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India-China Border Dispute: Centrality of Tibet

One of the primary reasons for the failure of India and China to reach an understanding on their border dispute is the issue of Tibet and its influence on India-China relations. An appreciation of the significance of Tibet helps clarify the context of the politics associated with the border dispute and demonstrates why the issue remains intractable.


Centrality of Tibet

One of the primary reasons for the failure of India and China to reach an understanding on their border dispute is the issue of Tibet and its influence on India-China relations. An appreciation of the significance of Tibet helps clarify the context of the politics associated with the border dispute and demonstrates why the issue remains intractable.


ndia and China concluded yet another round of talks begun on June 25, 2006 – the eighth so far – on resolving their decades-old border dispute. After three days of talks between the two sides in Xi’an and Beijing, a press release issued by the Indian embassy in China said: “The Special Representatives (of the two countries) continued their discussions on an agreed framework for a boundary settlement on the basis of the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for Settlement of India-China Boundary Question…[T]alks were held in a friendly, cooperative, and constructive atmosphere”.

In an article published in the Japan Times in the immediate aftermath of the talks, Brahma Chellaney exasperatedly asks “Will India-China border talks ever end?”. The short and simple answer to this question seems to be an emphatic “no”. India and China appear to be no closer to settling their border dispute than they were a decade ago. Why has it been so difficult for the two countries to come to an agreement on the border?

As this article argues, what needs to be recognised here is that one of the primary reasons for the failure of India and China to reach an understanding over the border is the issue of Tibet and its influence on India-China relations. An appreciation of the significance of Tibet helps clarify the context of the politics associated with the Sino-Indian border dispute and demonstrates why the issue remains intractable.

Mutual distrust and hostility have characterised relations between India and China since the 1950s. The ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ (India-China brotherhood), which prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India believed in implicitly, broke down in the early 1950s after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China invaded and annexed Tibet. With the completion of the occupation of Tibet, the PLA was at the doorsteps of India’s northern frontiers. The Chinese leadership refused to recognise the boundary that had been demarcated between British India and Tibet by the erstwhile British colonial and Tibetan officials, and war broke out in 1962 as the situation worsened.

Since then relations have been rocky, but have improved, in fits and starts, since 1976. This has led to some scholars positing that the two countries would enter into a more friendly and cooperative relationship. However, such conclusions are, at best, premature. The rivalry between the two sides that has existed for so long is unlikely to disappear soon. Relations between India and China in the 21st century will continue to be characterised by rivalry and peaceful competition. The current phase of thaw in relations

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

between the two states will be short-lived because both states have conflicting interests and goals at the regional level. Probably, the most significant of these regions is Tibet.

Beginnings of Discord

The India-China rivalry originated with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951. With the occupation, a buffer that insulated direct contact between the two countries disappeared and the Indo-Tibetan border became the Indo-Chinese border. Tibet remained the bone of contention between the two sides for several decades. The Chinese have encountered frequent disturbances and protests both inside and outside Tibet by pro-independence activists, and Chinese leaders have always been concerned about resurgent nationalist movements based on ethnicity and religion within China’s outlying provinces. Tibet has attracted widespread international attention and the Chinese have frequently been subject to attacks on their human rights record in Tibet by the international community, especially the west.

For a long time now, India has deliberately avoided condemning China’s human rights record and its occupation of Tibet. The prime motivation for this has been the desire to improve its relations with China. In addition, India is sensitive about the issue of human rights because its own record in Kashmir has been less than perfect. Since the 1960s, Indian officials have repeatedly declared that they accept Chinese rule in Tibet. In truth, any declaration to the contrary might seriously jeopardise relations between the two sides.

