Pax Britannica Whittled down to an Island Kingdom: (Intrigues that Built an Empire: Intrigued by Wheels of History)
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 04 Oct , 2017

India, even after 70 years of independence, is still floundering to identify her strategic goals. Our national vision can be gleaned from the oath taken by the Constituent Assembly on August 15, 1947, where it pledged that this ancient land attain its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and welfare of mankind. Furthermore, we identified our core national values from the Preamble of our Constitution adopted on November 26, 1949. What next? Isn’t there anything after seven decades to guide the country in a dynamic geo-political environment?

Britain once ruled the world and one would be intrigued how this ‘nation of shopkeepers’, as Napoleon had referred to it disparagingly, could achieve such an enormous feat? I am no lover of that nation; rather still my heart and spirit revolts at the thought that my country was enslaved by them for nearly two centuries. Frankly, I don’t care whether Britain exits the European Union or the White House misspells Prime Minister Theresa May’s name thrice in one memo. I also drew a vicarious pleasure, when her visit to India did not go too well. Leaving my personal indifference to Britain aside, it still stirs a thought; how did this little island kingdom build an empire where the sun never set? After some cerebration, I come to the conclusion that it is her strategic vision that had made her great and ensured that her greatness lasted well over three centuries.

Strategic Vision

Strategic vision encapsulates the ability to identify national interests in a dynamic geo-political environment. It also means the ability to modify one’s national interests in light of national sentiment and strategic requirements. Ultimately, it is the ability to forecast the volatile geo-politics of the world and the sagacity to pursue one’s national interests with the instruments of national power at one’s disposal in the present and future geo-political environment. This could be done through mediation, loans, grants, aid, allurements, gratification, coercion, extortion, threat, intrigue, duplicity and wars. It can take the form of pacts, treaties, accords, entente, conventions and the like. While engaging in these manoeuvres, there should be a clear cold-blooded, single-point intent to pursue one’s national interest passionately, even mercilessly. Britain assiduously pursued her national interest by colonisation, wars, exploitation, enslavement, oppression to achieve her great power status. Bereft of her colonies and her accumulated wealth, she now basks in the limelight of her past glory and hankers after the patronage of US to be heard in the international fora.

Pursuit of National Interest by Britain

Britain had a well-crafted strategy in the 19th and 20th centuries to curb Russian influence or in specific terms, to stem the expansion of communism from Russia into India. Fear of Russia and the threat of communism was the gravest in those times. Britain was clearly concerned about India, the prized jewel in her crown, going the Russian way. Even the remote threat of communism finding its way into India was unthinkable. Her strategic compulsions forced her to give some strategic depth to India against the spread of communism. Her strategy was to create a belt encompassing the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet to keep communism at bay.


In the mid-19th century, Britain waged two wars to tame Afghanistan. The First Afghan War ended in a disaster for Britain and in the second, she tried to redeem her lost prestige. Never could they completely subdue the turbulent Afghans. However, the country remained under her influence, adequate to give them a semblance of security against Russia. In the Third Afghan War, in 1919, whatever rudimentary control they had over Afghanistan, was lost. As World War I had ended, Britain lost her zest to continue another war in Afghanistan. However, she was able to keep her contact alive only to ensure the Soviets did not get a foothold there. The Soviets were also consolidating after the October Revolution in 1917, and did not have the time, inclination or resources to bear her fangs at Afghanistan, which she ultimately did six decades later.

Britain Seals a Deal with Japan to Neutralise Russia

In 1900, Russia had occupied Manchuria at the expense of a weak China, in the midst of her century of humiliation. British had trade interests in China. The victories in the Opium Wars had enabled Britain, France and the US to maraud China of her resources. Russian incursions into Manchuria had alerted the British and for the first time, Britain, a European power, concluded an agreement with the Japanese in 1902 against a rival European power, Russia. The broad features of the agreement recognised that Korea was under Japanese influence and in their war with Russia, if any European powers supports her, then Britain will support Japan.1 It was an invitation for Japan to fight the Russians to serve indirectly British commercial interests in China. The Japanese prevailed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and British interests in China remained unharmed. Instead of Britain having to fight Russia to protect her commercial interests, she cajoled Japan to do her job, though Japan gained her own dividends out of the victory.

Britain Seals a Deal with Russia

After colluding with Japan to defeat Russia, Britain further exploited the opportunity to seal a deal with the Russians as well! It was a time when Russia was at the nadir. The humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan had broken her confidence in the Romanov dynasty and sowed the seeds for Russian Revolution. It was the first time that a rising Asian power had defeated a European power. Seeing the weakness of the Russians, the British concluded the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 at St Petersburg delineating their respective areas of influence with the strategic aim of keeping Russia away from India. Northern Persia was to be under Russian influence and the Southern portion was to be under the British influence.

