India and China have transitioned into modern states along with their relationship which has seen ups and downs like any other nation states. They have come a long way into forming a considerably stable bilateral relationship that was best reflected in their economic ties. However, whether the relationship has matured or grown remains ambiguous. Both countries share bitter memories of the 1962 conflict that often tend to accentuate the deteriorating relationship exacerbated by the continuing border dispute. The overall relationship that remains fragile and loaded with distrust and hostility points towards many reasons among which ill-conceived policy and measures towards Tibet, the deliberate dissociation of the subject of Tibet, and her status from New Delhi’s policy have yielded little benefit for India. The ambiguity over the political status of Tibet was inherited from Nehru’s idealism and his lofty aspiration in bringing China to the global stage. This according to Nirupama Rao was “inadequately reciprocated, even spurned by China, as the relationship unraveled” (Rao 2021, xxii). This paper is an attempt to examine India’s approach and orientation to Tibet vis-a-vis China as their bilateral relations remain complex and at worst dubious. Tibet plays an integral role in the modern history of Sino-India relations, but the centrality of Tibet in the dynamics of Sino-Indian relations and politics from 1950 has been reduced to political inferences, either as a bone of contention between India and China or an ‘irritant factor’. Therefore, it is with an attempt to bring to light the importance of decentering Tibet in India’s approach to China that this paper dwells into some critical issues that call for urgency and is imperative for India’s engagement with China in the future.
Keywords: Tibet, India, China, the Dalai Lama, Foreign Policy
India more than China pretended that Tibet was not a factor in Sino-Indian relations. This studied silence suited the interests and purposes of both parties. To admit that Tibet was impinging on their bilateral relations was to admit a third party to their bilateral transactions, like the 1913-14 Shimla Convention-which the PRC has consistently opposed. Yet, it was China, not India that hinted during the period March 1959 to September 1962 that the invisible problem impinging on almost every issue in their bilateral relations was the Tibetan Question (Norbu 1997, 1087)
It could be stated that ‘Tibet’ is an ‘overlap’ issue involving China and India with the Tibetans making up an important third vertex…ignored by the first two! (Narayan 2017, 66)
The two quotes cited at the beginning of this article are emblematic of the trajectory that Tibet has taken within the corridors of Indian foreign policy. The late Prof. Dawa Norbu’s influential article “Tibet in Sino-Indian Relations: The Centrality of Marginality” was published in 1997 yet its observation that Tibet continues to be marginalized in Sino-India relations but cast a looming shadow over the relationship resonates even today. Dr. Raviprasad Narayan draws focus on a similar argument, writing exactly 10 years since then, on the importance of Tibet in India’s foreign policy dealings with China, yet the continued insistence to draw a cover of silence over it. This article, therefore, builds on this body of work, by attempting to highlight the importance of Tibet in India’s relations with China and why Delhi needs to re-center the issue within its foreign policy.
Since the National Uprising of Tibetans in 1959 against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and tens of thousands of Tibetans have sought refuge in India (Haidar 2021). Nepal and Bhutan have also played host to Tibetans, while many have immigrated to Western countries in the past three decades. India, however, remains the political and cultural center of the Tibetan diaspora and its national movement. Nevertheless, it is on the political spectrum that India remains deeply tied to Tibet, whether it be the centuries-old historical connections or the geopolitics between India, Tibet, and China. In fact, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, the Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one who worked with numerous Indian leaders and statesman affirmed that “any person with even an elementary knowledge of the geopolitical situation of India, Tibet, and the PRC knows that Tibet is vitally important to and inseparable from India’s future “ (Gyari 2022, 392). He further notes that “it is not about interference but rather about its reluctance to act” that he criticized in India’s approach to Tibet that at times were overly cautious and unrealistically optimistic toward PRC in hopes of appeasing the Chinese. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet also expressed that the South Asian country is “taking an over-cautious approach towards Tibet” indicating a deep sense of frustration (The Economic Times 2008). This paper, therefore, is an attempt to recenter Tibet within the Sino-India dialogue, an approach that has been pushed to the margins of Indian foreign policy, by highlighting some of the critical issues that resonate with India’s relations with Tibet and China.
