The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.
As we pay our tributes to our brave jawans who died fighting the Chinese troops at Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020, the proverbial saying acquires a prophetic tone. As we deal with the current round of what is being seen as Chinese ‘expansionism’, it is imperative that we draw lessons from our past and turn the pages of history to look beyond the war of 1962, and imbibe the lessons from the ‘Original Sin’ –– that is, how India ‘allowed’ China to unilaterally change the status quo by annexing Tibet in 1950.
Proof That Tibet Has Historically Been Regarded As An Independent Nation
Not many of us are aware that at the time of independence in 1947, India did not share a common boundary with China in the north, but with two hitherto independent nations –– Sinkiang (present day Xinjiang) and Tibet. In fact, at the time of independence, China was not even considered a threat, as the Northern border was considered settled in accordance with the Simla Convention of 1914 with the Tibetan nation being a signatory to the convention. The Simla Convention defined the boundaries between Tibet and China proper, and that between Tibet and British India (the latter came to be known as the McMahon Line).
This agreement forms the basis of the Indian claims till today.
However, the Chinese rejected the 1914 Simla agreement forthright arguing that Tibet was not an independent nation, hence had no right to enter into any international treaty. Even a cursory glance at history would tell an informed reader that Tibet in itself has been an independent nation from at least the 7th century AD, beginning with the rule of Songtsen Gampo (604–650 CE).
Proof that Tibet, since ancient times, has been regarded as an independent nation lies in the fact that in 821/822 CE, Tibet and China signed a peace treaty as sovereign nations.
When China ‘Apologised’ to Tibet
In fact, the first time Tibet came under the influence of China was in 1720, when a military expedition from the Qing Empire established a Chinese protectorate over the country.
After the Xinhai Revolution (1911–12) toppled the Qing dynasty, the new Republic of China apologised to Tibet for the actions of the Qing, and the Dalai Lama declared himself ruler of an independent Tibet.
In 1913, Tibet and Mongolia concluded a treaty of mutual recognition, and for the next 36 years, the 13th Dalai Lama and the regents who succeeded him governed Tibet. Tibet even established a Foreign Office in 1942, and in 1946 it sent congratulatory missions to China and India (related to the end of World War II).
In 1947, Tibet sent a delegation to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, India, where it represented itself as an independent nation, and India recognised it as an independent nation from 1947 onwards.
Thus, history does not support the Chinese argument that in 1914 or afterwards, Tibet was not a sovereign nation and, on those grounds, the Simla convention is invalidated.
When Tibet Sought Indian Help, India Was ‘At Sea’
With the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the newly-established People’s Republic of China (PRC), openly stated its intention of ‘liberating’ Tibet, but the Indian establishment paid no heed. True to their words, on 7 October 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) boldly moved into Tibet.
When the Tibetan government desperately turned to India for help, the Indian establishment was completely at sea.
Repeated appeals from Tibet were turned down, and the Tibetans were advised to settle the matter peacefully with China. It was not that India was without leverage, but it lacked strategic thinking. A few Indian leaders like Sardar Patel advocated a showdown with China, counting on covert support from the United states and Britain, based on inputs from the Intelligence Bureau. However, the Indian leadership by and large was under the thrall of the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ façade and decided to bury their heads in the sand instead of taking decisive action.
India could have used its championing of China’s admission into the United Nations as a lever to mediate in Tibet to its advantage, and at least could have retained its mission in Lhasa as well as the military posts at Gyantse and Yatung that secured the traditional trade routes. However, all we did was exchange some tepid diplomatic notes and committed the ultimate folly in 1954, when, under the Panchsheel Agreement, we surrendered our military facilities, communication facilities, the Indian mission and other substantial infrastructure like hospitals, guesthouses, etc to China.
In return, China refused to honour the Simla agreement of 1914, occupied Aksai Chin in 1962, and has been steadily extending its claim lines across present day Ladakh to include more and more Indian territories, while repudiating Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh.
How India Can Learn From Its Past Mistakes With China
As we prepare for an extended showdown with China, we need to learn from our mistakes of 1950.
Firstly, we need to accept that China is not above reneging on any commitment that it has made in the past, hence, any illusion of peace is just that –– an illusion. Lasting peace will be possible only when we are well prepared to defend ourselves militarily, and ready to impose heavy costs on the PLA in the event of military adventurism.
Secondly, a pacifist and status quoist approach with China will not work, as the Chinese will continuously look to change the status quo as is the case now with current talks of mutual withdrawal, where we are withdrawing into our own territory –– when clearly, China is the aggressor, –– thus, effectively establishing a ‘new normal’.
We need to proactively start changing the status quo, and let China respond, instead of the other way around.
Some effective pressure points could be questioning Tibet’s and Xinjiang’s occupation by China, extending support to Taiwan, and rescinding on the ‘One China’ policy –– and raising issues like the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the crackdown in Hong Kong in multilateral forums.
Thirdly, we need to build a coalition of nations facing the brunt of Chinese expansionism like Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, etc, and launch a coordinated military and diplomatic offensive against China including joint maritime patrolling in the South China Sea. This, as well as exerting pressure on maritime supply lines passing through the Indian Ocean Region.
Only a roaring tiger will be able to tame the Chinese dragon. Anything less might fall prey to it –– like the Snow Lion of Tibet did in 1950.
- BN Mullik’s ‘Chinese Betrayal: My Years with Nehru’
- Shiv Kunal Verma’s ‘1962: The War That Wasn't’
(Shashank Shekhar Shukla is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and is pursuing his PhD. Economics from IIM Lucknow. He is also a socio-political activist. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)