Afghanistan was to be completely under the British influence. Both the countries were to desist from interfering in Tibet and any contact would be through the Chinese.2 The British could continue with their commercial relations with Tibet. However, even before the enactment of the Convention, Britain had already signed the Lhasa Treaty with the Tibetans in 1904. As per the treaty, Tibet acquiesced to allow cross border trade in Tibet, formalised the Sikkim-Tibet border, agreed to pay penal indemnity and were forbidden from having any relations with any foreign country other than Britain.3 This effectively ensured only the British influence prevailed in Tibet. While Tibet was tied to Britain as per the Lhasa Treaty, Russia was kept out as per the St Petersburg Convention. It was a strategic masterstroke by Britain that ensured that Tibet provided strategic depth to India.

Creation of Iraq

At the end of World War I, the defeated Ottoman Empire broke up as it had sided with Germany. As per the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, Britain and France were to share the fragmented Ottoman Empire. The British got the mandate to run Palestine and Iraq as the spoils of war vide the Treaty of Versailles. The British ran the mandate till 1932, after which the Kingdom of Iraq was created under a Hashemite ruler. Mesopotamia, a geographical entity was converted into a political entity of Iraq, an Arab nation that would challenge Iran in times to come and also give Britain a permanent foothold in the energy well of the world, besides access to Persian Gulf.

No doubt, the Baghdad Pact was enacted later to become CENTO, a defence and security pact in the region to contain communism emanating from the Soviet Union. Iraq played a major part with the CENTO headquarters being located in Baghdad, thus justifying its creation. Britain had no love lost for the people of the region, however the strategic location of the country was so critical to her, the nationhood of Iraq was only a by-product in the Great Game.


Similarly, with the mandate in Palestine, they managed to carve out Israel, a home for the Jews in the heart of Palestine. On May 14, 1948, Israel was created and the British mandate ended the same day. Again in one stroke, Britain orchestrated unrest in the region with all the surrounding Arab nations trying to remove Israel from the map. The Arab-Israel Wars took place in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. If one has to attribute altruism to the British, this one act of granting homeland for the Jews says it all! I am ready to overlook any other collateral benefits that might have incidentally accrued to her in the creation of Israel. For the Arabs, it was a stab in the back by Britain. For them, an oppressive Ottoman Empire was an angel rather than a liberal Britain, who had foisted a militant Israel on them. The Arabs lost faith in Britain but for the latter, unrest in any part of the world meant more trade and arms exports. The move by Britain was truly a game-changer notwithstanding that the region is smouldering to this day and at anytime the embers could fulminate into a raging conflict.


Zorawar Singh, a General under Maharaja Gulab Singh, brought Ladakh under the domain of a future India in 1841. He had gone on an expedition to Leh – Ladakh, and then along the River Indus to Rakhas Tala and died in the Battle of To-yo at Taklakot. A quarter century later, Johnson, a British Cartographer, demarcated the boundary between British India and Tibet in 1865, what is now referred to as the ‘Johnson Line’, the officially claimed border of India. From 1865 to 1899, a number of other lines – the Johnson Ardagh Line and the McCartney-Macdonald Line running along the Lakhtsang Range were drawn. Ultimately, when China was weakened after the Xin Hai Revolution in 1911, the British stuck to the Johnson Line as the boundary between British India and Tibet, as it gave the maximum territory to British India.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Britain had already set her eyes on Tibet as a buffer between Russia and India, and not China and India. China was a very weak power, not formidable enough under the Qing Dynasty and hence the need to carve out a buffer with the mighty British. In 1903, Younghusband led an expedition that ended in the Treaty of Lhasa in 1904 literally bringing Tibet under the influence of Britain. The terms of the Treaty have been referred to earlier.4 In 1911, China erupted with Xin Hai Revolution and Republic of China was proclaimed in January 1912. The Manchu Forces in Tibet were disarmed and Tibet declared her independence in the summer of 1912. In the following year, Mongolia and Tibet signed a treaty wherein they recognised their respective independence. The Mongolians threw their lot with the Russians and Tibet hesitatingly threw her lot with the British, both fearing China in the long run. Thus, the whole of Tibet provided strategic depth to India.

