The Sino-Indian border dispute has a lot to do with Tibet’s past.
It is common knowledge that one of the most contentious issues that has bedevilled the bilateral relationship between India and China is the matter of their common boundary. What is not generally known is that the dispute is complicated by the fact that, prior to 1950, Tibet was a ´suzerain´ entity with the power to enter into treaties on its own. In short, the Sino-Indian boundary dispute is embedded in the disputed status of Tibet. What follows is a table that encapsulates various dimensions of the dispute vis-a-vis the Himalayan rimland.
Clues used by early colonial officials to roughly indicate Indo-Tibetan borders included an enthnocultural criterion of whether an area was under “Tibetan influence” or not. This, in practice, meant the presence of Tibetan-speaking villages showing some sort of loyalty to Lhasa and/or the presence of a gompa (monastery) in the said locality connected with one of the major monasteries in Tibet, or simply mountain ranges and passes with Tibetan names. This procedure was followed particularly in the extreme Eastern sector where there were various tribes such as Tawangs, Charduars, Thengla Bhutias, Akas, Daflas, Miris, Abors and Mishmis.
Therefore, if an area was not under “Tibetan influence”, it was largely the question of boundary engineering based on such criteria as strategic considerations and topographical suitability: “secure, suitable, strategic borders”. In such cases bereft of documentation, it was a question of whose expedition got “there” first, Indian or Chinese, and who put their flag up first. This has implications on the two extremities of the Western and Eastern sectors where Tibetan evidence was lacking.
All the pre-1950 treaties/conventions/agreements concerning the Tibeto-Indian/Sino-Indian boundary were negotiated and signed between Tibet and British India (or with the Himalayan states concerned) except the Sino-Indian agreement of 1890 on the Sikkim-Tibet border, which the 13th Dalai Lama´s government refused to recognise. However, the British Government later sought Tibetan agreement on the said treaty, and was stipulated so in the Lhasa Convention of 1904.
Thus, seen from the perspective of this long-standing Trans- Himalayan diplomatic tradition and practice, it was not surprising that Sir Henry MacMahon, the British Plenipotentiary to the Simla Convention signed his famous MacMahon Line with his Tibetan counterpart, Lonchen Shtra, in 1914.
It should also be noted that most of the evidence, on which Chinese territorial claims are based, are from Tibetan sources, not official Han records. Such indirect evidence became valid only after 1954 when India recognised Tibet as part of the People´s Republic of China; and there is not much ground that the 1954 treaty provisions should be applied retroactively to all past cases in history. The Panchsheel treaty did not abrogate past treaties/agreements/conventions signed between British India and Tibet; it did nothing more than recognise Tibet to be part of China with effect from 29 April 1954.
The fact is that Tibet had been exercising its treaty-making powers “with the full knowledge and sanction of the Chinese Government”. The problem with the communist authorities in China is that they want to rewrite history according to their “revolutionary designs”. Most historians would agree that powers-that-be cannot plough back history.