A Tale Of Two Lines At The Core Of India-China Border Dispute


At the core of the Sino-Indian border dispute is a tale of two lines, both disputed for over a century now. In the Northern Sector, it is called the MacDonald Line while in the Eastern Sector it is called the McMahon Line. While India recognised these lines as the successor state of the British Empire, the Chinese have always disavowed them. 

On the history of these lines hangs an interesting tale of statecraft, intrigue, diplomatique, and pure skullduggery.  

In the early 1890s, the Indo-Russian frontier till the Little Pamir was delineated to the satisfaction of both the British and the Tsarist Empires. However, the Russian, Chinese and British Domains also converged in the Greater Pamir’s where there was considerable fuzziness, if not an overlap of claims. As the great game was on in full swing, the British were always circumspect of Russian intent.

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The clashing claims of the British-protected state of Hunza and Chinese Empire to the Taghdumbash and the Raskam Valley created the possibility of a Russian intervention. To surmount this uncertainty, the British Government proposed to the Chinese a solution to this imbroglio through a demarcation of the whole Sino-Kashmir border. This pitch was penned in 1899 by C. M. MacDonald and addressed to His Highness Prince Ch’ing and the Ministers of the Tsungli Yamen. It has a substantial bearing on the standoff with the Chinese on the Northern borders even today. The operative part of the proposal was as follows:

“…In the year 1891 the Indian Government had occasion to repress by force of arms certain rebellious conduct on the part of the ruler of the state of Kanjut [Hunza], a tributary of Cashmere. The Chinese Government then laid claim to the allegiance of Kanjut by virtue of a tribute of one and a half ounces of gold dust paid by its ruler each year to the Governor of the New Dominion (Chinese Turkestan) who gave in return some pieces of silk. It appears that the boundaries of the state of Kanjut with China have never been clearly defined. The Kanjutis claim an extensive tract of land in the Tagdumbash Pamir extending as far North as Tashkurgan and they also claim the district known as Raskam to the South of Sarikol. The rights of Kanjut over part of the Tagdumbash Pamir were admitted by the Taotai of Kashgar in a letter to the Mir of Hunza dated February 1896, and last year the question of the Raskam district was the subject of negotiations between Kanjut and the officials of the New Dominion in which the latter admitted that some of the Raskam land should be given to the Kanjutis.

It is now proposed by the Indian Government, that for the sake of avoiding any dispute or uncertainty in the future, a clear understanding should come to the Chinese Government as to the frontier between the two States.”

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The line proposed by the Indian Government is briefly as follows.

“…It may be seen by reference to the map of the Russo-Chinese frontier brought by the late Minister Hung Chiin from St. Petersburg and in possession of the Yamen. Commencing on the Little Pamir from the Peak at which the Anglo- Russian Boundary Commission of 1895 ended their work, it runs South-East crossing the Karachikar Stream at Mintaka Aghazi; thence proceeding in the same direction it joins at the Karchenai Pass the crest of the main ridge of the Mustagh Range. It follows this to the South passing by the Kunjerab Pass and continuing Southwards to the peak just north of the Shimshal Pass. At this point the boundary leaves the crest and follows a spur running east approximately parallel to the road from the Shimshal to the Hunza post at Darwaza. The line turning South through the Darwaza post, crosses the road from the Shimshal Pass at that point and then ascends the nearest high spur and regains the main crests which the boundary will again follow, passing the Mustagh Gusherbrun and Saltoro Passes by the Karakoram. From the Karakoram Pass the crests of the range run east for about half a degree (100 li) and then turn South to a little below the thirty-fifth (35th) parallel of North Latitude. Rounding then what in our maps is shown as

the source of the Karakash, the line of hills to be followed runs Northeast to a point east of Kizil Jilga and from there in a South-easterly direction follows the Lak Tsung Range until that meets the spur running South from the Kunlun Range, which has hitherto been shown on our maps as the Eastern boundary of Ladakh. This is a little east of 800 East-longitude”. 

The Chinese never ever replied to the letter. Their lack of response was deemed by the British as acceptance of their proposal by implication—a concept recognised by international customary law. Thus, the MacDonald line squarely puts not only the Galwan valley and other current flashpoints but also large tracts of Aksai Chin squarely in the Indian Territory.

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 In the eastern Sector, the tale unfolded as follows: in 1913, the British convened a tripartite conference in Shimla with the Tibetans and Chinese. The objective of this conclave was to formalise the de-facto independence that Tibet acquired in 1912, consequent to the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the resultant chaos in China. 

Tibet was to be maintained as a buffer state between India and China. The Simla Conference collapsed. China would not agree to a draft proposal drawn up by the British that proposed the partition of Tibet in inner and outer regions. It was identical to what the Russians had extracted from China with regard to Mongolia. After initialing the draft, the Chinese representative baulked and refused to sign it.

However, the British were successful at Shimla in getting from the newly independent state of Tibet a settlement on a new boundary alignment that advanced the contours of British territory in Eastern India from a line along the foot of the hills to the crest line of the Assam Himalayas, some sixty odd miles to the north. This new configuration not only put a wide swathe of tribal no-man’s land within India, but also incorporated a salient of Tibetan territory adjacent to Bhutan that ran right down to the plains called the Tawang Tract. 

The Anglo-Tibetan negotiations were led on the British side by Charles Bell, a political officer in Sikkim. It resulted in an exchange of letters, dated 24th & 25th March 1914, in which both sides agreed to this new boundary that  ran along the crest-line of the Assam Himalayas, and thus incorporating the Twang Tract into British India. The boundary was not described in the letters, but was referred to on a map, on two sheets that were sealed and exchanged with the letters. This came to be known as the McMahon Line.

The British attempted to obtain Chinese approval of this new but still undisclosed agreement with the Tibetans. On the map, on which the proposed zonal division of Tibet had been drawn, the boundary of “Inner” Tibet and China was shown in red; that line curved round to its southern extension to show what would have been the boundary between Tibet and India – and in that sector it followed the alignment which McMahon had agreed with the Tibetans. 

However, Sir Henry McMahon’s diplomacy could only achieve a Chinese initial on the map, not a full-fledged ratification. However, between 1913 and 1962, before the Chinese tried to change the status-quo by force after the illegal annexation of Tibet in 1950-51, the McMahon line, all through the First and Second World Wars and even after that, was recognised as the border between India and China.  Recognition through usage and convention are valid concepts in customary international law.

(Manish Tewari is a lawyer, MP, and former Information & Broadcasting Minister. Views are personal)



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