In 1914, Britain, Tibet and China had a tripartite agreement defining Tibet’s boundary with India in the Northeast. All three were independent powers and were on equal footing. Britain had invited China for the Shimla Accord considering that Tibet was under the suzerainty of China, as it also served her purpose of binding China into a Treaty, with the aim of keeping the Russians at bay. It also served the provisions of St Petersburg Convention with the Russians, as they would not have any excuse for intervening in Tibet citing its violation.5 The Chinese plenipotentiary did not sign the Treaty as China did not have any locus standi on the issue, as Tibet had been an independent kingdom since 1912. As the Chinese did not sign the Treaty, the British presumed that China’s suzerainty over Tibet was not valid anymore. The Chinese themselves did not consider it relevant as they did not have any control over Tibet. The Republic of China was just three years old and was still consolidating, as the warlords continued to hold sway over their territories. Thus the Accord was signed as a bilateral agreement between Britain and Tibet giving recognition to the McMahon Line that separated Tibet from India’s North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) now known as Arunachal Pradesh. McMahon marked the boundary with a red thick line on a very small scale map (one inch to 8 miles)6, thus ensuring its ambiguity. It roughly ran along the Himalayan crest line. However, it did not follow the watershed principle. In some places, it was thick enough to cover the ridge line as well as the valley down below leaving it open to varied interpretations. The ripples of history have their own ways to becoming waves. Otherwise who would have thought that a small oversight in drawing a thick red line would end in a war half a century later?

Britain’s exit from India was also a master stroke. She divided the country in order to cut India down to size, who would definitely be her rival in years to come. She knew India’s enormous potential, hence dividing the country on religious lines ensured that the countries of the subcontinent would boil in their own stew, mired in conflicts and remain poverty stricken for ages. She ensured that the enmity is long lasting, given the post-Independence partition carnage. She also ensured the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) dispute festers as an open wound for both the countries. It was Mountbatten’s last vile act, enacted through a gullible Nehru, who went running to the United Nations (UN) with a complaint and accepted an untimely ceasefire on January 01, 1949, even when a third of J&K was still under the illegal occupation of Pakistan.

It was again Britain as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who masterminded the problem of J&K to make it a Gordian Knot unresolved to this day. It is sad that both India and Pakistan instead of carving out a path of mutual development ensured the success of Britain’s vile strategic plan to make South Asia a region of instability. Rather, the two countries improved upon British plan to ensure the region remains volatile and hostile enabling Britain as an erstwhile colonial power to fish in troubled waters.

On January 20, 2017, I was smug to read the news that UK was seeking Indian help in resolving the dispute on the Chagos Archipelago with Mauritius, as the latter had asked for its return and had threatened to take the issue to the International Court of Justice. She wants good offices of India to resolve the issue.7 Wheels of history indeed do take a complete turn and the role reverses.

Kowtowing to China

In the latter part of the 20th century, Britain began appeasing China once she knew that the Chinese economy was growing and started playing second fiddle to her. First came the betrayal of people of Hong Kong. The island of Hong Kong and Kowloon were leased to Britain by China for perpetuity and only the ‘New Territories’ were leased for 99 years. Even in Hong Kong, Britain did not set up any democratic institutions prior to her departure in 1997. As early as 1958, Zhou Enlai had warned Britain that any attempt of having ‘self-governance’ in Hong Kong, would be regarded as an unfriendly act.8 Despite having waged war against communism for a century, Britain buckled under the Chinese threat. The first elections, that were held in Hong Kong, was after 150 years of occupation, in 1991, even that in a limited way, always fearing Chinese reaction. The 1995 elections were more democratic, but the elected legislature was dissolved by China once the island reverted to them in 1997, and a China-controlled Provisional Legislative Council was formed.

The 1984 Anglo-China Treaty was a big giveaway to China by Britain. The 2014 protest in Hong Kong was also not supported by Britain in spite of China having violated the Treaty in regard to the manner of conducting the elections scheduled in 2017. The major restriction was that the candidates would be vetted by the Chinese Government. There was not even a whimper of protest from Britain.

The Global Financial crisis in 2008 has been considered the worst since the Great Depression of 1930s. The Western world in particular was the worst affected with bankruptcy, unemployment and homelessness. The Depression further triggered the European Sovereign Debt Crisis. Britain was also badly affected and the Labour Government was in power. Britain was looking at China to rejuvenate IMF. There was a need to appease China to save her crumbling economy. David Milliband, UK’s Foreign Secretary at that time, overturned the century-old policy on Tibet on October 29, 2008. Britain, for a hundred years had accepted Tibet as autonomous, with China being only a suzerain. It was the first time that Britain accepted Tibet as a part of China and also downplayed Britain’s earlier position on Tibet as a colonial legacy, outdated and anachronistic.9

The UK with this very statement downplayed the Anglo-Tibet Shimla Accord of 1914, under which the McMahon Line was delineated, which is the basis of our present claim line in the North-Eastern Sector of the Sino-Indian Border. Never mind, this statement was made just two days prior to the scheduled meeting between Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese leaders. It also did not occur to the UK that the so-called upholder of Human Rights that China had put down a bloody Tibetan uprising in March the same year. It also did matter to her as to what bearing it would have on India, as the statement literally de-recognised the McMahon Line, thus casting a shadow on our ongoing border negotiations. Did the UK literally sell the interests of Tibet and India for a few dollars?

