Saturday, August 26, 2017

Why China needs a history lesson on the 1890 Convention

No Historical Division in South Block
My article Why China needs a history lesson on the 1890 Convention appeared in Mail Today/Daily Mail (UK).

Here is the link...

India has won a battle on the ridge in western Bhutan by not allowing China to change the status quo and build a strategic road near the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan.
But Delhi has lost other battles.
In 2003, China's Central Military Commission approved the concept of 'Three Warfares': one, the coordinated use of strategic psychological operations; two, overt and covert media manipulation; and three, legal warfare designed to manipulate strategies, defence policies, and perceptions of target audiences abroad.

While some in India are satisfied with preventing the construction of the road, the other aspects of the standoff should be looked into (and indeed India does have strong legal and historical arguments).
For example, Delhi has been unable to explain to the Indian public the background about the Chinese 'trick' regarding the 1890 Convention repeatedly quoted by the Chinese authorities.
The spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing vociferously managed to convince many that it was a valid treaty.
However, the fact that the main stakeholders, Tibet and Sikkim (and Bhutan for the trijunction), were not even consulted, made it an 'Imperial Treaty' with no validity (in any case, the survey of the trijunction was done several decades after the agreement was signed; so China can't justify 'fixing' the trijunction by quoting this treaty).
In Tibet: a Political History, Tibetan politician and historian Tsepon WD Shakabpa explained: 'In 1890 a convention was drawn up in Calcutta… without consulting the government of Tibet.
'The first article of the convention agreement defined the (northern) boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, and the second article recognised a British protectorate over Sikkim.'
Three years later, the trade regulations about increasing the trade facilities across the Sikkim-Tibet frontier were discussed: 'Again, the provisions of that agreement could not be enforced because Tibet had not been a party to the negotiations,' says Shakabpa.
The Convention of 1890 and the Trade Regulations of 1893 proved to be of no 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 imply that the 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 defined border with Tibet in the Northeast.
The Chinese have tried similar tricks earlier. One factor which has led to losing the battle of information is the lack of a Historical Division in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
In the early years after Independence, the Nehru government established a historical division with S Gopal (President Radhakrishan's son) as its first head.

Shivshankar Menon, the former foreign secretary and national security advisor, in a book review of Gopal's Collected Essays recollects: 'For reasons I find incredible and incomprehensible the Historical Division was wound up by MEA in the nineties… Some of our present difficulties may indeed be due to a lack of memory.'
Menon mentions the decision of the government of the doubling of MEA posts approved by the Cabinet in 2008 and says that he hopes that '(it) will be used to revive the ministry's memory and Historical Division.'
The former top Indian diplomat adds: 'As head of MEA's historical division from 1954 to 1966, Gopal led the Division's work not just on diplomatic history but on the intersection of policy and history, making significant contributions to both.' An interesting case in point is the 1960 negotiation of the 'officials'.
In April 1960, Nehru and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, had several meetings: 'The talks, however, did not resolve the differences that had arisen and the two Prime Ministers decided that officials of the two governments should examine the factual materials in the possession of the two governments in support of their stands,' said a joint communiqué.

Subsequently five rounds of talks were held between officials of India and China; the Indian side was headed by JS Mehta, director, China Division, and Gopal, the then Director of MEA's Historical Division.
The historian was assisted by knowledgeable colleagues such as TS Murty, G Narayana Rao and K Gopalachari.
The first two meetings were held in Peking, in late June and late July 1960; the next two in New Delhi, in late August and late September 1960, and the last in Rangoon in early December 1960.
The outcome is the Report of the Officials, still today a reference for any study on the Tibet-Indian border. The border issue could probably have been sorted out at that time.
Ironically, the Indian point of view was so well documented (by the historical division) that the MPs were in no mood to agree to a compromise solution; India and China probably lost a chance to solve the dispute.
Many examples of the usefulness of the Historical Division could be cited. Incidentally in 1960, the Chinese refused to discuss Tibet's border with Sikkim and Bhutan; Beijing had probably no clue where the trijunction was.
The point remains that a strong Historical Division in the MEA is a crying need today, like it was in the past.
When the time comes to draw lessons from the present confrontation, let us hope that the ministry realises that it is a worthwhile investment, even if it has to be 'outsourced' outside the service.

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