The bull in China’s shop


Military preparation and dangerous brinkmanship raise the stakes on both sides of a troubled border. A Sino-Indian affairs veteran dissects a volatile situation


Battlelines Jawans on patrol on the shores of Ladakh’s Pangong Lake in 1962

BARELY FIVE weeks ago, when the Indian air was thick with media speculation over China’s aggressive designs in Arunachal Pradesh — in an off-the-record interaction with the prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which was devoted almost entirely to relations with China — Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna stonewalled every question on the recent increase in tensions along the border, insisting instead that relations between the countries had never been better. Council members, some of whom had driven or commuted two hours to hear him, could be seen clutching their heads in frustration.

This state of denial is not only new but seems to pervade every facet of Indian policy. For three years after China abruptly reminded India, on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s visit in December 2006, that it had not given up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh, almost the entire Indian intelligentsia continue to insist that relations with China had not changed fundamentally. China’s protests, supposedly, were pro forma reminders of its unsettled claims, no more and relations between the two countries had improved steadily, with trade and investment leading the way.

China doesn’t want a conflict any more than India. But for the two countries to avoid one, New Delhi must fully understand the significance of Tibet for China

This belief did not change even when China steadily began a planned campaign to unravel the status quo in the region and go back on the agreements it had reached with India since 1993. In the past three years, it has

 encroached beyond the 1962 Line of Actual Control (LAC) at places in Ladakh,

 denied a visa to an official from the government of Arunachal Pradesh,

 begun to issue visas to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir on separate pieces of paper,

 gone back on the 1996 agreement not to patrol or even over-fly areas within 10 km of the partially demarcated LAC

 gone back on the agreement “On Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India–China Boundary Dispute” that was signed on April 11, 2005, which bound the two sides “to safeguard the interests of the settled populations in the border areas” in reaching a boundary settlement.

Kashmiri and Tibetan communities are both about 6 million. But the Kashmir valley is only 0.13 percent of India’s land, Greater Tibet accounts for 25 percent of China’s

In addition, barely days before the UN General Assembly convened in New York last month, China got the board of the Asian Development Bank to agree that future loans for projects in disputed areas would be denied. It will doubtless use this as a precedent to try and prevent all aid to such areas from the World Bank as well. In the first eight months of 2009, Chinese border patrols troops crossed the LAC (as understood by India) no fewer than 270 times. But all this has only hardened our official state of denial.

Half smiles Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing on January 14, 2008
Photo: Reuters

This denial is partly tactical. New Delhi did believe, to start with, that if it kept a low profile, the problem might again just go away, as it seemed to have done after 1993. Later, when it became apparent that the Chinese had no intention of allowing it to do so, it has used denial to buy time for strengthening its defences. Beijing has promptly latched onto these efforts to accuse India of bad faith and trying to engineer a fait accompli in a disputed area and used them to justify its reneging on the understandings reached in previous rounds of talks on the border issue. But the fact is that it was Beijing that started the escalation when it began to build a railway line paralleling the LAC from Lhasa to Shigatse in July 2007. When this line is completed next summer, it will give China an overwhelming logistical and tactical advantage in the region. India had no option but to take precautions. But this has led to a further rise in tension on the Himalayan border.

Delhi’s room for denial and, one strongly suspects, its time for taking military precautions, ran out abruptly on October 13. That morning, the Global Times,an English language adjunct of the Chinese government’s mouthpiece The Peoples’ Daily quoted a foreign office spokesman by name as having stated that “Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made another provocative and dangerous move by visiting the East Section of the China-India Boundary, which India calls Arunachal Pradesh, on October 3, ahead of a local legislative election.” The Global Times quoted the spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, as saying that China was “seriously dissatisfied” with the prime minister’s visit to “Southern Tibet”.

The foreign office statement deliberately broke several diplomatic taboos: it referred, for the first time ever, to the Indian prime minister by name, instead of making generalised statements of protest or displeasure. But it was the choice of words — “provocative,” “dangerous,” “seriously dissatisfied” — that was most ominous. Those schooled in the arcane language of diplomacy know that these words have often been used as preludes to war.