Tibet in Sino – India Relations: From Undeniable to Sidelined
The 1950s represented a new age for the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, as they emerged as newly recognized modern nations. The initial bonhomie between these two nations was a result of both being post-colonial entities with the geographical and demographic potential to lead Asia in the face of increasing ideological conflicts between the USA and USSR. The decline of the initial rapture between the two countries was accentuated by Mao’s insecurity over the Soviet Union’s overtures toward India and the pertinent issue of Tibet that brought China and India into close physical proximity. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is a predominant figure during this time, and many have criticized his approach towards Tibet and China. Reflecting British India’s position on Tibet, as a buffer state between India and China, the newly formed government in Delhi sought to recognize Tibet’s treaty-making powers, recognizing China’s suzerainty over the latter, but not its sovereignty (Norbu 1997, 1079). However, after the 17 Point agreement was signed in May 1951 (nullified by the Dalai Lama), Nehru decided to befriend China at the expense of Tibet’s historical status as a de jure country. Lalit Mansingh, who served as India’s Foreign Secretary (1999-2000) and ambassador to the United States (2001-2004), correlated Nehru’s decision to accept China’s sovereignty over Tibet without any reciprocity to his idealistic hope of fostering an anti-imperialist solidarity between the two post-colonial nations, a hope that died with the 1962 War with China (Bork 2015, 57).
Nehru’s efforts for an “amicable settlement” of the dispute to bring normalcy to India-China relations materialized into the 1954 Panchsheel agreement, one that effectively “sacrificed Tibet’s historical status at the altar of Sino-Indian friendship (Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai), should be seen in this perspective” (Norbu 1997, 1080). The Agreement became a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy in its relation with but China was criticized as being a naïve venture that overtly assumed a reciprocal sincerity from Beijing towards the principles of the Treaty (Bandyopadhyaya 1962, 390). The Sino-India conflict of 1962 heralded the end of the much-vaunted “hindi-chini bhai-Bhai” sentimentality that had defined India’s approach towards China until that point.
Although observers like Arunabh Ghosh underscore the need to decenter the teleology of the 1962 conflict and instead approach afresh the possibilities of China-India relations (Ghosh 2017, 700), there are fundamental differences between the two on various issues, particularly on Tibet. India’s relationship with China vis-à-vis Tibet and its borders was driven by substantial differences on these issues, as it shared close historical and cultural ties with Tibet but its economic and political future was bound to China (Agarwal 1989, 69). Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China, the first visit to China by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years and one that heralded a thaw in the frosty relations between the two since the 1962 conflict, was centered on resolving the border issue, one that was rooted within the discussions on Tibet (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2014). Not only did Rajiv Gandhi re-affirm India’s position on recognizing Tibet as an autonomous region of China but as Dawa Norbu notes “while China continues to hint that Tibet is the basic problem as they did during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China and Li Peng’s to India, New Delhi continues to pretend that it has little to do with the territorial dispute” (Norbu 1997, 1094).
Similarly, India once again reiterated that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the PRC during the 2003 meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chinese leader Wen Jiabao (PTI 2003). The one-sided negotiation that took place in Beijing, as Brahma Chellany argued, highlighted that “China sees New Delhi as the key to its continued control of Tibet, whose traditional cultural and trade links were southward to India. By handing Beijing the formulation it wanted, India has opened itself to more Chinese pressure.” (Chellaney 2003). This not only looses New Delhi’s remaining leverage, according to Chellaney, but he also points out how Indian recognition continues a pattern of self-damaging Indian betrayal of Tibet that began under PM Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Tibet issue has been time and again downplayed by the governments of China and India, as they try to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship. India’s decision to appease China since the Panchsheel Agreement has not received the same level of reciprocity from Beijing, as evidenced by the fact that China dragged its feet in recognizing Sikkim as part of India until 2005 (The Economic Times 2005), while it continues to deny India’s claims in Kashmir.
