1890 Treaty: Beijing’s trick of Yesterday and Today
Two months into the confrontation with China near the tri-junction in between Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, the time has come to look at the lessons New Delhi can learn from the stand-off which may continue for several months. There is no doubt that India has won a battle; there will be no Chinese road on the ridge and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may never be able to peep over into the Siliguri corridor.
Indeed, why should India back out from a legally and militarily strong position? Some in Beijing have started admitting the same, though the Government continues to shout that China’s territory has been invaded. Beijing’s violent reaction is due to internal factors such as the 90th anniversary of the PLA and the forthcoming change of leadership in the Communist Party of China (CPC).
One battle has, however, been lost by New Delhi — it has been unable to explain to the public some historical facts. The lack of a historical division in the Ministry of External Affairs has particularly ill-served India, letting Beijing have a field day. New Delhi did not point out to the Indian (and foreign) media, the Chinese trick about the 1890 Convention (known as the Convention of March 17, 1890, between Great Britain and China, relating to Sikkim and Tibet).
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing, as well the tabloid media in the Middle Kingdom, vociferously managed to convince the Indian correspondents in Beijing that it was a valid treaty. However, the fact that the main stakeholders — Tibet and Sikkim (and Bhutan for the tri-junction) — were not even consulted, makes it an ‘imperial treaty’ with no validity.
In his book, Tibet: A Political History, Tsepon WD Shakabpa, the Tibetan politician and famous historian explained, “In 1890, a Convention was drawn up in Calcutta by Lord Lansdowne, the Governor-General of India and Sheng-t’ai, the manchu amban from Lhasa, without consulting the Government of Tibet. The first article of the Convention agreement defined the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, and the second article recognised a British protectorate over Sikkim, which gave them exclusive control over the internal administration and the foreign relations of that country. There was, however, no corresponding acknowledgment on the part of the British of China’s authority over Tibet.”
Shakabpa continues: “It is also possible that because of the brief clash between the Tibetans and the British at Lungthur (in northern Sikkim in 1888), the manchus were afraid that Tibet and Britain might enter into direct negotiations; they therefore, agreed to a Convention to forestall such a possibility.”
Three years later, trade regulations were discussed over increasing the trade facilities across the Sikkim-Tibet frontier: “Again, the provisions of that agreement could not be enforced because Tibet had not been a party to the negotiations. It is surprising that the British entered into a second agreement with the Manchus, when they knew from the results of the first agreement that there was no way of putting the agreement into effect,” says Shakabpa.
The Convention of 1890 and the Trade Regulations of 1893 proved in practice to be of not the slightest use to the British as Tibet never recognised them; this eventually led London to directly ‘deal’ with Lhasa and send the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa in 1904 and open the doors to organise the tripartite Simla Convention in 1914, with British India, Tibet and China sitting on equal footing.
Today, Beijing speaks of ‘renegotiating’ the 1890 Convention. It would consequently imply that the ‘equal’ treaties signed with the Tibetans, particularly the Simla Convention and the border agreement (defining the McMahon Line) in 1914, would be scrapped and India would have no more border with Tibet in the North-East. The Chinese have tried similar tricks earlier.
In October 1948, the Nationalist Government in Nanjing sent a communication to London, notifying His Majesty’s Government of termination of Tibetan Trade Regulations of 1908. New Delhi was quick to see the game.
In 1943, London had reconsidered its attitude towards China’s suzerainty over Tibet. On August 8, Anthony Eden, Prime Minister of Great Britain, had given Dr TV Soong an informal memorandum containing the British policy towards Tibet: “Since the Chinese Revolution of 1911, when Chinese forces were withdrawn from Tibet, Tibet has enjoyed de facto independence. It has ever since regarded itself as in practice completely autonomous and has opposed Chinese attempts to reassert control.”
In 1948, by referring to the 1908 Treaty, China wanted to erase the 1914 Simla Convention from the books of history, omitting that the 1908 accord was made void by the 1914 agreement. The Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi immediately cabled London that it was aware that “the Tibetan Trade Regulations of 1908 were specifically repealed by Article VII of Simla Convention of 1914.”
Lhasa was then in control of Tibet’s foreign policy; Tibetans could travel from and to India without visa or registration. It was not the case for the Chinese who, when they transited from Tibet to China via India needed a visa.
Hugh Richardson, who represented India in Tibet in the first years after Independence, cited an example: “The Chinese officer at Lhasa has approached the Tibetan Government with a request for help and the Indian mission has asked whether the Tibetan Government agree to the entry of this party.”
A long debate started in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on the policy that ought to be followed by independent India vis-à-vis Tibet.
An official pointed out “we only recognise their (Chinese) suzerainty contingent on their genuine recognition of Tibetan autonomy as it has existed for the last 36 years.”
But Nanjing was trying the same old trick: To find a ‘solution’ to the Tibet issue without reference to Tibet; it had worked in 1890. The Tibetan trade regulations of 1908 provided that the regulations would be in force for a period of 10 years and if not denounced. By trying to ‘renew’ it, the Chinese were trying to bypass the 1914 agreement. An official in the Ministry of External Affairs wrote that the Chinese assumed that “the Chinese are emphatic in ignoring the Simla Convention of 1914 of which no mention is made in their note. The trade regulations of 1908 were dead letter for long.”
It was a pretext to force Delhi to forget the 1914 Convention (and thereby the border agreement). However, the diplomats in South Block were not new to Chinese diplomatic niceties, the Foreign Secretary himself having served several years in Nanjing. Had the Indian Ministry accepted the Chinese contention, India and Tibet would have lost the only demarcated border (ie the McMahon Line). When it hammers on the 1890 Convention, Beijing is trying the same old ploy today.
Incidentally, the survey of the tri-junction was done several decades after the 1890 agreement was signed; China can’t justify ‘fixing’ the tri-junction by quoting this ‘unequal’ treaty, when nobody knew where this place ‘Gipmochi’ was.
My article 1890 Treaty: Beijing’s trick of yesterday and today appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer.
Here is the link…