It was my recent trip to Dharamshala which acquainted me closely with the plight of Tibetans living under forceful Chinese occupation. Sitting in a café overlooking The Dalai Lama’s Temple, made me wonder what His Holiness endured during the siege of the Norbulingka Palace, in the onslaught of which, he fled his land disguised as a border guard. The siege eventually resulted in the massacre of the nearly eighty-seven thousand people and the ultimate Chinese control over Tibet. In continuation of these thoughts, I came to ponder upon another horrible reality – that, this was the first-time India shared a boundary with the dreaded “Chinese Dragon”. The following article highlights the implications of the Chinese invasion of Tibet on our country, the dire consequences of a non-existent policy on Tibet followed by commentary on a possible route that can be opted in framing India’s Tibetan policy.
The first and obvious implication, as I have already mentioned above, is the common boundary issue. With the invasion of Tibet, China had renounced the McMahon Line drawn by the British as part of the Shimla Accord of 1914 which led to a heated debate about the actual boundary dividing the two Asian giants, which eventually snowballed into the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The victorious People’s Liberation Army of China temporarily held significant and strategically important sectors on the Indian side of the McMahon Line. The war of ‘62, not only shook the morale of the Indian troops, which bore significant casualties, but also the faith in the traditional defence provided by the mighty Himalayas, which until then was thought to be unbreachable by the Indians.
The occupation of Tibet had also allowed China to rapidly develop its resources and strike capabilities extremely close to the Indian border. The construction of highway number 219 in the disputed Aksai Chin sector formed a vital part of the discourse that led to the First Sino-Indian war. Since then, China has come a long way. In her paper
for the Institute for Land Warfare Studies, Ms. Monika Chansoria listed out various developmental projects undertaken by the Chinese in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This list, inter alia
, includes the construction of more than 58,000 km of roadways, an almost equal number of kilometers in railroad and nearly 5 airfields in the TAR. These developments can be broadly classified into civilian and military categories, however, they are largely interlinked. The road and railways are ostensibly constructed for the development of the Tibetan Autonomous Region; however, they serve other purposes important to Chinese interests in the region – the first being to facilitate the exodus of Han Chinese migrants into the TAR which forms a vital part of the government’s agenda to argue Tibet’s annexation into the Chinese mainland. The second is to enable rapid deployments of infantry and mechanized divisions along the Indian Border. Ms. Chansoria further observes in her paper that all roadways have been constructed as per military standards, which allows deployment of nearly 12 divisions in less than a month. All airfields are tailor made to suit the landing requirements of PLAAF strike and airlift aircraft such as Russian-made Sukhoi fighters and the IL series of transport aircraft. Thus, with the occupation of Tibet, China had essentially provided herself with a white canvas to elaborate plan and structure its strike capabilities against India, which were used with devastating consequences in the various Sino-Indian Wars.
Another area of serious concern to India is the vast investment China has poured into the building of dams in the occupied Tibetan region. Unfortunately, all the rivers upon which China proposes to construct or has constructed barrages and dams, are rivers of vital importance to Indian interests, to name a couple – Brahmaputra and Sutlej. These seemingly civilian projects go long way in establishing diplomatic superiority and leverage to keep status quo in favour of China in the event of a conflict. As it stands now, the ball is comfortably in China’s court.
Just before the commencement of the invasion, the Nehru Government had strongly urged Tibetan authorities to order the construction of an airfield in Lhasa through which India could supply inventory and if necessary, men, to the Tibetan defence.
However, the Kashag rubbished Nehru’s offer as it didn’t believe in a Chinese invasion (due to its isolation in Lhasa and lack of communication with other provinces), which by then had overrun the North-Eastern Provinces of Kham and Chamdo. It was not until the rapid PLA advance could be seen from the Potala Palace that the authorities realized the magnitude of the problem that stood before them. However, by then Nehru had to withdraw the offer due to the fear of Chinese aggression.
Apart from this initial offer, India’s Policy on Tibet has remained rather dormant. Though India and the Tibetan Government in exile share a close bond, India never overtly condemned Chinese action due to geopolitical circumstances. This dormant policy was portrayed even in the UNGA when India abstained from voting on the motion proposed by El Salvador requesting UN intervention in Tibet. Nevertheless, one of the biggest message India could deliver to the world conveying its support for Tibet was granting asylum to His Holiness The Dalai Lama, his entourage, consisting of the 97000 refugees and the recognition of its government in exile. Due credit must be given to Nehru and his advisors for showing such tact in spite of Chinese objections.
A little more help came from the Indian side post the war of ‘62. After suffering defeat in conventional warfare, India started to consider its asymmetric options in the war against China. Most certainly, the attention of military strategists went to the Tibetan resistance. India established a covert facility called Establishment 22 where it started to train and arm Tibetan fighters to be used as asymmetric units. This served as a big shot in the arm for the resistance which by then was in a strategically and tactically diminished state, owing to the withdrawal of support from the CIA. However, this project did not run well and was soon shut down, and with it shut down any positive policy maneuver India made in favor of Tibet.
It is the opinion of the author, and with due respect to my country’s policy planners, that they misjudged the requirements to prevent the occupation of Tibet. Though military support was essential, it wasn’t adequate to oppose the massive Chinese offensive. Tibetan freedom couldn’t be attained by a military initiative. Tibet needed India to rally international support for it at the United Nations. This is exactly what our Indian diplomats failed or refused to do, leading to exploitation of not only Tibet, but the occupation of Indian sectors and the never-ending border dispute. The lack of Indian intervention and support for Tibet at the United Nations, allowed China to ascertain undisputed superiority in the Asian geopolitical circuit, thus giving it immense leverage in international decision making, which it uses to maximum effect to obscure India’s advance into the Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other platforms which allow a state to assert itself as a superpower.
Indian authorities did not strike the iron when it was hot, hence now there is not much left for our country to do – that time has passed. Nevertheless, policy on Tibet can flow to help the country maintain its traditional practice of choosing its leadership. Though Gaylo Thondop (the elder brother of His Holiness), in his autobiography The Noodle Maker from Kalimpong,
criticises the practice of choosing leadership by reincarnation, one cannot even imagine the sway, the Dalai Lama and other Lamas like the Panchen Lama have on decision making in the Tibetan context. To divert this sway in its favor, the Chinese authorities kidnapped the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 and instead elevated its
|His Holiness the Dalai Lama
own nominee to the office. This illegitimate maneuver gives China an acute strategically advantage in elevating its own candidate for the office of Dalai Lama – a position so keen to Tibetan politics – keeping in mind the immense authority of the Panchen Lama in choosing the Dalai’s reincarnation.
India must use its geopolitical superiority (second only to China) in the south Asian circuit, to lead a united front of nations against China to condemn and counter such actions, firstly by non-recognition of any such proxy posts and leaders and by promoting and securing Tibetan rights to choose its own leadership. Secondly and very importantly it must actively vote or propose motions like the recent UNSC Resolution No 2334 against Israeli settlements in Gaza in the UNSC. It must work to remove any legitimacy of Chinese occupation: a start can be made by explicitly demarcating the original Tibetan boundary in all maps as propaganda to confirm its denouncement of the annexation and to keep the cause of Tibetan freedom going. India can try to lobby UN embargoes against the economic zones set up by china in the TAR. Lastly, India can also bring to light all the violation of human rights China has been constantly committing in Tibet to gain international momentum for the cause.
On the other hand, all this is easier said than done. The Government of India led by Prime Minister Modi has recently proclaimed Tibet to be an integral part of China. As far as Indian interests are concerned this is a positive and skillful diplomatic tactic as it allows India and China to put aside matters of the border dispute and focus on economic empowerment such as developing the maritime silk route and other economic corridors. Per contra the lack of trust in a neighbor, that generally forms a vital basis for a foreign policy decision must be considered, keeping in mind the never-ending border violations committed by China in the Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir sectors.
These small initiatives go a long way to secure the rights of our neighbor and to keep alive its struggle against an aggressor of China’s might. However, whether such a stance should be adopted at the cost of our self-interest, economic upliftment and the obvious threat of conflict is a dilemma that has troubled leaders since long. As necessary evaluating policy decisions of such nature might be for academic purposes, one must always bear in mind the unseen factors that come across decision makers before making hasty judgments. Policy makers must be trusted and a strong presumption must always be made, that decisions have been taken for the welfare of our nation. Nevertheless, the battle for Tibet and the freedom of its people will continue to rage and so will the ideology of the Dalai, for all those it matters to until the snow lion flag flies over the Potala Palace again.
Manekshaw Paper N o. 32, 2011China’s InfrastructureDevelopment in Tibet: Evaluating Trendlines, By Monika Chansoria, for the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
About the Author:
Nazeer is a fifth year law student from the Faculty of Law IFHE. He is an avid reader of war history politics and law. He has high interest for foreign policy and the legality of armed conflict. He is also a staunch pacifist.