The border disputes between India and China have their roots in the colonial history of the geographical area. Whenever there is a stand-off on the border, historical records are (re) interpreted to express or refute claims territorial claims of respective countries.
In recent times, one such border stand-off that led to a churning of historical records of the territory occurred in 2017, when China laid a territorial claim over Doklam/Doko-La (or Donglong) in Bhutan. The border remained tense for a month, following which India and China agreed to disengage their personnel from that site on 28 August 2017. However, a few days after the disengagement, The Indian Express reported that around 1000 Chinese troops were seen on the plateau, a few hundred meters from the faceoff site. This was not endorsed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, whose spokesperson stated that “We have seen recent press reports on Doklam. There are no new developments at the face-off site and its vicinity since the August 28 disengagement. The status quo prevails in this area. Any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect."
The territory in focus was a plateau of approximately 89 square kilometres, which lies at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. It is close to India’s 'Chicken's Neck', the Siliguri Corridor.The Chinese government claims that the land is located on their side of border as per the 1890 'Convention between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet' and that therefore they are free to construct a road near the site. However, on 29 June 2017, in a press release, the Bhutanese government stated that “the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of its agreements with China.”
Article 1 of the 1890 Convention states that, “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other Rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nipal [Nepal] territory.”
Although the boundary line was demarcated between Tibet and British India, Tibet was not a party to it. Moreover, Tibet was not a party to the 1893 'Agreement between Great Britain, China and Tibet Amending Trade Regulations in Tibet'. Therefore, Tibet did not recognise either of the two conventions. For instance, under the 1893 Agreement, a trade mart was to be "established at Yatung on the Tibetan side of the frontier," and that would "be open to all British subjects for purposes of trade from the 1st day of May, 1894." But that did not materialise. Parshotam Mehra writes that “they [Tibetans] built walls on their side to prevent anyone from meeting the British! No wonder that the trade regulations, though admirable on paper, remained a dead letter in practice.”
On physical limitation of the border, using the British maps in his piece on The Wire, Manoj Joshi argued that “The problem is locating Gipmochi. An 1861 British map shows Gipmochi near the tri-junction but within Bhutan. Many old maps show the beginning of the border from a place called Gyemochen.” This means the two may be same place but, as Joshi writes, “that’s where we run into trouble. A modern data base, the one created and maintained by the US shows Gipmochi/Gyemochen to be at least 5 kms east of where the earlier Gipmochi/Gymochen are designated.”
Another historical issue between India and China is the status of McMahon line. This line was product of the 1914 'Convention Between Great Britain, China, and Tibet', also known as the Simla Accord. It divided Tibet into two regions: Inner Tibet, which would be under Chinese control and Outer Tibet, which would be autonomous. In Article 2 of the Convention, China agreed that the region would be under Chinese suzerainty but it would not convert Tibet into a Chinese province; Great Britain agreed to never annex Tibet or any portion of it. However, two days after Chen I Fan, the Chinese representative, signed the document, his government repudiated his signature.
Before and after the Convention was concluded, the Chinese kept on presenting “counter-proposals,” but they were ignored by Sir Henry McMahon. About it, A.G. Noorani writes that “Every single Chinese document objecting to that convention confined the objections only to the border between Inner and Outer Tibet. Not once was the Indo-Tibetan border mentioned. This was true of Chinese objections before the [C]onvention was concluded on April 27, 1914, as well as those sent thereafter.”
In the absence of Chinese approval, the McMahon line was not endorsed by the British government. However, New Delhi altered its earlier position in 1930s because of growing Chinese assertiveness in Tibet. An incident which angered the British was the arrest of British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward in 1935, during the investigation of which it was found that the Tawang tract - via which Kingdon-Ward had entered Tibet - had been ceded to British India as per the 1914 Simla Convention.
Meanwhile, in October 1960, Burma (now Myanmar) and China settled their boundary dispute. Their agreed boundary almost follows the McMahon line, albeit China calls it the “traditional customary line.” To conclude, interpretation and re-interpretation of historical documents are complicated processes, and therefore, a solution based on them will have to be politically negotiated.
Views expressed are personal