For the past few weeks, there was a flood of columns and opinions on the existence as well as the non-existence of the Tibet card on the diplomatic table of India. From all the arguments, one thing that becomes quite clear is about the relevance of the Tibet issue in India-China relations.
During the era of the Great Game, the use of Tibet as a card by British India during the Shimla Conference in 1914 strengthened the position of Tibet as a buffer state between British India, Czarist Russia and China. Hence, till the departure of British colonial government from India, there was hardly any events leading the two nations to face each other. This event led to the birth of the Tibet card and also ensured British India’s security from the Russian empire and China. After the British colonial exit, India naturally became successor of the Simla Agreement. Militarily, Independent India was no match for China and hence, in order to maintain friendly relations with new China, India decided to relinquish her extra-territorial rights in Tibet, leading to the disappearance of Tibet as a buffer state.
Girilal Jain, who worked as a reporter for the the Times of India, writes in his book, Panchsheela and After, published in 1960, states that “…Communist expansionism should not be confused with either feudal conquests of the past or Western imperialism of the nineteenth century. Also India will have to face the fact that there is no security for her as long as Tibet remains enslaved.” Girilal Jain’s words later became a reality and for the first time in history, India faced a restless neighbour at its door.
India-China War of 1962 remains one of the important factors guiding contemporary India-China relations. The shadow of war still weighs the two Asian giants like an albatross around their necks, whenever they try to mend their relationship. There are many arguments given for the causes of India-China War of 1962. According to the latest monograph published by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, entitled Event Leading to the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962, the author argues about the existence of three schools of thoughts: the forward policy school, the Indian betrayal school and the Chinese betrayal school. From his research, he comes to the conclusion that the first two schools failed to stand scrutiny and hence the researcher narrows down to the Chinese betrayal school, which triggered change in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attitude and actions towards India after having thoroughly making use of India, and chose to betray India in order to attain its ‘rightful place in the world.’
Till now, numerous books, articles and opinions have been published. Advocating a forward policy for India, Nehru ordered the Indian army to throw out the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from Indian soil, and gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan followers on 31 March 1959. These are the few reasons given for the outbreak of India-China War.
However, before all these events, the construction of strategic roads by China had already started as early as 1950s. The construction of the Xinjiang-Tibet highway which was completed in 1957 passes through the Indian territory of Aksai Chin. This highway later became an important highway for military supply, which gave the PLA a great tactical advantage over the ill-equipped Indian soldiers with their poor logistics.
Bruce Riedel, who had served at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in different positions for around thirty years writes in his latest book, JFK’S Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War that “The Chinese, by contrast, had made the building of roads and other supply facilities a high priority since they entered Tibet in 1950, seeing their constructions as a means to entrench their occupation of the province.” He further adds, “The building of major roads in Aksai Chin connecting the Chinese regions of Tibet and Xinjiang had been a precipitating factor in the buildup of tensions in the late 1950s.”
From the above development, it does indicate that it was a premeditated attack. All these tactical preparation pointed towards the direction of China’s offense against India. After securing complete hold over Tibet and its border with India, China finally decided to strike.
The existence of the Tibet card was a question which was widely dissected by numerous commentators and thought leaders in the past few weeks. R.S. Kalha, a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, in his commentary, entitled ‘There is no Tibet card for India to play. Here’s why’, questioned the existence of space for playing the Tibet card by India and later ended with cautionary remarks, ‘All those who insist on playing the Tibetan card should be mindful of what this entails and be wary of treating this issue with a light heart.’ While, the title of commentary by Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, ‘Why playing the Tibet card may backfire on India’ itself sent the message of flashing the Tibet card.
However, if one flips through the pages of history, the friendship extended by India to China in the form of the Panchsheel Agreement became the biggest mistake which backfired on India. The agreement resulted in the disappearance of Tibet as a buffer state and followed by subsequent developments, pushing India out of its comfort zone. Even after decades of their frosty relations, Tibet continues to be the reason for India to receive a series of protests and demarches from China. These Beijing’s protests were made on October 2016 because of the Indian government’s approval for the Dalai Lama’s planned visit to Arunachal Pradesh. In December 2016, Beijing once again protested against the Indian government for President Pranab Mukherjee receiving the Dalai Lama in Rashtrapati Bhavan. China has continued to keep its tradition of lodging protests on anything related to Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
In a conversation with the Times of India, on January 31, 2017, Michael Pillsbury, senior advisor to the US president has described the top six “sensitivities” tabled by senior Chinese officials for the new Donald Trump administration. Among the six sensitivities, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile were listed as well.
The exploitation of Tibet as a card by British India created a cold peace along the Himalayas for a few decades. Indian government too signed the Panchsheel Agreement with the hope of normalcy along the India-Tibet border. However, the disappearance of Tibet as a buffer state became the sole reason for recurrent India-China territorial disputes. The viable solution for India-China’s recurrent territorial disputes would be granting of genuine autonomy to Tibet. This is further supported by the peoples across the Himalayan region and numerous Chinese intellectuals and activists. Genuine peace will prevail along the mountains of the Himalayas, if Tibet were to secure genuine autonomy from China. For this, the Indian government has a vital role in making this come true.
*Tenzin Tsultrim is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.