Why Tibet matters ever more in India-China ties

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Brahma Chellaney

Wars in space are not just Hollywood fiction but an emerging reality for defence planners. India’s successful “kill” with an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon is a major milestone in its quest for effective deterrence. Without developing ASAT capability, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space assets early in a conflict.
The test is meant as a warning shot across China’s bow for another reason: ASAT capability serves as a basic building block of a ballistic missile defence system, which can shoot down incoming missiles. The development thus holds implications also for China’s “all-weather” strategic ally, Pakistan, which maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against India.
In this light, it is unconscionable that the development of India’s satellite-kill technologies was held up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which, as top scientists have said, refused to give the go-ahead. In the Indian system, no one is held to account, even for compromising national security.
India’s ASAT test should not obscure the fact that March 31 marked the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India after a gruelling two-week journey through his Chinese-occupied homeland. Dressed as a Chinese soldier, he escaped from his military-besieged Norbulinka Palace in Lhasa. He entered India as tens of thousands died in China’s brutal suppression of an uprising against its occupation of Tibet.
Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. Indeed, the fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.
When the Dalai Lama fled his homeland, India was the only country to have diplomatic representation in Tibet. In fact, India controlled Tibet’s postal, telegraph and telephone services and had military personnel at Yatung and Gyantse before it ceded those rights under the infamous Panchsheel Agreement of 1954.
Indeed, no sooner had Mao Zedong’s regime annexed the historical buffer of Tibet than New Delhi voluntarily began forfeiting all its extraterritorial rights and privileges there. In 1952, it replaced the 16-year-old Indian Mission in Lhasa (which maintained direct relations with Tibet) with a new consulate-general accredited to China. Nineteen months later, the Panchsheel accord gave its imprimatur to the “Tibet Region of China”, without Beijing’s recognition of the then existing Indo-Tibetan border. After China invaded India in 1962, it shut the Indian consulate in Lhasa.
Tibet enjoyed close transportation, trade and cultural links with India throughout history. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain”, the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.
In recent years, China has turned the resource-rich but ecologically fragile Tibetan Plateau into the centre of its mining and dam-building activities. The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens India’s ecological well-being. This is illustrated by the still turbid waters of the once-pristine Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system.
The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, the more Beijing has upped the ante, including seeking to reengineer trans-boundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent. Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.
Today, despite the ASAT test, India’s China policy seems adrift. The Dalai Lama is a strategic asset for India, yet current Indian policy doesn’t reflect that. Indeed, according to a leaked advisory, New Delhi changed course early last year to shun official relations with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders — a shift that won Beijing’s tacit appreciation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first attempt in 2014 to “reset” ties with China boomeranged spectacularly. Undeterred, Modi persisted, even as China furtively expanded its military footprint in Doklam. The Wuhan summit represented Modi’s Reset 2.0. For China, however, Wuhan served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Beijing has embarked on a major border-force buildup. On Modi’s watch, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus.
Meanwhile, Tibet’s shadow over India-China relations is becoming longer. Beijing is waiting to install a marionette as the Dalai Lama’s successor. China’s increasing militarization of Tibet directly impinges on Indian security. Its punitive denial of hydrological data to India in 2017 was an early warning of the water card it is fashioning. If Tibet is at the heart of the China-India divide, water is at the centre of the Tibet-India bond.

To help curb China’s territorial and riparian revisionism, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a broader strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability. More than ASAT and other weapons, India needs political will and clarity to deter China.

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