Nepal-China: Case study of Shifting border


On the north of Nepal lies the territory of China. Nepal had relations with the TAR of China since thousands of years, before unification of Nepal. Although the relation between Nepal and Tibet goes back to historical times there were of course antagonisms and aggressions. But those hostilities were basically for trade, economic and monetary reasons. Attacks and counterattacks on each other’s territory had made some changes in the boundary line. During those wars the Gorkhali troops had expanded their territory inside Tibet near to Lhasa.

Actually, the Tibetans wanted to expand trade to India through Nepal. Responding to Tibet’s proposal as an opportunity, Nepal sent a delegation to Khasa of Tibet located on the northeast of Kathmandu to talk to the Tibetans. The representatives of the two countries felt a need for an agreement. Then a trade agreement was signed between Nepal and Tibet at Khasa on 5 September 1775. This trade agreement is known as Khasa Agreement. The agreement also made a provision to let the previous border to remain as it was. The treaty felt the need to strengthen the borderline between the two countries.

During regency of Bahadur Shah, he sent a protest letter to the Tibet government expressing dissatisfaction with them for not complying fully with the terms and conditions of the trade treaty. In its reply the Tibetan government instead, made several accusations against Nepal. In the meantime, Tibet worked for attack on the pretext on Nepal that it gave asylum to Shyamarpa Lama who had fled from Tibet and had entered Nepal. So the environment was not congenial between two countries.

In the summer of 1788 AD, Nepal sent Gorkha troops under the joint command of Damodar Pande and Bam Shah to attack Tibet. The Nepali troops led by Damodar Pandey attacked Tibet. The Tibetans could not resist, and the Nepali troops pushed forward through Rasuwagadhi and Gorkha to the north capturing trekking passes like Kerung and Kuti and expanded Nepal’s borderline northward and also pushed up to Sigatsche (Tashilhunpo) which is located on the south-west of Lhasa. But the Tibetans proposed for treaty thinking that the Nepalese troops would be at Lhasa. There were several rounds of talks, and finally, Nepal and Tibet entered into an agreement on 2 June 1789, mediated by the Chinese representatives. This agreement is known as Kerung agreement. The agreement contracted Nepal’s territory, which had reached to Tashilhunpo during 1788.

In course of time, Tibet informed that the Kerung Treaty was controversial and proposed that it should be amended. They said that the treaty was still not ratified by the Lhasa palace. On the other hand, they also felt that Nepal might not agree to their reasoning and could make attack again; so they started preparing for war. Nepal became suspicious. All these initiated Nepal to start another war with Tibet.

Then Nepal sent its forces from two sides to attack on Tibet on 6 August 1791. The force pushed northeast and seceded further eastward and captured Digarcha, the capital of Tashi Lama. In this way Nepal’s border expanded to Sigatsche and Tashilhunpo.

In such a situation, Tibet asked China for military help. The Chinese force arrived in Lhasa to help the Tibetans. The Chinese force attacked the Nepalese and drove the Nepalese forces back from the expanded territory. The Chinese troops pushed further south and reached just 30 kilometers north of Kathmandu, capital city. But despite several efforts, the Chinese troops failed to cross the Betrawoti River. Taking this opportunity, the Nepalese troops launched a counter attack upon the Chinese troops with additional forces. The Chinese side suffered heavy casualty. They were weary and tired of the war. So the Chinese wanted to end the war and preferred a treaty. Talks were held between the two sides, and an agreement was reached on 5 October 1792 and the war ended. This agreement is known as or Nepal-Tibet Treaty (Betrawoti Treaty) of 1792.

Under the treaty, the border of Nepal was shifted back to the line north of Rasuwagadhi. In this way, the Betrawoti Treaty tried to keep Nepal’s northern border stable under the impartiality and fairness of China that made the present border of Nepal. So this was a kind of shifting border of Nepal during the era of late 1800.

