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History, Politics

The Shimla Convention of 1914

Source: Samtsul: Tibet Through My Eyes

The Shimla Convention of 1914 was the first proposed forum for arbitration consisting of all the three Central Asian protagonists viz., Tibet, China and Britain. It was the first truce of its kind that witnessed the plenipotentiaries of all the three countries sitting face-to-face at the same negotiating table.

After the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s proclamation of the Tibetan independence in 1912-13, the Shimla Convention of 1914 provided an important avenue for Tibet to consolidate its independent entity and garner acknowledgement for the same from its two giant neighbours. Although the final agreement somewhat lost its significance owing to the Chinese government’s refusal to ratify it, the convention itself recognised Tibet as being at par with China and Britain; and conceded its treaty-making rights.

Origin of the tripartite armistice:

For the first time in the recent Tibetan history, Tibet’s political rein was in the hands of a dynamic Dalai Lama. His progressive leadership in Tibet considerably changed the political equation in Central Asia making the British and the Chinese regard him with a certain degree of importance. The Dalai Lama had been pressing for the British mediation in theongoing border conflicts with the Chinese in Kham region of Tibet. His principal priorities at that time were the consolidation of the Tibetan independence, demarcation of frontier with China and the conclusion of hostility in eastern Tibet. His newfound friendship with Sir Charles Bell, the political officer of Sikkim ensured that his concerns get due attention from the British government.

British-India was also perturbed about peace and stability in Tibet because of the territorial proximity of the two countries. The British wished to secure a buffer zone in Central Asia to avoid further confrontation with other imperial powers in the region. Moreover, they also realized the infeasibility of all the prior accords signed with China regarding Tibet and felt the need to reach at a binding trade agreement on Tibet. The seeds of the tripartite conference were thus sown.

Elsewhere in China, the last of the Manchu remnants had been overthrown a couple of years ago and a nationalist government had stepped into its shoes. Soon after the revolution, the then Chinese president Yuan Shikai had issued an order calling for the integration of the so-called five races [the Hans, Manchus, Mongolians, Tibetans and Turkiks] into the Republic of China. However, this declaration was entirely misplaced as the reality was quite the contrary. Mongolia had already slipped under Russian control and the Chinese forces were facing huge losses at the hands of the Tibetan army in eastern Tibet.

The Chinese were particularly apprehensive about Tibet being transformed into a British sphere of influence. Thus, the nationalist government at Nanjing persistently endeavoured to lure Tibet to join the Chinese Republic, but without much success. For the Chinese, the British mediation in the issues concerning Tibet, which they regarded as a part of China was totally unwelcome. However, they also feared that their refusal to participate in the proposed tripartite conference might prompt Britain and Tibet to entry into a separate treaty (like they did in 1904-Lhasa Convention) and thus undermine Chinese interests in Tibet. Therefore, after many delaying tactics they reluctantly decided to participate in what was to be later known as ‘The Shimla Convention’.

The convention was chaired by Sir Henry McMahon with Sir Charles Bell as his assistant. The Tibetan delegation consisted of Lonchen Shatra Paljor Dorjee and his assistant Teji Trimon. The Chinese government was represented by Ivan Chen. The plenipotentiaries met in Shimla on 13th October 1913 for the preliminary meeting.

The Chinese Position:

From the very outset, the idea of tripartite dialogue on equal footing didn’t go down well with the Chinese. Although by participating in the convention China in a way recognized Tibet’s autonomy , but it was adamant on its claim of sovereignty over Tibet which the Chinese representative at the conference- Ivan Chen reiterated by reclining his government’s position on following arguments :

a). He argued that after the Mongol prince Genghis
Khan’s conquest, Tibet formally became a part of

b). He cited the acceptance of titles by the fifth
Dalai Lama from the Chinese Emperor as another
justification of the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

c).He further quoted the military assistance rendered
by the Chinese Emperor to Tibet during the Dzunkar
and the Gorkha invasions as a potential vestige of
Chinese sovereignty. He also mentioned the reparation
of Rupees 25 Lakhs, which the Chinese paid on behalf
of Tibetans to the British in the aftermath of the
Younghusband Expedition in 1904.