In 2018, to express Tibetan exile’s gratefulness to India, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) organised a ‘Thank You India’ event which initially had been scheduled in New Delhi but had to be moved to Dharamsala in early March. The Indian government was reported to have cautioned its senior officials to stay away from attending the event amidst tensions with China (Hindustan Times 2018). An Indian news source notes that there is a shift in India’s policy on Tibet under the increasing tensions between India and China, indicating the Indian government managing the Dalai Lama in public forums (drishtiias.com 2021). In 2014, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi invited the head of the Tibetan government in exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay to his swearing ceremony but was not invited the second time when PM Modi was re-elected. Furthermore, the Tibetan Special Frontier Force that has participated in a number of engagements including the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war, the 1988 Operation Cactus, the 1999 Kargil war and in the Galwan valley clash in 2020 has only recently received public recognition after the Galwan valley clash killing Tibetans.
It was only after Nyima Tenzin’s death that Indian public discovered the existence of Special Frontier Force (SFF), a Tibetan army also known as Establishment 22 or Vikas Regiment, operating under the Cabinet Secretariat and the Indian Army (Arpi 2022). Anirban Bhaumik reporting for Deccan Herald wrote in 2020 during Galwan valley clash that “the valour of the SFF soldiers was never officially acknowledged. Nor were the supreme sacrifices they made on the battlegrounds” (Bhaumik 2020). Although Nyima Tenzin’s cremation was conducted with full military honors, his coffin draped with Indian and Tibetan flags with senior leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attending and paying his respect for the demise, it is also noteworthy that previously, SFF soldiers killed in operations were cremated quietly, without much fanfare (Ramachandran 2020). Ramachandran notes that “the highly publicized funeral accorded to Tenzin is widely believed to have been aimed at reminding Chinese leaders of India’s “Tibet card,” and signaling New Delhi’s willingness to use it” (Ibid). Brahma Chellaney interestingly notes that “nothing can be more humiliating to China than India’s use of its SFF comprising mainly Tibetan exiles to foil the latest PLA incursion” (Bhaumik 2020). The Galwan Valley clash in 2020 confrontation within India and Chinese forces over the Galwan border is amongst the highest level of tension since the 1962 conflict. It represents the dichotomy of how Tibet has taken on different role within Indian public discourse and in Indian foreign policy. During the Galwan Valley incident, within Indian public, Tibet was prominently discussed with media refocusing on Tibetan ‘political issue’ inviting Tibetan leaders, parliamentarians and others. On the other hand, Indian government’s position on Tibet was hardly discussed publicly. The official measure was banning few Chinese apps but there is no statement on Tibet. The Galwan clash represents that throughout the decade Tibet remain prominent in Indian public discourse while Tibet was marginalized on the official level, silent and sidelined.
While the optimism behind a fresh approach to India’s relations with China is undoubtedly important, a more holistic and emboldened approach with a renewed focus on recentering Tibet in India’s approach to China is vital and undeniable. The Tibet issue in India-China relations is an important point of contention and yet largely undervalued and more importantly sometimes treated as adversarial to the development of India’s friendship with China. The issue is also mired within highly contesting political narratives since the conflict over Tibet’s status is a conflict over history (Narayan 2017, 59). Thus, the way India has formed its position on Tibet does appear to have a consequential bearing on the development of India’s relationship with China.
Recentering Tibet in India’s Approach to China
India’s border conflicts with China is centered primarily around two large sectors, mostly centered in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. China claims the former as being part of its administered region of Aksai Chin while the latter as being part of “South Tibet”. Both of these conflicts stem from the history of China’s occupation of Tibet, India’s reluctance since Nehru to aggressively push forward on the Tibet issue, and the endurance of British India’s policies in the region. The most recent expression of these conflicts was the skirmishes and loss of lives that occurred in the Galwan valley of India between Indian and Chinese forces (BBC 2020).
Such incidents highlight how Tibet is and continues to remain an integral part of India-China relations and a core issue in their conflict. The Tibet issue and its national movement would not have gained steam without India’s explicit and/or tacit support.
