When Burma’s junta last September killed at least 31 people during monk-led protests in Rangoon, it triggered international outrage and a new wave of US-led sanctions. Now the junta’s closest associate, the world’s largest autocracy in Beijing, has cracked down on monks, nuns and others in Tibet, with an indeterminate number of people killed. The muted global response thus far raises the question whether China has accumulated such power as to escape international censure over highly repressive actions.
For India, the Chinese crackdown on monk-led pro-independence protests in Tibet — the biggest in almost two decades — is an opportunity to highlight a festering issue that is at the heart of the India-China divide. That divide cannot be bridged unless Beijing begins a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet by coming to terms with the reality that nearly 60 years of oppression have failed to crush the grassroots Tibetan resistance. By laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesiastical or tutelary links to them, Beijing itself underlines the centrality of the Tibet issue.
While China unabashedly plays the Tibet card against India, such as by staking a claim not just to Tawang but to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh — a state nearly thrice the size of Taiwan — New Delhi fights shy to even shine a spotlight on the Tibet issue. Worse, India has unwittingly strengthened China’s Tibet-linked claims to Indian territories, including occupied Aksai Chin, by recognising Tibet as part of the People’s Republic. Even when the Dalai Lama backs the Indian position on Arunachal, New Delhi is too coy to translate such support into diplomatic advantage.
It is a testament to India’s pusillanimity that, even as Chinese security forces arbitrarily arrest and publicly parade young Tibetans, New Delhi has received fulsome praise from Premier Wen Jiabao, who, while calling the Tibet issue a “very sensitive one in our relations with India”, said, “We appreciate the position and the steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique.” The orchestrated attacks on the Dalai Lama are a reminder that a line of moderation vis-à-vis Beijing is counterproductive. Two decades after he changed the Tibetan struggle for liberation from Chinese rule to a struggle for autonomy within the People’s Republic, the Dalai Lama has little to show for his ‘middle way’, other than having made himself a growing target of Chinese vilification.
It is past time India reclaimed leverage by subtly changing its stance on Tibet. It can do that without provocation. Indian policy has been held hostage for long by a legion of panda-huggers, who bring discredit to our democracy and comfort to our adversary. These Sinophiles believe the only alternative to continued appeasement is confrontation. They cannot grasp the simple fact that between appeasement and confrontation lie a hundred different options. A false choice — pay obeisance to Beijing or brace up for confrontation — has been used to block any legitimate debate on policy options. Today, several developments are underscoring the need for a more nuanced approach on Tibet that adds elasticity and leverage to Indian diplomacy. These include China’s frenetic build-up of military and transport capabilities on the vast Himalayan plateau; its refusal to clarify the frontline with India; and its latent threat to fashion water as a weapon.
Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river systems. With global warming likely to aggravate water woes, China’s control over the riverhead of Asia’s waters carries major security implications for lower-riparian States like India. As World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin warned in 1995, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”
Tibet’s forcible absorption not only helped China to expand its landmass by one-third, but also has given it a contiguous border, for the first time in history, with India, Bhutan and Nepal, and an entryway to Pakistan and Burma. By subsequently annexing Aksai Chin, China was able to link Tibet with another vast, restive region, Xinjiang, home to Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups and seat of a short-lived independent East Turkestan Republic up to 1949. Today, China is recklessly extracting Tibet’s immense mineral deposits, unmindful that such activities and its new hydro and railway projects are playing havoc with Tibet’s fragile ecosystem — critical to the climate security of India and other regional states.
Tibet’s security and autonomy are tied to India’s own well-being. If the ‘Roof of the World’ is on fire, India can hardly be safe. Tibet indeed symbolises that a sustainable regional order has to be built on a balance among the market, culture and nature. Tibet is likely to determine whether we will see a more cooperative or a more competitive Asia — a stable, peaceful Asia that expands its economic and cultural renaissance, or an Asia riven by Great Power rivalries and the continued suppression of conquered nationalities.
Against this background, India needs to do at least three things. First, softly put the focus on the core issue, Tibet, including on China’s denial of autonomy to that region, in breach of the ‘17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ imposed on the Tibetans in 1951. New Delhi could sugar-coat this by saying China’s own security would be advanced if it reached out to Tibetans and concluded a deal that helped bring back the Dalai Lama from his long exile in India. The onus should be placed squarely on Beijing to ensure that Tibet, having ceased to be a political buffer, now becomes a political bridge between India and China.
The choice before India is to either stay stuck in a defensive, unviable negotiating position, where it has to fend off Chinese territorial demands, or to take the Chinese bull by the horns and question the very legitimacy of Beijing’s right to make territorial claims ecclesiastically on behalf of Tibetan Buddhism when it still has to make peace with Tibetans.
Second, if Tibet is to be the means by which India coops up the bull in its own China shop, it has to treat the Dalai Lama as its most powerful ally. As long as the Dalai Lama is based at Dharamsala, he will remain India’s biggest strategic asset against China. The Tibetans in Tibet will neither acquiesce to Chinese rule, as their latest defiance shows, nor side with China against India. If after the death of the present incumbent, the institution of the Dalai Lama gets captured by Beijing (the way it has anointed its own Panchen Lama), India will be poorer by several army divisions against China. To foil China’s scheme, India should be ready with a plan.
Third, India has to stop gratuitously referring to Tibet as part of China. From Nehru to Vajpayee, no Indian PM returned from a Beijing visit without referring to Tibet, in some formulation or the other, as part of China. Last January, Manmohan Singh became the first PM to return from Beijing without making any unwarranted reference to Tibet to please his hosts. The ‘T’ word is conspicuously missing from the joint communiqué — a key point the media failed to catch. If this is not to be a one-shot aberration, Indian policy has to reflect this, however unobtrusively.
Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi