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India reveals flawed Tibet policy

December 7, 2007

By Abanti Bhattacharya
Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
Dec 7, 2007

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest
writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in

The recent decision by India's ruling United Progressive Alliance
government to bar ministers from attending a felicitation ceremony for
the Dalai Lama is an indication not only of the blunders committed by
the government in its foreign policy decision-making, but more
perilously it exposes the flawed nature of India's policy towards Tibet.

India has so far failed to understand the nuances in Chinese diplomatic
practice and negotiating tactics. It has time and again fallen into the
Chinese trap, sacrificing its national interests in the process.

Clearly, China is tackling its Tibet problem at two levels. One, it is
involving the Dalai Lama's representatives in fruitless talks on the
resolution of the Tibetan problem, while also disparaging him as a
"splittist" who aims to disintegrate China. Two, it is arm-twisting
India on the border dispute by raising the Tawang district issue and
asking India to remove its army bunkers from its outposts at Batang La
near the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction, while at the same time
mesmerizing the Indian leadership with rhetoric on India-China joint
leadership in bringing about an Asian renaissance.

China's Tibet policy forms the linchpin of its nationalist project. Its
sovereignty over Tibet has significant ramifications not only for its
national integrity but also for stability in its other minority areas,
particularly Xinjiang. If Tibet falls from China's grip, Xinjiang would
follow suit. The bottom line of China's Tibet policy thus has been the
maintenance of its sovereignty over Tibet through military and economic
means, whereby the region is fully integrated with the mainland and
Tibetans are reduced to a minority in their own province.

More importantly, China's Tibet policy has significant external security
ramifications owing to the entanglement of the Tibet issue in the
Sino-Indian border dispute. India inherited the British policy of
sustaining Tibet as a buffer zone and Tibet's de facto independent
status under Chinese suzerainty suited its national security interests.
In the post-1949 period, when the People's Republic of China came into
being, India urged China to let Tibet be an autonomous region, as this
would be in line with its historical status, its religious, cultural and
political identity, and minimize China's military presence in the region.

However, the entry of 20,000 PLA (People's Liberation Army) troops in
1950-51 into Tibet ended its independent status. The Chinese occupation
of Tibet brought to the fore the issue of India-China border. During his
visit to China in 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru raised the issue of inaccurate
border alignment in some Chinese maps to which Chinese premier Zhou
Enlai replied that those maps were reproductions of the old Kuomintang
maps and that the Chinese government had had no time to revise them.

Ironically, these two developments formed the undercurrent of the
Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai era (India and China are brothers)when India
signed the agreement with China on trade and intercourse between India
and Tibet on April 29, 1954. Under the agreement, India gave up all
extra-territorial rights and privileges that it had inherited from the
British Indian government and recognized Tibet as part of China.

The first official Chinese statement on the Sino-Indian border dispute
came on January 23, 1959, in response to Nehru's letter of December 14,
1958, in which he had drawn Chinese attention to the incorrect
Sino-Indian border alignment shown in Chinese maps. Zhou Enlai wrote
saying that the Sino-Indian border was never delimited and that China
had never recognized the McMahon Line.

It may be recalled that the British had delineated the McMahon line as
the boundary between India and Tibet following a tripartite agreement
among the British India, Tibet and China in 1914 but the treaty was not
ratified by China. After the India-China 1962 war China went on to claim
about 90,000 square kilometers of Indian territory in the eastern sector
and 38,000 square kilometers in the Aksai Chin area. China's Tibet
policy thus had brought to the fore a serious border dispute between
India and China, and it has remained intractable till date.

Indeed, China's claim over Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh) on the basis of
old Tibetan religious and monastic links is a reminder of the fact that
the Tibetan issue is far from over. In fact, the 11th round of the
meeting between the special representatives of the two countries in
September 2007 ended on an inconclusive note partly because of the
Tawang issue.

The former Chinese ambassador to New Delhi, Zhou Gang, said that as the
Chinese people would never accept the "McMahon line", India would have
to make substantial adjustments in the Eastern sector by giving Tawang
to China.

India's policy towards Tibet has suffered because of its many dilemmas.
In the 1950s, though India opposed China's invasion of Tibet, it refused
to sponsor a Tibetan appeal to the United Nations, turned down US
proposals for cooperation in support of the Tibetan resistance and
persuaded the young Dalai Lama not to flee abroad but to reach an
agreement with the Chinese government.

All this forced the Dalai Lama to sign a 17-point agreement with Beijing
in May 1951. This Indian policy stemmed from the need to preserve Tibet
as an autonomous region within China, while simultaneously advancing
ties with Beijing. Consequently, India signed the 1954 agreement with
China on Tibet, in which it virtually surrendered its Tibetan card. The
1956 uprising in Tibet exposed the insincerity of the Chinese towards
granting autonomy to Tibet and in an effort to retrieve the lost ground
India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959.

But Beijing saw the granting of asylum to Dalai Lama and enabling him to
mobilize international support as an anti-China policy. Consequently, in
all subsequent India-China joint statements, it ensured the insertion of
a clause on India's acceptance of Tibet as a part of China.

By repeatedly reiterating over the years that Tibet is a part of China,
India diluted its leverage not only in shoring up the Tibetan cause but
also in its border negotiations with China. At the same time, China
continues to fear that India might use the Tibetan card at some point in
the future. Despite these Chinese fears, India has steadfastly avoided
using the Tibetan card as a bargaining strategy.

Given its tradition of pursuing an independent foreign policy, it is
incomprehensible why India is buckling down under Chinese pressure on
Tibet. It is well known that given the present dynamics of India-China
relations with greater synergy as the goal, New Delhi is not likely to
take up the Tibetan cause actively.
But at the same time, it is well within the parameters of Indian foreign
policy to regard the Dalai Lama as Tibet's spiritual leader. When China
hosted the World Buddhist Forum, no eyebrows were raised though the
event had significant political import. India, being the land of Buddha,
should take the initiative to felicitate the Dalai Lama. After all, the
Dalai Lama is not demanding independence but is only legitimately
demanding the preservation of Tibetan identity, religion and culture
within Chinese frontiers.

India lacks the political will to creatively use the Tibetan card and is
losing an important leverage in its negotiations with China. India has
the Tibet card if it chooses to use. The very presence of the Dalai Lama
in India along with 120,000 Tibetan refugees spread across 35
settlements is leverage for India.

Further, the Dalai Lama recognizes the 1914 Simla agreement, in which
case the Chinese claims on Tawang on the basis of history do not hold
ground. In any case, historically, the Tawang tract did not belong to
China. The Chinese side in their dialog with the Tibetan Task Force have
tried to persuade the Tibetans to accept Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese
territory, to which the Tibetans have firmly refused.

Interestingly, while the Chinese are trying to solve the border dispute
with India through special representatives group meetings, they are also
simultaneously holding talks with the Tibetans on the Tibet issue.

This indicates entanglement of the Tibetan issue with the India-China
border dispute. Therefore, the problem of Tibet including the fate of
Tibetan refugees in India and the border dispute cannot be solved
effectively without a tripartite participation of India, China and Tibet.

India should explore ways to involve the Tibetans in the border
resolution. In fact, an effective solution to the India-China border
dispute would depend on involving the Tibetans as representatives in the
ongoing border negotiations. It may be similar to the Sino-Japanese
history issue where a joint committee has been set up to resolve the
history question. India-China-Tibet need a joint historical research to
resolve the "leftover" of history.

Dr Abanti Bhattacharya, associate fellow, Institute for Defense Studies
and Analyses (IDSA), Delhi.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest
writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in
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