Although India and China are increasingly aware of Tibet’s geostrategic importance and the intimate connection of their strategic interests with it, Tibet largely remains disfavored in the asymmetric relations between India and China. The intent to sidestep the Tibet issue in the interest of developing good neighborly relations has not had the desired results (Mathur 2021). The Galwan clash is among the latest incident showcasing India’s failure to assess the enormous importance of the role of Tibet in Sino-India relations. As long as India continues to focus on its border conflicts with China, without acknowledging the presence of the Tibet issue that historically, geographically, and politically defines its cross-border relations, every other rhetoric and foreign strategy will remain fraught with challenges. It is, therefore, paramount that within the contours of its relations with China, India needs to revisit, readdress and redefine its approach towards Tibet, recognizing it as the single most important factor driving Sino-Indian border relations, which was Mao Zedong’s view, and also seems to reflect contemporary Chinese thinking (Sikri 2011, 65).
Indian scholars and writers (Rajiv Sikri 2011, B Pokharma 2009, Claude Arpi 2011, R.S. Kalha 2012, Sharad K. Soni and Reena Marwah 2011, Sebastian N 2011 to name few), while discussing Tibet in India-China bilateral relations, often use the phrase the ‘Tibet factor’ since the Tibet issue is closely linked to the border issue between India and China that remains contentious despite several sessions of border talks in the last decades. However, what constitutes the definition of the ‘Tibet factor’ has changed over the decades, depending on the geopolitical context. The disagreement over territories remains a perennial one, almost to the extent that they are fixed in time, without any recourse to changes. Therefore, what is of more interest are those issues that have resonated with the ‘Tibet factor’ as constitutive elements, but are subject to varying degrees of relevance based on the context in which they are framed. In the subsequent discussion, this paper will seek to highlight those issues that are increasingly gaining importance vis -a- vis India’s relation with China and Tibet.
The Reincarnation of the Dalai Lama
The immediate issue that needs to be addressed concerns the reincarnation of the present Dalai Lama. China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a decree on August 3rd, 2007, which effectively sought to gain complete control over the matters of reincarnated Buddhas or tulkus, deeming that all reincarnations must be approved by the Government, or else they would be considered “illegal or invalid” (ICT 2007). The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is intimately entwined with this matter and there already has been a precedent, with the abrupt abduction of the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 and his subsequent replacement being appointed by the Chinese authorities. The Dalai Lama is considered a “separatist leader” by China and any support rendered towards him and his followers is deemed a violation of sovereignty and integrity of the country and considered interference in China’s internal affairs (Xinhua 2022). Both the 17th Karmapa and 10th Panchen Lama were “approved” by the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council in 1992 and 1995 respectively (Freedom of Religious Belief in China 1996). The State Council believes that a show of their approval of such reincarnations displays the “fact that the Tibetan people’s right to religious freedom is respected and protected” (Ibid). However, former President of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Lobsang Sangay maintained that he have objected and criticized the China’s interference on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation and firmly believe and uphold the idea that only the Dalai Lama has the rightful authority to choose his reincarnation and that the Chinese state should respect his decision (CTA 2019). In response to their consternations, “the Chinese government resolutely opposes attempts to split the country along ethnic lines, and any use of religious fanaticism to divide the people, split the country or harm the unity among all ethnic groups or engage in illegal activities and terrorist actions under the signboard of religion” (Freedom of Religious Belief in China 1996). The 14th Tibetan Religious Conference was convened on November 27, 2019, at Dharamsala to discuss the issue of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The three-day conference which saw the participation of all heads of major religious traditions of Tibetan Buddhism adopted the “Dharamsala Declaration” that highlighted the continuation of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, and that the right to choose his successor rested solely with the present Dalai Lama (CTA 2019).
The issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation affects not only Tibetans but millions of Buddhists around the world who revere him as a spiritual teacher. However, within the corridors of geopolitics, the ongoing battle between China and Tibetans over the reincarnation subject is of intimate concern to India’s foreign policy. According to John Garver, historically, Tibet’s occupation and Chinese failure to win over Tibetans and subsequent asylum to the Dalai Lama are identified as the origin of 1962 Sino-Indian conflict (Garver 2014, 12). Domestically, the Dalai Lama has been revered by the Indian population and the top leadership circles of the Indian political arena. Internationally, he has become India’s de facto ambassador in Buddhist circles. However, India has also benefited tremendously from his mere presence in the country, as that remains a sore sticking point for China’s ongoing project to legitimize its rule in Tibet. How can the “motherland” be united, if the spiritual leader of Tibetans continues to remain in exile? At the present moment, India has remained tight-lipped about its position on the reincarnation issue, one that bears resemblance to the failed attempt to appease China in the 1950s. Other stakeholders such as the United States have backed the right of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people to decide on the matter. It is not prudent for India to back away from taking a strong position on a matter that China has laid such vociferous claims on. India needs to lay out a clear foreign policy statement and plan of action about its position on recognizing the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, instead of relegating it as an afterthought in its dealings with Beijing. The danger of such an approach is that Beijing has placed it at the center of its policies on Tibet.