Militarily, India may no longer be a pushover in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh. But the economic consequences of even a minor war would be catastrophic

Singh felicitated in Itanagar by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Khandu on January 31, 2008
Photo: PIB

But what on earth is biting the Chinese? Why are they picking on India at a time when they are battling recession at home with a manifestly uncontrolled and unviable economic stimulus programme and facing something close to revolt in Xinjiang, chronic discontent in Tibet and rising social unrest in even the core Han areas of the country? The answer, as seen from Beijing, is that it is being forced down a road it does not wish to travel because India simply won’t let things be. In the past twenty months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited Arunachal Pradesh twice and former defence minister Pranab Mukherjee once to declare Arunachal an integral part of India. With blunt statements such as one made recently by Mr. Krishna, — that there is nothing to discuss — China’s protests have simply been brushed aside as routine and legalistic.

There is, in fact, quite a lot to discuss, but it has very little to do with the Arunachal border. The real bone of contention is Tibet. It was responsible for the 1962 war. It could be responsible for another one in the near future. This war is by no means unavoidable. The mere fact that it was Premier Wen Jiabao who suggested the Bangkok meeting shows that China does not want a conflict any more than India. But for the two countries to avoid one, it is imperative for New Delhi to fully understand the significance of Tibet for China.


Disenchanted Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala at an anti-China protest rally, March 2008
Photo: Reuters

China has been giving hints and showing increasing perturbation over Delhi’s failure to appreciate its concerns over Tibet for some time. In November 2006, less than a month before President Hu Jintao’s visit, Zheng Ruixang, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies told The Times of India bluntly that China wanted India to “dissolve” the Dalai Lama’s government–in-exile in Dharamsala. “The Tibetan problem,” he said, “is a major obstacle in the normalisation of relations between China and India.” If Delhi even noticed the news item, it most certainly did not appreciate its significance. That is, not till the Chinese Ambassador to Delhi turned the clock back on Arunachal a month later on the eve of Hu’s visit.

It made a far more pointed reference in mid-November last year, only nine days before the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11, when a Chinese foreign office spokesman stated that China expected India to “ban activities aimed at splitting Chinese territory.” This was a reference to the meeting of eminent Tibetans that the Dalai Lama had called in Dharamsala on November 17 to chart a course of action after the failure of the eighth round of talks on Tibetan autonomy in April 2008. Delhi ignored the warning.

The most recent linking of the two issues is to be found in the Global Times’ editorial of October 13: “India’s recent moves — including Singh’s trip and approving past visits to the region by the Dalai Lama — send the wrong signal. That could have dangerous consequences.”


Counsel The Dalai Lama listens to an aide at a meeting in Washington
Photo: Reuters

Why is Tibet, and not Arunachal or even the monastery at Tawang, the key issue? The short answer is that China has not been able to assimilate Tibet and blames India for its failure because, by giving the Dalai Lama shelter, it has kept the Tibetan political and cultural identity alive.

China’s belief that its hectic programme of Tibetan modernisation — what the now destroyed Gongmeng Law Research Centre described as ‘The Great Destruction and the Great Construction’ — had assimilated the Tibetans received a shock on March 10, 2008, when first Lhasa and then towns in three other provinces erupted into unrest that bordered on a mini-insurrection.

According to the Chinese authorities, this led to 18 civilian deaths, mostly of Chinese settlers. In all, the Chinese authorities claim that they arrested 1,315 persons. The Dalai Lama’s people, however, had a very different tally. According to them, the Chinese security forces killed 220 Tibetans, injured 1,300 and detained nearly 7,000.

Beijing blamed what it called the “Dalai clique” for launching a carefully planned plot to discredit China before the Olympic Games. It published a detailed account of how the unrest had been planned during meetings in Brussels, New Delhi and Dharamsala over the previous ten months and accused the Dalai Lama and, tacitly India, of blessing it by allowing them to do their planning in Dharamsala.

The sanctuary that India — perhaps inadvertently — provided Tibetan organisations that tried to discredit China before the Olympics angered Beijing

It claimed that five India-based and two international Tibetan organizations had met in Delhi in January 2008 and issued a “Declaration of Tibetan People’s Uprising Movement’ in which they had claimed that China and Tibet were two different countries. Three of the seven organizations were youth and women’s organizations and a fourth was an organization formed by former prisoners of the Chinese authorities. Although Beijing lost no time in blaming what it called the “Dalai clique,” its diatribe against the Dalai Lama hid a belated realization that the Tibetan autonomy movement was slowly passing into the hands of younger people who had fewer inhibitions against resorting to violence than their elders. Beijing’s anger against India stemmed from the sanctuary that India, perhaps unintentionally, had begun to provide to these newer organisations.

