Following the standoff in eastern Ladakh including the clash in Galwan which marked the most precipitous decline in India-China bilateral relations in the last 40 years, India has not been able to develop a strategy to offset Beijing’s periodic coercion along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India has taken tentative steps with the United States and other allies to balance China, but these have not generated dissuasion or deterrence.
India’s Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar says that China has reneged on agreements and protocols to unilaterally alter LAC, and given five differing explanations for deploying troops on the border.
If this is not sufficient reason for India to reciprocally renege on its recognition of Tibet as an Autonomous Region of China — early warning on which New Delhi had begun signalling in 2010 when it stopped mentioning the ‘One China’ policy in official documents and joint statements — there is more.
Is Tibet Issue A ‘Usable’ Card?
India’s blow hot blow cold policy has angered young Tibetans and Indians alike. It is time for India to stop being deferential to China as it has gained little by doing so, and show the Tibet card though it will amount to crossing the Rubicon.
So, is Tibet a usable card — and is India able and willing to face a Chinese riposte given the disputed border and acute power asymmetry?
India’s boundary dispute is intrinsically linked to Tibet. New Delhi’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was contingent upon China’s acceptance of Tibetan autonomy. The Dalai Lama gave up the quest for independence in exchange for genuine autonomy within China. Beijing has squashed autonomy and not kept its side of the bargain with Tibet and China.
India Did Nothing When China Invaded Tibet
India’s original sin was its failure to prevent occupation of Tibet in 1950 despite a military appreciation of Tibet as a Vital Area done as early as 1946 by Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Francis Tuker. He warned that it was China, not Russia, that was the main threat — and called for preventing the annexation of the Tibetan plateau.
He said India should be prepared to occupy the plateau and keep friendship and cooperation of the people of the frontier from Nepal to Naga Hills, especially Nepal.
Not only did India do nothing when China invaded Tibet but in 1954 agreed to designate Tibet as an autonomous region of China.
The Panchsheel Treaty ushered in short-lived era of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and New Delhi unilaterally, and without any quid pro quo removed its political and commercial rights over Tibet, vacating the Counsel General at Lhasa and trading marts at Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok along with their military detachments. A Sino-Tibet conflict was by default turned into Sino-Indian.
Recalling this strategic blunder is crying over spilled milk.
Can damage be mitigated at this late stage when possession is nine-tenths of the law and claim? Dutch scholar and historian, Michael van Walt, who is backed by a team of 100 researchers who have been studying Tibet for decades, says it is worth giving it a shot.
Walt is legal advisor to the Central Tibet Administration in Dharamsala and author of a seminal book ‘Tibet Was Never Part of China But The Middle Way Approach Remains a Viable Solution’ and his latest, ‘Freedom Brief 2020’.
India Must Completely Stop Saying That Tibet Is A Part Of China
For starters, New Delhi should say it has reviewed the Tibet issue, admitting some mistakes were made initially but fresh facts had emerged. These are:
- a) Tibet was never part of imperial China or the Mongol empire
- b) Illegal occupation through invasion, misrepresentation of facts and altering narrative do not provide legitimacy
- c) Indo-Tibetan border was resolved in 1914 by the MacMahon Line and ratified by Tibet
- d) Tibet was a buffer state between India and China
- e) Tibetans are not a minority of the Chinese
- f) China enjoyed suzerainty, never sovereignty over Tibet
- g) The Dalai Lama had traded suzerainty for autonomy
- h) Tibetans can call for self-determination after China ends its occupation of Tibet
Step two is for India to completely stop saying that Tibet is part of China. Late Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj would say it is China’s turn to articulate a ‘One India’ policy that is inclusive of Arunachal Pradesh. The fact is, ‘One China’ policy applies to Taiwan not Tibet.
In 2017, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu said that his state has a border with Tibet, not China. In Step Three, India should formally recognise the Dalai Lama as a proud son of India and award him the Bharat Ratna. He should be extended all State privileges and courtesies and be free to travel all across India including Arunachal Pradesh.
Beijing should be advised to restart dialogue with the Dalai Lama and not interfere with the selection of his successor, which is entirely the Dalai Lama’s prerogative.
Former PM Shastri Had Said That India Would Recognise Tibet Govt In Exile
India has advised Beijing to resolve the issue while he is alive. US has said that China has no theological basis for picking the next Dalai Lama. India should recognise and support the Central Tibet Administration as the Government in Exile in achieving its political objectives through peaceful means, and advise China to resume dialogue which was suspended in 2010 after nine rounds of talks.
In 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had said India would recognise the Tibet Government in Exile (now CTA) but he died prematurely — a historical fact that should be made public.
Panchsheel Marg in front of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi should be renamed the Dalai Lama Marg.
Why Tibet Issue Must Be Internationalised
The Tibet issue can be internationalised – introduced in the UNSC in the two years of India’s chairmanship of it starting 2021. The Tibet issue can join the Draft Convention on Terrorism in the UN, which has become India’s signature tune.
India can also take up Tibet at UNHRC over suppression of religious and cultural freedoms and violation of human rights. Discussions on Tibet that are held behind closed doors and almost sinfully, should be open to public and media.
Track I and Track 1.5 dialogues on Tibet can start in collaboration with CTA, Tibetan institutes abroad and Friends of Tibet worldwide. Studies on Tibetan Buddhism and culture should be introduced in the syllabi of universities and think tanks. China’s perfidy in instigating the 1962 border war needs to be exposed.
Steps 1 to 3 can be calibrated by government and non-government institutions. These measures should be coordinated with Friends of Tibet in Europe and US who have been accusing China of grave human rights violations in Tibet. The US Administration under Trump has been most active in targeting China over its omissions and commissions in Tibet with legislative acts like the US Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act 2018. It recently appointed its special envoy on Tibet, Robert Destro, and the State Department invited head of CTA, Lobsang Sangay, to meet Mr Destro — for the first time in six decades, which infuriated Beijing.
A ‘New Wall’ India Needs To ‘Breach’
While US has said it could soon start talks with CTA, Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, Samuel D Brownback told reporters after a visit to Dharamsala in October that Tibetans have picked their spiritual leaders for thousands of years. US accuses China of religious persecution and cultural genocide in Tibet. The Tibet Policy and Support Act was passed by Congress this month advocating genuine autonomy in Tibet and for Dalai Lama to choose his successor. One should hope President Biden will intensify the campaign for full freedom and autonomy in Tibet and that on this one issue India can form an active alliance with US, without forfeiting its strategic autonomy. Meanwhile, it is reported that US Congress and EU Parliament have both recognised Tibet is an occupied country.
No wonder President Xi Jinping is taking special interest in the controlling and monitoring of Tibet, saying China should build an impregnable fortress in Tibet and dig out facts that link Tibet to China for their impact on the boundary dispute with India.
It is this new Great Wall that India must start to ‘breach’. India has to take the lead in Tibet’s cause and the time to act is now.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He was Commander of Indian Peace-Keeping Forces, Sri Lanka (South). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)