Foreign Policy: Centering the Tibet issue
India’s foreign policy in the past about Tibet has seen less than favorable results or commitments. Whether it be the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement or the 2003 Declaration signed between India and China, it has been involved in one-sided deals that immensely favored China. In the process, the Tibet issue was sacrificed in favor of the hope that China would behave like a friendly neighbor. The 1962 War and the recent border incursions have laid those hopes in the grave. Therefore, it is imperative that moving forward, India should frame and adopt a clear and robust foreign policy about its diplomatic engagements with China, and the Tibet issue should be at the center of the discussion, not as a mere consequence. There are three overarching concerns that such a foreign policy should seek to address, namely:
A) Tibet’s position in India’s border situation with China: India’s long-standing border disputes with China, whether it be on the Ladakh border or in Arunachal Pradesh, stems from the geographical and historically important position that Tibet has occupied between China and India. The occupation of Tibet by China has brought the latter in border contentions with India. In particular, the ongoing dispute in Arunachal Pradesh is rooted in the acceptance, by India, of the McMahon Line that was signed between representatives of British India and Tibet in 1914 and the subsequent rejection of the same by China, who claims the region as part of its “South Tibet”. India, after independence, has held on to these lines of control in its disputes with China but has been hesitant in recognizing Tibet’s unique historical position in the validation and making of these borderlines, which China has taken advantage of. India has already formally twice accepted China’s claims over Tibet, which has narrowed its course of action for the future. How India decides to proceed with this matter will influence its relations with China but sticking to its present course of ‘appeasement’ about Tibet will certainly bolster China’s confidence on the issues relating to the borders between both countries.
Furthermore, in conjunction with the above conundrum, India’s foreign policy concerns with Tibet will need to move between two poles: either treating Tibet as a unresolved political issue i.e. one that is related to issues of forceful occupation, recognition of the Central Tibetan Administration, etc. or solely as a human rights/environmental issue or both. Choosing the former directly impacts the above-mentioned border issues while the latter would be more of a matter of pressing China for its policies within Tibet, its people, and its environment. The latter will be elaborated below.
B) Several countries in recent years and decades have called out the Chinese regime for its abysmal records on human rights in Tibet and adjoining regions of Xinjiang, etc. The pressure against Beijing has intensified recently, with many countries including India, agreeing on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. However, India, despite its close historical connection to Tibet as well as its contemporary association with the Tibetan diaspora, the Central Tibetan Administration, and the Dalai Lama, has not explicitly express their concern over Tibet compared to the United States and the European Union in pressurizing China on its human rights record. The United States recently passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act that officially recognizes that there is a grave human rights problem in Tibet while the Reciprocal Access Act lays out punitive measures against Chinese authorities for blocking access to Tibet from the outside.
India needs to position the framing of such clear actions and strong statements within its foreign policy objectives. Notwithstanding the 1962 War and the recent border incursions, China has been quite vocal in its opposition to India’s policies in Kashmir and the Northeast and has fostered close ties with India’s primary security adversary in the West i.e., Pakistan. Therefore, India needs to push forward with decisive diplomatic actions and human rights violations in Tibet. It can certainly garner across-the-board support, particularly among Western countries.