Throughout the following year Beijing continued to dismiss the Dalai Lama and his supporters as remnants of a feudal, oppressive, and predatory regime that the vast majority of the Tibetans were glad to be rid of. But its actions belied its words. In March this year, in the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight, it blanketed every known and potential trouble spot in Greater Tibet with soldiers and riot police in gear that made them look like space invaders, closed schools and colleges and confined monks to their monasteries for weeks before the event. As a result, nothing happened. But China’s leaders cannot have failed to wonder if they will have to turn Tibet into a pressure cooker year after year. They cannot be blamed for feeling that something needs to change.

The other cause of the shrillness of Beijing’s reaction, both towards the Dalai Lama and India, is its changed perception of the Tibetan autonomy movement. In the past two decades, this has undergone a transformation that no one could have foreseen even as recently as a decade and a half ago. The spread of the mobile telephony and the Internet across the world and across China has enabled Tibetans in exile to establish and maintain continuous contact with Tibetans within China. It has also connected Tibetans living all around the world. This has eroded the capacity of the Chinese state, as indeed other states, to manage discontent by isolating the discontented from each other. On the contrary, the Tibetan nationalist community is no longer just a group of refugees who sought shelter in India and other countries from Chinese oppression and would like nothing better than to find a political arrangement with Beijing that would enable them to return and live in peace. It has, instead, become a new kind of nation – a nation without a geographical territory – but one that is capable of communicating and coordinating action across international boundaries. Tibet, in short, is slowly emerging as a ‘virtual’ nation, with Dharamsala as the seat of its ‘virtual’ government.

The tipping point may be the Dalai Lama’s November visit to Tawang. China’s antipathy for him and its explicit claims to Tawang would make it difficult for it to do nothing


Beijing cannot but view this with some consternation. For the alternative to forced assimilation — some kind of accommodation with the Dalai Lama — has, so far, remained shut because of the nature of his demand for ‘Genuine Autonomy.’ Through nine rounds of talks the Dalai Lama has steadfastly maintained that autonomy needs to be granted not only to present day Tibet (TAR) but also to Greater Tibet. This includes the whole of Qinghai, the southern part of Gansu, the western part of Sichuan and the northwestern part of Yunnan.

The second is “the right of Tibetans to create their own ‘government institutions and processes that are best suited to their needs and characteristics.’” The Dalai Lama wants the administration thus created to be responsible for 11 subjects including not just language, religion, culture, education and domicile but also protection of the environment, the utilization of natural resources, economic development, trade and public health.

Beijing considers both as poison pills that are stepping-stones to splitting China. The first involves the vivisection of four provinces. The second involves the creation of a second political system within the same country, in which power does not flow down from the State to the people, but flows up from the people to the State. It would be difficult for any government to make such wrenching changes in its constitution except over a considerable period of time. But it is all the less feasible for the Chinese State, which embodies not only the totalitarian traditions of communism but also the absolutist traditions of the Confucian state that preceded it.

Beijing cannot, therefore, understand why, when professing friendship, India is prepared to let the Dalai Lama make proposals from Indian soil that are essentially subversive. This accounts for the sudden eruption of anti-Indian rhetoric on Chinese internet sites immediately after the March 2008 Lhasa riots.

The Dalai Lama’s proposals would vivisect four Chinese provinces and reverse the flow of power in China, where power flows down from the State to the people

Rank and file Chinese soldiers march in preparation for their National Day parade in October
Photo: Reuters

New Delhi seems singularly unaware of the peril into which it is being dragged by the changing equation between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. This is at least partly because of the vast asymmetry in the importance China and India attach to Tibet. To India, the Tibetans in exile remain refugees who sought political asylum and have now only to be discouraged from taking hostile political actions against China from Indian soil. Beijing, however, regards them as a well-knit insurgent group based in India that skillfully mobilizes international sympathy and uses the internet to reach Tibetans within China, to foment an insurgency. To understand how seriously Beijing views this, one has only to compare it’s problem in Tibet with India’s problem in Kashmir. Both the Tibetan and Kashmiri communities are of the same size – about 6 million. But while Kashmir valley accounts for only 0.13 percent, or 1/800ths, of India’s land area, Greater Tibet accounts for a quarter of China’s.