Ivan Chen claimed that the Amban had the right to
station 2,600 men in Tibet to control its internal and
foreign affairs; and proposed the border between China
and Tibet to be at Gyama, some 150 miles east of

The Tibetan Prospective:

Lonchen Shatra Paljor Dorjee, the Tibetan envoy at the
conference was the Dalai Lama’s pro-western prime
minister who believed that Tibetan interests could be
best served by being in friendly terms with Britain.
He and his assistance Teji Norbu Wangyal Trimon had
done their homework before visiting India for the epic
conference. They were well prepared to put forward
counter-arguments against any Chinese claim over
Tibet. The Tibetan representatives wanted the dialogue
to be conducted with precedence on following points :

1).Tibet to manage its own internal affairs.

2). Its foreign affairs to be managed for important
matters in consultation with the British.

3). No Chinese Amban or official to be stationed in

4).All the ethnic Tibetan areas upto Dartsedo in the
east and Kokonor in the north-east to be inculcated
into Tibetan territory.

Shatra dismissed the Chinese assumption that Genghis Khan’s conquest of Tibet made it a part of China by revealing that Genghis Khan was a Mongol and not a Chinese at the first place; and he at no point undertook any administrative role in Tibet. He corrected Ivan Chen’s argument about titles by pointing out that giving titles were mutual acts of reciprocity, if the Chinese emperor conferred titles on the Dalai Lama then the Dalai Lama also responded by bestowing titles on the emperor. He further admitted that the Manchu military assistance during the Gorkha and Dzunkar interventions was sought in accordance with the patron-priest liaison and insisted that Tibet never asked the Manchus to pay the compensation sum to the British on its behalf .He also produced documentary evidence like revenue records , lists of houses, officials and headmen in the disputed areas of eastern Tibet to justify Tibetan claims in the region.

The British Solution:

Sir Henry McMahon found himself in an increasingly
uncomfortable position given the diametrically
opposite viewpoints harboured by the Chinese and the
Tibetans. He pressured the delegates from the two
countries to make certain compromises and strike a
deal renunciating some of their irreconcilable
assertions. With an intention to be fair to both the
sides, he proposed the division of Tibet into two

i). ‘Outer Tibet’ which roughly corresponded to
Central and Western Tibet including the sections
skirting the Indian frontier, Lhasa, Shigatse, Chamdo;

ii). ‘Inner Tibet’ including Amdo Province and part of

Following were the major aspects of his proposal:

1. ‘Inner Tibet’ was to be a buffer zone for China
where the Chinese were accorded the right to establish
a measure of control, but without undermining Tibet’s
territorial and political integrity.

2. China’s suzerainty over Tibet was to be recognised
in exchange for the similar recognition of the
autonomy of the Outer Tibet.

3. China was expected to abstain from any interference
in the administration of Outer Tibet including the
selection of the Dalai Lamas.

4. China was to station only one official envoy in
Outer Tibet with a personal escort of not more than
300 soldiers.

5. China was not to convert Tibet into a Chinese
province and Britain was not to annex any portions of

The proposal came under attack from both the Tibetansand the Chinese. For Tibetans, acceptance of Chinese suzerainty was inconsistent with their recent declaration of independence and for the Chinese, nominal suzerainty was not a comparable substitute for their claim of sovereignty. However in the wake of continuous pressure from the British, Lonchen Shatra consented to the proposed agreement. McMahon also managed to convince Ivan Chen to sign the draft agreement by including an additional note citing Tibet to be a part of Chinese territory- which was entirely contradictory to the idea of Tibetan autonomy with nominal Chinese suzerainty.

Albeit the draft agreement was initialled by all the three participating parties, the final agreement was not approved by the Chinese government. Thus, it was decided that China was to be deprived of all the privileges mentioned in the convention until it officially ratified the agreement. On 3rd July 1914 Britain and Tibet formally signed the treaty.

Indo-Tibetan border demarcation

The Chinese government’s sluggishness to ratify the convention provided ample time for Sir Henry McMahon and Lonchen Shatra to begin separate talks for the demarcation of Indo-Tibetan border.The object of discussion was the areas between the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and Tibet. These talks marked the evolution of what is today known as ‘The McMahon Line’ demarcating Indo-Tibetan border. The notes were initialed and exchanged; and the demarcated maps were signed and sealed. The Indo-Tibetan border demarcation treaty was finally signed on 27th April 1914.


Although the Shimla Convention was conceived with the notion of resolving Sino-Tibetan crisis once and for all, it didn’t succeed in its objective- primarily because of Chinese refusal to ratify the treaty. The Sino-Tibetan border remained as obscure as ever and the border conflicts in eastern Tibet escalated to worrying proportions. Four years after the conclusion of the Shimla Convention, the British mediation was sought once again to effect a ceasefire in the region.


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