Likewise, the Tibetan government was disinclined to provide security, under the Betrawoti treaty, to Nepali traders living and doing business in Tibet. By 1854, differences between the governments of Nepal and Tibet further widened. This was coupled with border disputes. Nepal had given the pastureland south of Khasa on annual contract to Tibet for grazing their cattle. But the Tibetans made settlements there and began collecting land tax from them. Tibetans intended to include the land within their territory. To materialize their intention, the Tibetans dug 80 feet wide trenches at different segments one mile south of the Nepalese border and began claiming that the land belonged to them. Knowing about their nuisance, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur sent officials to recoup the land-tax collected by the Tibetans, to restore Nepal’s claim to the territory and to collect the tax by Nepalese themselves. Tibetans did not accept Nepal’s claim that they had encroached upon Nepalese territory and had shifted the borderline. But Nepal was not satisfied. As a result, it worked as a background for yet another war between Nepal and Tibet.

In the mean time Nepal asked Tibet to return Kerung and Kuti areas which were previously under Nepal’s control; and also to hand over the Taklakot area in the north of Darchula along the route to lake Man Sarovar. The Tibet government responded, but did not mention anything about the demand raised by Nepal. Failing to get a clear reply, Nepal formally announced war against Tibet on 6 March 1855. Under the plan, Nepalese troops attacked Tibet from North, West and Far West. The troop pushed to the north and captured Kerung, Digree, and Jhungagadhi areas. The Nepali force that had pushed to northeast captured Khasa and Kuti on the north of Sindhupalchowk on 3 April 1855 and pushed further north to Sunagampa and remained there.

The Nepalese had remained for 8 months defending the newly conquered territories. But a combined force of the Tibetans and Chinese made a surprise attack at Kuti on the night of 5 November 1855. The Nepalese were defeated. In the mean time commander of the Nepali force that had withdrawn from Kuti asked for additional troops from Kathmandu, and the reinvigorated Nepalese troops attacked Kuti from three sides. Then Kuti was restored again within the Nepalese territory.

When the Nepalese troops gained success in all sectors, the Tibetans proposed peace talks at the border. Finally, both sides agreed to resume the peace talks, and the negotiation was held at the Thapathali Palace in Kathmandu. Both sides then reached an agreement for a treaty, and a treaty was signed on 24 March 1856. The treaty is known as Nepal-Tibet Peace Treaty. This treaty is also called as Thapathali Treaty. This contracted Nepal border with Bhairablangur Himal and Nepal’s border was fixed at Tatopani, which is also the present border of Nepal.

In this way, by the time of Thapathali Treaty, Nepal’s northern border had expanded and contracted to and from Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and finally it was shifted to the Himalayan range. At that time, majority of the Himalayan range had remained within the Nepalese frontier. It remained for near about a century. All these events and incidents show that Nepal’s northern border line shifted seven times within a period of eighty-one years to and from Tibet.

Boundary delimitation

The relation between Nepal and China strengthened after Tibet was a part of the autonomous region of China. To enhance the relationship furthermore, it was agreed that formal settlement of the question of the boundary between China and Nepal is of fundamental interest to the peoples of the two countries. It was believed that formal delimitation of the entire boundary and its consolidation as a boundary of peace and friendship not only constitute a milestone in the further development of the friendly relations between Nepal and China, but also a contribution towards strengthening peace in Asia and the world. Both the governments agreed to delineate and demarcate the customary boundary line in a scientific way.

To materialize the boundary survey and mapping, Nepal-China Boundary Agreement was made on 21 March 1960. After making a detailed home work on both the sides, Boundary Treaty was made on 5 October 1961. The treaty was signed by the King of Nepal and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, after delineating the physical boundary line. Then the actual boundary line was demarcated physically. During the joint boundary demarcation on the Sino-Nepal borderline there were disputes, conflicts, debates, controversies, claims and counter-claims in 32 places; including the question of Mount Everest.