Again, when China started the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), UK was the first non-regional member to join the bank as a founding member in March 2015, even at the cost of displeasing the US. It shows how Britain is willing to pursue her national interests at the cost of friends, allies and partners.

Britain rarely sacrificed her materialistic benefits to uphold her core values. Her strategic vision was to pursue her national interests relentlessly. The propriety and fairness was not an impediment in her pursuit of her national interest. Reminds me of the words of Henry Kissinger, “Illegal we do it immediately, unconstitutional may take a little longer.” Though these words were meant for the US, they are equally applicable to the UK. This was less than 200 years ago, when Britain, France and USA had allied, fought the Opium Wars and subjugated China. They had arm-twisted her, occupied her coastline, forced unequal trade terms and sold them opium instead of silver for silk, pottery and tea. The addicted populace gave them a steady market for opium. Now, the wheels of history have taken a full turn in less than two centuries. Kissinger had said, “China has five thousand years of turbulent history where she has used patience as her weapon and time as her ally.” How true!


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Today, Britain is in crisis. In a referendum held in 2014, Scotland had voted to remain within the UK. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to remain in the EU, is not comfortable with Brexit. Same is the case with Northern Ireland. Scotland has already prepared a draft legislation on a second Independence referendum.10 If not now, in a couple of years, most likely Scotland could vote to remain independent in case the Brexit dampens her economy. Nothing can be said of Northern Ireland as well. UK could further get whittled in times to come. I have no doubts that UK would go full steam ahead to make Brexit a success, so that she can at least be a shadow of her former self.

Even after 70 years of independence, India is still floundering to identify her strategic goals Our national vision can be gleaned from the oath taken by the Constituent Assembly on August 15, 1947, when it pledged that this ancient land attain its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and welfare of mankind. Furthermore, we identified our core national values from the Preamble of our Constitution adopted on November 26, 1949. What next?

Isn’t there anything after seven decades to guide the country in a dynamic geo-political environment? To this day we do not have a National Security Doctrine. Our national interests are as yet not defined. Our country is moving ahead by the sheer prowess of her people without defining her coordinates. Today, we are the fastest growing economy with projected growth of 7.2 per cent. The growth is in a general direction. How much better it would have been if we had identified specific goals to enhance all our instruments of national power; economic, political, diplomatic, science and technological, soft and military to finally boost our Comprehensive National Power? I have no doubt it is happening slowly but how long will this nation of over a billion people need to wait?


1. Richard Cavendish; Anglo Japanese Treaty of Alliance; History Today, Vol 52 Issue 1 (

2. Anglo Russian Convention of 1907; Encyclopaedia Iranica;

3. Legal Material on Tibet; Treaties and Conventions Relating to Thibet; (1904)

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, N2.

6. Mc Mahon Line;

7. Vidya Ram; UK Seeks Indian help in resolving Chagos Archipelago Dispute: The Hindu, 20 Jan 2017 (Edition; Bangalore)

8. The Secret History of Hong Kong’s Stillborn Democracy; in British National Archives (Declassified)

9. Robert Barnett; Did Britain Just Sell Tibet? New York Times, 24 Nov 2008.

10. Scottish Independence Draft Bill published on Second Referendum; the Guardian, 20 Oct 2016.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen PG Kamath

a veteran of Indian army;  was the former Commandant of Army War College, Mhow.  Currently, he writes on Ethics,Leadership Strategy and Current International and National issues.

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One thought on “Pax Britannica Whittled down to an Island Kingdom: (Intrigues that Built an Empire: Intrigued by Wheels of History)

  1. Here is one thought on why Britain was so great …..
    They did not openly defecate where they went- either politically or militarily . They actually governed well taking the local people along and treating them justly.

    Watch what this unknown, semi-literate, broken down, old timer has to say.
    Most of his interview is full of factually inaccurate , prejudiced gibberish.

    But he does have some thing to say about the British…. we have to assume its vis a vis Indians :
    watch from time interval: 12:21 into the interview….

    I, as an ordinary Indian, would much rather live under the ‘Insaaf Pasand’ British of old, rather than under either the Indian political mafia or the Khaki mafia or the AFSPA rapist and pellet gun-wala mafia….

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