Sunanda K Datta-Ray
The real challenge lies in China undermining Indian industry, winning over our neighbours, obstructing us in global forums and thwarting our nuclear growth.
Thanks to our Indocentric focus, some speakers at Tuesday’s day-long discussion titled “Relevance of Tibet in the Emerging Regional Situation” seemed to miss the wood for the trees. Tibet’s sufferings deserve the world’s attention for their own sake. India’s security concerns are another matter, and arguing that China’s stranglehold of Tibet merits attention because it threatens India might do a disservice to both.
This line of reasoning is not very different from the American policy of ignoring the Dalai Lama until the US needs to cock a snook at the Chinese over trade, Taiwan, human rights or some other matter that bears on American national interest. That, in turn, is rooted in 19th century Britain’s practice of treating Tibet as sovereign only when it wanted to snub the Manchu Empire. China’s shadow loomed even over the seminar in Delhi’s India International Centre, possibly explaining the absence of some luminaries who had accepted the invitation from the Foundation for Non-violent Alternatives, the hosts, but may have had second thoughts about incurring Chinese displeasure. A speaker with an Intelligence background who castigated “pseudo-intellectuals” in the English-language media for placating China should have included the servile authors of coinages like ‘Chindia’.
The emphasis on Tibet’s Sino-Indian dimension was understandable since several of the panellists were military men and strategic thinkers for whom Tibet’s significance lies in being a wedge or link between India and China. Five of them figure in the volume, Threat from China, a compendium of articles from the Indian Defence Review. The other aspect of the Tibet situation — the plight of six million Tibetans who remain under Chinese control or the brave efforts of nearly 200,000 members of the diaspora to create a novel global entity for themselves — received nothing like the same detailed attention even though the conference room was packed with Tibetans, including members of the administration-in-exile in Dharamsala.
The information gap about conditions inside China’s borders was an obvious reason for the imbalance. Uncertainty about the exiled community’s organisational future at a time when the leadership question is being discussed in muted whispers may have been another factor. Also, a latter-day version of Kipling’s Great Game presents an exciting alternative to the discourse on Tibet by easily capturing the imagination. It may even have led some Tibetans into believing that they are paying a high price for rivalry between Asia’s two giants.
This concept distracts attention from both the worldwide non-military aspects of Sino-Indian competition and from the dynamics of the Sino-Tibetan situation which do not directly involve India. Every Han Chinese, no matter where he lives, believes in his bones that Tibet has always been China’s. Chinese Singaporeans are as convinced of this as the Taiwanese. I once asked a Taiwanese Minister if in a notional situation his Government would extend the ‘one country two systems’ concept to Tibet and the immediate answer was a blunt “No!” There was no need to, he added, because Tibet was already part of China.
Second, the main difference between Beijing and Lhasa over the analogy of Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Tawang as the five fingers of the Tibetan palm (which a Tibetan official mentioned) was over who the palm belonged to. Mao Tse-tung spoke of China’s Tibetan palm. But independent of this and long before the Communist takeover, the Dalai Lama’s Government cabled India in August 1947, asserting its claim to these territories.
Undoubtedly, China presents a clear and present challenge to India in spite of rhetoric about there being enough space for the two countries to grow together. But the militarisation of Tibet — of which retired Generals, former Ambassadors and strategists gave the meeting graphic details — is only one part of a much more comprehensive exercise. War games have changed since Kipling, and Indian strategists ought to concentrate on the more subtle economic and diplomatic ways of undermining India in the Asian leadership stakes that China has perfected.
Simplistic threat perceptions like viewing Tibet as a launching pad against India are not new. There was a time when our politicians cried themselves hoarse over a Washington-Islamabad-Beijing axis to throttle India. Then came fears of invasion by sea, which justified India’s own naval expansion. Now, the talk is of encirclement by China. Several speakers at the FNA programme dwelt on the communications system that is being developed in Tibet, especially unending miles of high quality roads right down to the borders of Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh, and on weapons systems that target India from Tibet.
Of course, China will use all its assets if hostilities break out again. The border garrison of Tibet, like the Great Wall of China and its watchtowers, is one such asset. But despite the stapled visas and propaganda about Tawang’s links with Drepung monastery, it is most unlikely that the Chinese will risk a nuclear conflagration by making a grab at Arunachal Pradesh.
Open confrontation has never been the Chinese style. They may say retrospectively they invaded India and Vietnam because both countries had to be taught a lesson, but the need for such instruction arises only when the adversary tries to resist insidious encroachment with overt force, as Jawaharlal Nehru’s forward policy did. It may be recalled that until they could present India with a fait accompli, Mao and Zhou Enlai tried to blame the previous Guomindang regime for cartographical aggression. The Aksai Chin road was a clandestine construction. So were China’s occupations of the Paracel Islands and Mischief Reef farther abroad. New Delhi might wake up one day, therefore, to find it has lost another chunk of territory as a result of the quiet changes the Chinese are making, according to one speaker, to the Line of Actual Control.
The real challenge lies in China undermining Indian manufacturing, winning over India’s neighbours, obstructing India in global forums and thwarting India’s nuclear growth. That calls for a multi-dimensional response. As several speakers recommended, a more positive attitude towards the Dalai Lama and his administration, and promoting the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, as a future leader, would send the message that India will not ever abandon Tibet or the Tibetans. Nothing is served by playing into China’s hands by becoming exercised over psychological pinpricks like stapled visas whose purpose is to keep this country in a state of nervous apprehension.
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