The consistent stand of successive Indian governments is that Tibet is an autonomous region of China. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that the head of government of each autonomous entity in China (like Tibet) must belong to the majority ethnic group that is settled in that autonomous entity. The constitution also guarantees a range of rights including: independence of finance, independence of economic planning, independence of arts, science and culture, organisation of local police, and use of local language in these entities. The head of government of each autonomous region is known as a “chairman”, unlike in the provinces, where they are known as “governor”. The Chinese government claims that Tibet enjoys substantial freedom due to the above-mentioned rights guaranteed in the constitution.

However, critics have argued that the “autonomous entities” offer little or no autonomy, as officials (even if they belong to the ethnic minority) are appointed from above rather than elected democratically by the people. Pro-independence advocates of Tibet view the autonomous regions as a facade because of the repression and assimilation that takes place there. The real power within the autonomous entity lies with the local Communist Party committee secretary rather than the head of government in Tibet. Also, it is argued that the ranks of government are being filled with Han Chinese instead of Tibetans, since only the head of government needs to be from the designated ethnic group.

China’s Expectations

China wants India to disavow itself from the Tibetan cause, prevent the Dalai Lama from campaigning for Tibet’s independence or autonomy, and finally expel him. However, India is not very keen to oblige. An independent Tibet with a friendly or neutral government, however unlikely in the near future, could prove vital for the security of India’s northern and northeastern frontiers. As such, it is in no hurry to give the Chinese what they want. Also, India feels that since Tibet is the only card it has to play against China, it should use it wisely and not give it up too soon.

With respect to the Tibetan issue, apart from the presence of the Dalai Lama and his followers in India, with whom India has enjoyed an excellent relationship, the latter has very little influence inside Tibet and is not in a position to threaten Chinese interests there. This is a result of India’s voluntary revocation of its special rights in Tibet, inherited from the British raj, during the 1950s for the sake of better India-China relations. This coupled with the acceptance of Chinese rule in Tibet has reduced India’s ability to play any meaningful role in Tibet.

However, if relations between India and China worsen in the future, the former can use the Dalai Lama’s presence to embarrass China and ratchet up international pressure against it by allowing him to engage in political activities, which the Chinese government describes as “splitting the motherland”. The presence of the Dalai Lama and his followers in India is a source of friction between India and China. China has repeatedly claimed that the Dalai Lama is using his position to lobby for independence for Tibet and thus trying to break up China. It has asked the Indian government to address these issues. However, being an open society, it is difficult for India to suppress such activities that are, almost invariably, non-violent in nature.

China feels that India continues to keep the “Tibetan Question” alive by giving refuge to the Dalai Lama. This has not helped improve relations between the two Asian giants and this issue will continue to remain the bone of contention as China tries to increase its presence and hold over Tibet, while India tries its best to salvage whatever influence it has among the Tibetans to ensure that its interests in Tibet are protected.

The disappearance of Tibet as a buffer in 1951 meant that Indian and Chinese forces stood eye-to-eye across the undemarcated Himalayan border. Prime minister Nehru was willing to sacrifice Tibet for the sake of friendship between India and China. But the Chinese also claimed that the boundary between British India and Tibet was the work of “European imperialists and Tibetan feudal lords”, and thus the boundary treaties needed to be re-negotiated. India’s refusal led to the worsening of the situation until war finally broke out in 1962, in which India was soundly beaten. India has been unwilling to trust China ever since and the painful experiences of 1962 continue to shape the mindset of the Indian establishment. The psychological effects of the defeat will ensure that it will be a long time before relations between the two sides are based on mutual trust.

Tibet is at the heart of the India-China rivalry for dominance in Asia. When Tibet was occupied, it changed the asymmetry between the two sides. China was able to exercise geo-strategic influence over much of south Asia and challenge India’s dominance in the region. India recognises that the loss of Tibet as a buffer zone crippled the security of its northern frontiers forcing it to maintain hundreds and thousands of soldiers along the Himalayan frontier. Neither side is willing to compromise much over Tibet. The competitive element driving these two sides to protect their interests in Tibet thus precludes the possibility of a speedy resolution of the border dispute between the two sides.



Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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