Similarly, it can outline these intentions through its foreign policies and domestically. The then President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to Prime Minister Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony, but that invitation was not repeated for the second time that he was sworn in. On the other hand, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinkens, met the representative of the Dalai Lama in Delhi during his first official visit in 2021. The Tibet issue can be highlighted strongly if there are more visible and stronger connections between the Indian Government and the Central Tibetan Administration. It would be an opportunity amiss if such relations are pushed to the periphery, to appease Beijing’s heightened sensibilities. Furthermore, it also serves the dual purpose of first, pressurizing China on its human rights record by building a relationship with the diasporic leadership and raising the political aspect of the Tibet issue by legitimizing the role of the Central Tibetan Administration as the representative of the diasporic population.
C) Finally, a matter that affects the Indian economy and population directly is the ongoing damming of Tibet’s rivers by China. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation states that agriculture accounted for 23% of the country’s GDP, and employed 59% of the country’s total workforce in 2016 (FAO 2022). It shows that India remains largely an agriculture-based society and economy and the Brahmaputra River which flows from Tibet has a significant role to play in the survival of the farming community in Northern India. India’s anxiety over its shared rivers with the PRC are not only because PRC has the advantage of being able to control the water flow of the River Brahmaputra as the upper riparian, but also due to its ability to deny critical hydrological data to India (Sergeant 2022, 14). A longstanding concern of India has been PRC’s ongoing dam building on the river and that River Brahmaputra will be diverted northwards (Ibid). India’s former Secretary for Water Resources, argue that even a 10 per cent diversion of the River Brahmaputra could have serious consequences (Ibid). Brahma Chellaney, author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis, and one of the most prominent voices in India warning of the PRC’s ability to turn upstream dams into a political weapon, maintains that, “no nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese territory” (Chellaney 2014, 642). As he continues to note that “water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations and indeed China is damming not just the Brahmaputra, on which it has already completed several dams, but also other rivers in Tibet that flow into India” (Chellaney 2014, 639). Additionally, it is also a matter of hydro politics, as rivers have increasingly occupied a central role in geopolitical balances between China and the downstream countries that depend on the water that flows from Tibet. Other countries such as Burma and Cambodia have put out strong statements against China’s increasing damming of Tibet’s rivers, but India’s response has been largely limited to official memos and a few statements.
Indicating China as the most vivid example of upstream water hegemony in Asia, Brahma Chellaney maintains that, “it has established a hydro-hegemony unparalleled on any continent by annexing the Tibetan Plateau in 1951, the starting place of major international rivers” (Chellaney 2014, 636). Hydro politics is the next big balancer of geopolitical relations of power, particularly in Asia. China recognizes this and has effectively used it to bolster its position in the region. India, like other downstream countries, many of whom are its neighbors like Bangladesh and Nepal, needs to take a central role in the opposition that has been shown against China’s damming projects by the affected countries. Unlike most of them, India has been recognized as an important player in the South Asian region and this is an opportunity for the country to frame a clear foreign policy framework to bolster its relations with these countries to balance China’s presence in the region through the issue of river damming in Tibet that immensely affects all of these countries.
D) India and China have passed through a period of sustained economic growth that has fueled their rise in the corridors of geopolitics as major world powers. Their bilateral relations are one of the most important relationships in international relations, politically and economically, while both countries grapple with existing border tensions and regional rivalry. The United States of America casts an overarching shadow on this relationship, as both strategic partners and rivals of each country respectively. Within the context of India’s foreign policy maneuvering vis-à-vis China and the United States, Tibet has not featured prominently within these calculations, with Delhi hesitant to ally itself with Washington D.C. to balance China in Asia by rallying around the so-called “Tibet Card”. Vijay Gokhale reasons why China considered India’s relevance only in the context of China’s periphery or in multilateral affairs and did not regard or referred to as major powers (Gokhale 2021, 8). Here Norbu notes that New Delhi’s edge over other countries in playing the Tibetan card against China resides in the importance that the PRC had attached to India as a crucial key in preventing external intervention in Tibet. However, India’s threat becomes credible only when Beijing perceives it to be acting in close cooperation with great powers. The Tibetan card fails as a credible threat to China when India and its outside ally do not share similar levels of interest in Tibet.