Mutual incomprehension reached a peak in November 2008, when India ignored a warning from a spokesman of the Chinese foreign office that China expected India to “ban activities aimed at splitting Chinese territory.” To India, the meeting was a way of allowing the Dalai Lama to retain control of the Tibetan movement and steer it away from violence. But China saw it as the provision of another opportunity for the “Dalai clique” to work out strategies for fomenting insurrection in Tibet.


The latest, explicit statements by the Chinese foreign office show that time is running short. The point of no return will almost certainly be the Dalai Lama’s visit in November to inaugurate a hospital. Both China’s newfound self importance and its explicit claims to Tawang as the second most important monastery in Tibet will make it difficult for it to do nothing.

Delhi can still gamble on carrying off its bluff. But the danger to both its economy and its political structure is too great for it to hang all of its hopes on this slender thread. Militarily, India may no longer be a pushover in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh. But the economic consequences of even a minor war would be catastrophic. Foreign capital would rush out, the share market would collapse, our already high interest rates would soar into the stratosphere, and growth would grind to a halt and unemployment rise by the tens of millions in the unorganised sector.

The Dalai Lama’s observation: ‘India has been too cautious’ should be read as an invitation for Delhi to shed its reticence and help him find a negotiated solution

The alternate — indeed the right thing to do — is to turn the impending crisis into an opportunity for helping both China and the Dalai Lama arrive at an acceptable formula for Tibetan autonomy within China. The starting point should be for India to persuade the Dalai Lama to postpone his visit to Tawang. The next step should be to dissociate itself explicitly from the demand for autonomy in Greater Tibet, as opposed to the TAR. This is not to cast doubt on the cultural validity of the Dalai Lama’s claim, but simply to find an acceptable second best solution that will meet the Tibetans’ core demands without requiring a changing of political boundaries in China. For the plain truth is that India cannot afford to be seen as supporting, even tacitly, a demand that it would not countenance on itself under any circumstances.

Should China show any interest in India playing a mediatory role, New Delhi can use its unique position as the de facto protector of the Tibetan national identity to persuade the Dalai Lama to make three amendments to his blueprint for Genuine Autonomy. The first is to drop his demand to create a Greater Tibet by redrawing the borders of the four neighbouring provinces and limit his proposals for Tibetan governance to the TAR. Should the experiment succeed, it can be replicated in Qinghai, and in Tibetan-dominated prefectures in Yunnan and Sichuan, again without redrawing provincial borders, at a later date.

The second is to reduce the number of subjects to be devolved upon the administration of the TAR from the present eleven to four: religion, culture, education and personal and customary law. The third and, in many ways, most important, is to drop the demand for an immediate shift from the present system of ‘government from above’ to ‘government from below’ and to propose a time frame within which the democratic procedures required to make the shift should be introduced.

New Delhi should not find it too difficult to persuade the Dalai Lama that this is the best way to proceed. He has admitted that the failure of the eighth round of talks has made it necessary to look for a new approach. That was the purpose of the Dharamsala conference. He also recognizes that the conference has, in effect, put a limit on the time within which he must devise his new approach. His observation after the conference last November, that “India has been too cautious” on the issue of Tibet should therefore be read as a call for help – an invitation to Delhi to shed its reticence and help him find a solution.

Beijing’s reaction to an Indian offer of good offices is likely to be more complex. It will first need to shed more than a century of suspicion of any initiative on Tibet that originates south of the Himalayas. But if the statement made by Zhu Weiqun, the head of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department — who led the team that examined the Dalai Lama’s proposal — is to be taken at face value, China has not altogether closed its doors on dialogue and may still be receptive to a proposal that does not, in his words, “aim at revising the constitution so that this separatist group could actually possess the power of an independent state.” So Beijing may welcome a proposal that takes the form described above. Even if it does not do so immediately, India’s constructive approach will buy time and open new avenues for the resumption of a constructive dialogue on the border, among other issues.



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