It is commendable that all the disputes, claims and counter-claims were settled forever in accordance with the principles of equality, mutual benefit, friendship, mutual understanding and accommodation. Besides, it was adopted by the parties, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence; and a spirit of fairness, reasonableness, mutual understanding and most importantly respecting each other as Nepal and China have the equal rights and status in the international arena. According to its norm all the issues, except Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) had been settled from the Joint Boundary Committee. Regarding the question of Everest, the dispute was settled and ended while the visiting Prime Minister Chou En-Lai made a statement in Kathmandu on 28 April 1960 that ‘Mount Everest belongs to Nepal.’

Boundary demarcation

The demarcation of territory was made according to the delimitation of the treaty. Joint Survey Teams were formed to carry out border survey and they started to erect permanent pillars and markers from 21 June 1962 at different points of the borderline.

Under the treaty, the border areas have been adjusted to either country according to its traditional uses, possessions and its convenience. This adjustment was made on the basis of ‘give and take’ and the inclusion of some pasture land within the Nepalese territory. With this principle, Nepal had given 1,836.25 square kilometer of land to China and Nepal had taken 2,139.00 sq km, as it has been added 302.75 square kilometer of Chinese territory into Nepal.[i]   This is a kind of last border shifting between Nepal and China.

In connection to the demarcation of the boundary with the watershed principle, there were some problems of cross-holding occupation. For example, when possession of some land and pasture land owned by the citizen of one country felt on the other side of the border, he would become the citizen of another country. To solve this problem, it reached to an understanding on the choice of nationality.

The joint teams demarcated and established pillars and markers, specified serial number 1 to 79 from west to east. Among them, there were 48 larger and 31 smaller size pillars. In addition, they had established 20 offset pillars, where there were possibilities of disappearance of main pillars due to natural circumstances, so that the total number of pillars and markers constructed reached to 99 in total. The total length of the demarcated borderline was delineated as 1439.18 kilometers. Erections of border pillars were completed within a period of one year without making any discrepancy in words and actions.

The boundary treaty signed on 5 October 1961 determined the border line in a formal and scientific manner that had been remained undetermined for hundreds of years, but had been used according to tradition and conveniences between Nepal and TAR of China. The treaty also solved the minor scuffles that was left by history, and gave rise to the borderline as a symbol of peace and friendship. After signing the treaty, officials of both countries expressed satisfaction for resolving once and for all the problems that had remained with history. It was also felt that the treaty was a great contribution to the future generation of both countries.

It could be said  that the northern borderline of Nepal has been fixed at almost watershed of the Himalayan Range as the northern border consists of many Himalayan peaks, the borderline goes through the high peaks, mountains, passes, deuralis (terminal points of up mountain), gorges and the pasturelands. Finally, Nepal-China boundary protocol was signed on 20 January 1963. It was also mentioned in the protocol that there would be joint inspection of the whole length of the border by teams of both the countries every five years, but the inspection may be postponed whenever agreed upon by both parties.

To renew the protocol, the border was jointly inspected, repaired and maintained damaged pillars. After completing all the formalities, boundary protocol was renewed on 20 November 1979. In the same way, third protocol was renewed on 6 December 1988. To formulate the Fourth and the last protocol, joint inspection and border survey mapping was started on 9 May 2005. The joint teams inspected, repaired and maintained a total number of 99 pillars and markers. All the technical works, including the preparation of digital strip-maps have been completed. It has prepared 57 sheets of border maps based on GPS technology. However, it has a minor issues remained to be tackled. Regarding the boundary marker #57 it is found slightly placed inside Nepal, instead of what was previously presumed. It is the matter of a controversy of near about 6 hectares of land. So the joint technical boundary committee meeting, to prepare the fourth boundary protocol, has been stranded till this date. (Excerpts Only)

The author is a former Director General Survey Department of Nepal and Managing Director of Bhumichitra Mapping Co. Kathmandu, Nepal. He could be reached at The paper was presented at International Cross-Border Conference on Border Regions in Transition (BRIT)-XII Fukuoka (Japan)-Busan (South Korea) 13-16 November 2012.