10 April 2024

Going back in time: When China was clueless about McMahon Line

You have probably never heard the name of Maj Gen Li Jue, a senior officer of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) posted in Tibet in the early 1950s. He was instrumental in what became the turning point of the Communists’ occupation of the Tibetan plateau, i.e. the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet and the Qinghai-Tibet highways.

As the Commander of the First Army’s General Logistics Department based in Lanzhou, Gen Li was responsible for what a few years ago, President Xi Jinping called: “A Miracle in Highway Construction.” It allowed China to get its supplies from the mainland instead of from India (particularly the rice supply). The two roads built by Gen Li, under the 18th Army, were inaugurated on 24 December, 1954.

When the Dalai Lama came back from Beijing after a visit in 1954-55, Maj Gen Li Jue accompanied the Tibetan leader as Intelligence Chief.

A year later, Gen Li was again in Lhasa on the occasion of the establishment of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region; but instead of attending the functions presided over by Marshal Chen Yi, he suddenly left on an inspection tour of some areas north of the McMahon. China then knew little about Tibet’s southern borders.

This was noticed by the Indian Consul General in Lhasa, PN Menon (incidentally father of the former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon), who wrote to Apa Pant, the Political Officer in Sikkim responsible for Tibet: “Li may well have been the high ranking Chinese military officer who carried out an inspection of the Tibet-Bhutan Frontier as mentioned by Chibber.”

Maj SL Chhiber, then Indian Trade Agent in Gyantse, was keeping track of the important Chinese officials visiting Southern Tibet. The Indian officials in Tibet also knew that Gen Li had also visited other areas north of the McMahon line too.

Why is China raising the issue of ‘Southern Tibet’ now?

This came back to mind when I read that for the fourth time, China has ‘renamed’ places in Arunachal Pradesh. A few months back, China had changed the names of 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh. The first renamed place was then Pangchen, an important location near the McMahon Line, north of Tawang.

This time too, the first renamed place was Hathong-la, the plateau facing the Thagla ridge of 1962 war memory. Why Hathong-la? China is probably not too pleased with the many articles/programmes which recently appeared in the Indian media celebrating the 65th anniversary of the arrival of Dalai Lama in India near this very spot.

Among the other names changed is Mago, the constituency of Chief Minister Pema Khandu (he has just been reelected unopposed). Also to be noted rivers such as the Kameng and the Subansiri and several spots near the disputed Fish Tails in the east of the State, have been ‘renamed’.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar rightly said: “If today I change the name of your house, will it become mine? Arunachal Pradesh was, is and will always be a state of India. Changing names does not have an effect.”

The point remains that for years China did not even know about the McMahon Line.

Where is the border?

To understand China’s poor knowledge of Tibet Southern borders, it is necessary to go back to the Bandung Conference in 1955. An apparently moderate Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai managed to convince a credulous Indian prime minister about the ‘sincerity’ of the new Chinese Communist rulers. Writing about his encounter with Zhou at the Conference, Nehru said: “When asked if he wanted to push communism into Tibet, Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai] laughed and said that there could be no such question as Tibet was very far indeed from communism. It would be thoroughly impracticable to try to establish a communist regime in Tibet and the Chinese Government had no such wish.”

A few days later, the Indian prime minister told his foreign secretary about a remark of the Chinese Premier on the McMahon Line: “Although [Zhou] thought that this line, established by British imperialists, was not fair, nevertheless, because it was an accomplished fact and because of the friendly relations which existed between China and the countries concerned, namely, India and Burma, the Chinese Government were of the opinion that they should give recognition to this McMahon Line.”

Zhou knows nothing about the border

At the end of 1956, as India prepared to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Buddha, Communist China was extremely nervous; eastern Tibet was on fire with the Khampa rebellion, while central Tibet was slowly getting contaminated by the revolt. After months of prevarication, Beijing finally allowed the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to visit India for the celebrations. A febrile Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to Delhi thrice to ensure that the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet.

During one of his encounters with Nehru, Zhou admitted that India knew more about Tibet’s history than China. “For example, I knew nothing about McMahon Line until recently when we came to study the border problem after the liberation of China,” he said.

Zhou added that though people like him never knew about the McMahon Line till recently, the Kuomintang regime had referred to it.

Zhou also spoke of a ‘secret’ pact between British India and Tibet at the time of the Simla conference in 1914 when the Tibetans sat on an equal footing with the Chinese and British India between October 1913 and July 1914.

Five years later, in April 1960, Zhou Enlai visited Delhi and had long talks with Nehru. He also had two informal encounters with Indian Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, during which Zhou stated that China would never change its position in the Western Sector (Aksai Chin), but was open for the rest of the border. Zhou was testing the ground for a ‘swap’. India would acknowledge Aksai Chin as Chinese and Beijing would recognise the North East Frontier Agency (today’s Arunachal Pradesh) as Indian.

China’s position on NEFA was not rigid.

Another Chinese source

An unpublished Chinese document entitled “China’s reaction to Indian occupation of the territory to the south of McMahon Line, 1952-54” mentions the situation on the borders soon after the arrival of the PLA on the plateau: “Undoubtedly, Indian occupation of the McMahon line [in February 1951] officially placed the McMahon line issue before the Chinese government. As the records point out, the key problem was that the Chinese government did not release any comment nor show any resistance.”

This refers to the expedition of Maj Bob Khathing in Tawang in February 1951. While Lhasa informed Delhi about the Khathing expedition, Beijing was not.

The Chinese paper comments further: “Although during this period, New Delhi agreed that China enjoyed suzerainty over Tibet, [at the same time] India treated Tawang as a local problem …This kind of a puzzling silence from the side of the Chinese government could only be interpreted as China permitting India to expand its territories to the McMahon line. …It was only in 1959, when India started to cross the McMahon line [in Khenzimane?] that China expressed its objection [for the first time].”

In 1951, China had not protested simply because Beijing did not know about the McMahon Line. The paper then quotes Nehru, who 20 April, 1960, during a talk with Zhou Enlai, said, “We are pained that, if the Chinese government did not agree with us, they should have expressed their objections to us. They did not say anything for 9 years.”

Today, Beijing says that the area belongs to then since immemorial times in which case why didn’t China express some objection after India extended its administration upto the McMahon line?

The Chinese Paper answers: “According to Chinese sources, China had adopted a policy of temporarily overlooking some issues which they intended to solve later as just after the formation of new China, there were many things waiting to be done; China was resisting America and helping North Korea. China had to first take care of peace within the country and liberate Tibet. So they did not have time to spare for dealing with the border issues with India. They were not very alert about the Indian incursions …India made full use of this opportunity and captured Tawang.”

But the truth is that before the 1956 visit of Gen Li, China had very little knowledge about Tibet’s border with India, though “they were consulting the local Tibetan government to get a clear idea about its border with India and the 1914 Simla pact [the McMahon Line].”

Today, Beijing says that the entire area has always been theirs.

However, the present claim on the state is clearly an afterthought. It should be treated as such and the Arunachal Pradesh chief minister is right in saying that his state only has a border with Tibet, with no one else.

Originally Published in Firstpost  on 09 April 2024