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India and China’s conflict over Sikkim

Both India and China began their attempts to claim vassalage over Sikkim in the nineteenth century and after some pockets of dormancy, the issue returned to haunt India–China relations in the twenty-first century. The graph of Sikkim’s history saw many curves due to the conflict between India and China over its territory. Therefore, China’s recognition of Sikkim in 2005 represents an important milestone in India’s China diplomacy.

Here’s an excerpt from The Long Game that will give you a glimpse of the chequered history of tutelage and vassalage of Tibet and Sikkim due to their shared Himalayan Buddhist heritage.


The Long Game
The Long Game || Vijay Gokhale

In 1904, weary of Tibetan intransigence in accepting the boundary and trading arrangements negotiated between the British and the Chinese, the Government of India sent Sir Francis Younghusband with a military force into Lhasa. The resultant convention between Great Britain and Tibet (known as the Lhasa Convention of 7 September 1904), compelled the Dalai Lama’s government to recognize the frontier between Sikkim and Tibet as defined by the 1890 Anglo–Chinese Convention. With the Chinese and Tibetans on the same page, so to speak, the British government could have resumed the process of demarcation of the Sikkim–Tibet boundary that was interrupted in 1895. They chose not to do so.

The crumbling Chinese Empire, in a last gasp, launched a military campaign in Tibet under Chao Erh-feng, the Imperial Viceroy, and occupied Lhasa, thereby distracting the Tibetans from creating further problems on the Sikkim–Tibet frontier. Soon thereafter in 1911, the Chinese Empire itself collapsed, and the British were left as the sole dominant power in the Himalayas. Hence the British might not, any longer, have considered the Sikkim–Tibet border to be an immediate problem for the British Indian Empire’s Himalayan frontier. They never resumed the process of demarcation. This British decision would return to haunt India–China relations in the twenty-first century.

Following the independence of India in 1947, the new Government of India entered into a new treaty with Sikkim in 1950 under which it became a protectorate. Sikkim’s defence, foreign affairs and communications were to be handled by the Government of India. Hence, when boundary negotiations began with China in the late 1950s, the Sikkim-Tibet frontier was deemed by the Indian side to be a part of the agenda for the India–China boundary talks. In 1956, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai acknowledged the special relations that India had with Sikkim, but subsequently avoided any discussion with India on the Tibet–Sikkim boundary during the border talks in the late 1950s and in the official level talks in 1960. In fact, Premier Zhou wrote to Nehru on 8 September 1959 making it clear that the boundary between China and Sikkim ‘does not fall within the scope of our present discussion . . .’

This was no coincidence; it is now known that the Chinese were already aware of correspondence between the Government of India and the Dalai Lama’s government in 1948 (before the founding of the People’s Republic of China), wherein the Tibetan government had demanded that independent India should first return all the lands occupied by the British Empire. Sikkim was one of the territories claimed by them. A cable from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to their ambassadors in July 1955, which contained several suggestions to strengthen ties with Afro-Asian nations, contained instructions to the effect that ‘we should formulate a secret stipulation on the status of Sikkim, Bhutan, Kanjuti, etc.’ In 1954, the Chinese published a map showing Sikkim as a part of China. These instances suggest that the new Communist government in Beijing wanted to keep all options open, including the Tibetan claims over Sikkim.

Although they were in no position at that point of time to challenge India over Sikkim, Zhou Enlai shrewdly declined to engage in any activity that might suggest China’s de jure recognition of Sikkim as a protectorate of India. For this reason, when India proposed that the boundary discussions should include the Sikkim–Tibet (China) sector, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the Indian Embassy in Beijing on 26 December 1959, saying that ‘the boundary between China and Sikkim has long been formally delimited and there is neither any discrepancy between the maps nor any disputes in practice.’ When Indian Ambassador Parathasarathi paid his farewell call on Vice Foreign Minister Geng Biao in Beijing on 19 July 1961, the Head of the Asian Department, Zhang Wenjin, who was also present, even alleged that India was wilfully trying to involve China in order to pressurize Sikkim (and Bhutan) into accepting India’s version of where their boundaries with China lay. In reality, the Chinese were buying time, and possibly studying records, while they made up their minds about Tibetan claims on Sikkim as well as the Anglo-Chinese discussions in earlier periods that had led to the 1890 and 1906 Conventions between Britain and China.


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