equation is tenable.]

  3. india has always been a great country and will remain,nobody can alter her position and status in international arena.India has never been an invader state like every state in ancient and modern’s very unfortunate that last1500 years in indian history is a period of gulami. the ancient india has lost her glory as well as her great wastness from the caspian sea to the greater tibet,from then till now great india has suffered 28 partition. all ancient cultures of the world know thatindia had a great amount of area and all this have been cited by the ancient maps of the great india.

  4. Hello! everybody. I had made a mistake in my message dated 21/10/2005. The area of Arunachal Pradesh should be 90,000 approx. Please ignore the rubbish speech on 7/11/2005.
    The Arunchal Pradesh is part of china and the Mcmahon line is illegal . The two events are ture in the history. India invaded China and still captured Arunchal Pradesh. India had already invaded Sikkim and became part of india. The boundary between china and india is non-business of Great Britain. Chinese people/army will defeat indian army again and take the area.
    The devilish colonist-Great Britain divided the old British india into 3 independence countries: india, pakistan(east & west). The indian poeple should take revenge on their old master-Great Britain. It will be more logical.(will be continuous)

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