Sikkim standoff: The historic treaty at the heart of India-China border problem

Updated on Jul 01, 2017 11:10 PM IST

The treaty, signed by British viceroy Lord Lansdowne and lieutenant governor Sheng Tai in 1890, has been repeatedly cited by the Chinese government in reference to the ongoing military standoff.

Army personnel keep a vigil at the Bumla pass along the India China border in Arunachal Pradesh.(AFP File Photo)
Army personnel keep a vigil at the Bumla pass along the India China border in Arunachal Pradesh.(AFP File Photo)
Hindustan Times, Beijing | BySutirtho Patranobis

There were no Tibetan or Bhutanese representatives in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on March 17, 1890, when top officials from British India and China signed a treaty to demarcate the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim.

That treaty, called the “Convention between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet”, essentially paved the way for the colonial power to annex the small state of Sikkim.

In the process, it demarcated the borders between Tibet and Sikkim, which India and China have largely adhered to pending the settlement of the dispute over their 3,488-km boundary.

The treaty - signed by British viceroy HCKP Fitzmaurice, also known as Lord Lansdowne, and lieutenant governor Sheng Tai, who was the “imperial associate resident in Tibet” - has been repeatedly cited by the Chinese government in reference to the ongoing military standoff near Nathu La in Sikkim.

The treay’s first article has been particularly highlighted by Chinese officials.

“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 Nepal territory,” Article 1 said.

The second article recognised the British government’s control over Sikkim.

“It is admitted that the British Government, whose Protectorate over the Sikkim State is hereby recognised, has direct and exclusive control over the internal administration and foreign relations of that State, and except through and with the permission of the British Government, neither the Ruler of the State nor any of its officers shall have official relations of any kind, formal or informal, with any other country,” the treaty said.

Both China and post-independence India followed the treaty and its boundary demarcation. It continued after Sikkim became a state of the Indian in 1975.

But China’s boundary issues with Bhutan, and Thimpu’s close ties with New Delhi, have played their parts in the current standoff, which has unfolded in Donglang or Doklam area, which is under Chinese control but claimed by Bhutan.

For India, it is important to have strategic access to the area and keep watch on whether China is engaged in illegal constructions in the region – the vulnerable “Siliguri Corridor” or “chicken’s neck”, India’s thin geographic link to the northeastern states, is located a short distance from the area.

“Where the boundary in the Sikkim sector is concerned, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the ‘basis of the alignment’. Further discussions regarding finalisation of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement on Friday.

The statement makes it amply clear India and Bhutan have coordinated their moves on the latest developments. The governments of the two countries have been in “continuous contact“ and Indian military personnel played a key role in opposing the construction of a road by Chinese troops to ensure the status quo is maintained. “These efforts continue,” the statement said.

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