The Dalai Lama is the Tibetans’ god-king and also the embodiment of India’s leverage on the core issue with China — Tibet. But with the longest-living Dalai Lama turning 80 today, the future of both Tibet, and the leverage that India has shied away from exercising, looks more uncertain than ever. Beijing is waiting for him to pass away to install a puppet as his successor, in the way it has captured the Panchen Lama institution.
The Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday comes just weeks after the 20th anniversary of China’s abduction of the Tibetan-appointed Panchen Lama, one of the world’s youngest and longest-serving political prisoners. And it will be followed by the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China deceptively calls the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’. This, in reality, is a gerrymandered and directly ruled Tibet, half of whose traditional areas have been taken away and incorporated in Chinese provinces.
China’s conquest of the sprawling, resource-rich Tibet enlarged its landmass by over 35%, turned it into India’s neighbour, armed it with control over Asia’s major river systems, and gave it access to a treasure-trove of mineral resources. Tibet — holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer — is now the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities. No development since India’s independence has carried greater implications for its long-term security than the fall of Tibet.
For China, capturing the Dalai Lama institution has become a priority, as if it were the unfinished business of its Tibet takeover. The aging 14th Dalai Lama, while coping with bouts of ill health, has publicly discussed a range of reincarnation possibilities that break from tradition. To avert a Panchen Lama-type abduction, he has even suggested that he be the last Dalai Lama or that the 15th Dalai Lama be found in the “free world” — among Tibetan exiles or in the Tibetan Buddhism citadels of Ladakh and Tawang.
It is doubtful that things would go China’s way in Tibet merely if it installed a marionette as the next Dalai Lama. Given how most Tibetans despise the China-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake, Beijing would be hard pressed to make its Dalai Lama acceptable to them. Its bigger problem, however, would likely be different.
The present Dalai Lama, with his espousal of non-violence and his conciliatory ‘Middle Way’ approach of seeking Tibet’s autonomy without independence, has kept the Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule peaceful. But once his time is over, it is far from certain that the movement would remain peaceful or seek only autonomy. The Tibetan resistance movement would become rudderless, fuelling greater turbulence in a region that China has tried hard to pacify.
The 15th Dalai Lama chosen by Tibetans to take on Beijing’s doppelgänger appointee would be a small child. It was such a power vacuum that China exploited to invade and occupy Tibet when the present Dalai Lama was just 15. After the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, Tibet remained leaderless and wracked by fierce regent-related intrigues until the present Dalai Lama was hurriedly enthroned when the Chinese invasion started in 1950.
The next power vacuum in the Tibetan hierarchy could be historically momentous in sealing the fate of the Dalai Lama lineage, shaping Tibet’s destiny, and having an impact far beyond. China’s mega-dams, mines, and military activities in Tibet are already set to increasingly affect Asia’s environment and security and to pose a bigger challenge to India than any other country. In this light, India cannot remain a mere spectator. Home to a large Tibetan exile community and directly bearing the impact of China’s activities on the world’s highest plateau — known as ‘the Roof of the World’ — India has a legitimate stake in Tibet’s future.
Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. In sharp contrast to India’s qualms about playing the Tibet card, Beijing has had no hesitation to employ the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military and nuclear balancer on the subcontinent. Beijing even plays the Kashmir card against an inordinately defensive India. China politically shields Pakistani terrorism against India — exemplified by its recent step to block United Nations action against the Pakistani release of UN-designated terrorist Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi — even as it steps up its own engagement with insurgent groups in India’s northeast, including funnelling arms to them and encouraging them to coalesce.
Tibet is India’s only important instrument of leverage against a muscular China bent upon altering the territorial, river-waters and geopolitical status quo and fomenting terrorism in India’s northeast. Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has resumed doing what the ‘weakling’ Manmohan Singh had halted since 2010 — referring to Tibet as part of China in joint statements with Beijing.
Tibet, ever since China eliminated it as a buffer, has been at the heart of the India-China divide. It will remain so until Beijing pursues reconciliation and healing there. Modi, given his dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy, must work to gradually reclaim the Tibet leverage against a China that openly challenges India’s territorial integrity by claiming Indian areas on the basis of their alleged ecclesial or tutelary links with annexed Tibet. China’s attempt at expanding annexation draws encouragement from India’s imprudent acceptance since the Nehruvian era of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is India’s strategic asset and ultimate trump card. If India is to safeguard its Tibet leverage for use, it must plan to act as a pivot in the Tibetan process to find, appoint and shield the next Dalai Lama.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. The views expressed are personal.