India and the United States view China as a vital economic partner and political rival. However, the nature of these relationships differs. For the US, it is about keeping at bay an emerging geopolitical rival that seeks to alter the current US-led world order. For India, on the other hand, it is about attempting to balance the dominant influence of China in South Asia. Both countries have realized their mutual interests in checking China’s emerging political strength, with the recent formation of the QUAD being its most visible representation. The QUAD was essentially formed due to this concern over a rising Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, the QUAD essentially remains a multilateral strategic coalition. If we are to look at the bilateral relations of the United States and India, the only point of mutual interest that both countries have avoided any significant friction, or policy-wise as well as enjoyed support from their respective domestic constituencies, is Tibet. Other agendas such as Kashmir, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and even the recent Ukraine crisis have seen both countries clash on numerous occasions. For the United States, Tibet is one of the few issues that receives bilateral support and successive governments have advocated on its behalf, whether it be human rights, religion, the environment, etc. India has been at the center of the Sino – Tibet relations, from the days of British India to the flight and establishment of the Tibetan diaspora within in borders. Its six decades-long border conflicts with China are rooted within this historical relationship with Tibet.
The US affirmed its support for Tibet with the 2019 signing of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, establishing its official position on the “right of the Tibetan Buddhist community in selecting and venerating their religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama”. Although both India and the US accept Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, their association with Tibet is undeniably strong. During President Obama’s visit to New Delhi in 2015, both governments shared the view that the border, and Tibet, should receive more attention from Washington (Bork 2015, 57). Lalit Mansingh, who served as India’s foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States, advocates placing Tibet high on the agenda of the US-India relationship because there is no other issue on which the US and India are mutually intertwined to such a degree (Ibid).
The reality, however, remains that both governments have historically failed to frame their alliance over Tibet. India refrained from supporting the Tibet issue in the 1950s and 60s, a period when the United States’ support for Tibet was at an all-time high. As the United States moved away from pushing for self-determination to focusing on the human rights and environmental concerns of Tibetan inside Tibet, India continued to maintain a rigid demeanor, prioritizing its economic relationship with China. However, whenever border conflicts inevitably flare up, the Tibet issue is pushed to the limelight of India’s political circles and the public eye. Furthermore, the country is deeply entwined with the political future of the Tibetan National movement as its plays host to the Central Tibetan Administration, the Dalai Lama, and the largest population of Tibetans outside of Tibet. It is also important to note the re-emergence of Buddhism in India is deeply connected to the political scenario that brought Tibetans to the doorsteps of India in 1959. So, therefore, avoiding Tibet in its bilateral relations with the US vis-à-vis the objective of balancing China in South Asia, is a moment of significant missed political opportunity. Tibet can serve as the space where the mutual interests of both countries regarding a rising China can meet, and one with the most potential of receiving sustained democratic support. Delhi and Washington D.C. have used the “Tibet card” in varying capacities in their relationship with China, but the opportunities for a mutual understanding on this issue are of immense importance, one that both governments should consider in their respective foreign policy calculations
To quote Nirupama Rao again here who states that, “the best foreign policy is a combination of firmness and flexibility” (Rao 2021, 456). India’s foreign policy about China has been framed between the opposing desire to bolster economic cooperation that is of vital importance to both countries, particularly India, and the geopolitical need to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the border conflicts and its rising presence in the Asian continent. It is within this contradiction that China has continued to push forward its agenda to the detriment of India’s national interests, whether it be its refusal to accept Sikkim as part of India until late 2005, almost fifty years after India accepted Tibet as part of PRC or its continuing efforts to de-legitimize the McMahon Line, a position that India has unconsciously strengthened by its hesitation to center the Tibet issue in its foreign policy. The Tibet issue and the Tibetans are increasingly tied with India’s future course on China and its policy and strategy on Tibet vis-a-vis China needs to be carefully recalibrated to take on a much more active position against the bulwark of Beijing policy objectives.
This paper has sought to highlight some of the key issues that have and will continue to gain significance vis-à-vis India’s association with the ‘Tibet factor’. China has already formulated its policies on such matters, whether it be laying their claims to the immense trove of soft power that the institution of the Dalai Lama holds for Tibetans and Buddhists across the world, or the strategic significance of hydro-politics through its damming efforts, to name a few. India needs an equally robust foreign policy, but that would be unlikely without Delhi deciding to revisit and deviate from its reluctance to center Tibet in its dealing with China.
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