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Chanakya the master of statecraft in ancient India practiced his art in and around the subcontinent. His art has not flourished all that well in India the land of his birth in the decades following Independence. Before we get down to understanding as to how Hu Jintao might yet again have outsmarted his counterparts in New Delhi it would be worth reproducing relevant excerpts from the book Global Security Paradoxes: 2000-2020 with special reference to the chapter “China, Tibet, India: Status Quo or Reappraisal?”

-After establishment of Chinese unity through the bloody route, the Chinese leaders understood, more comprehensively than anyone else, that power, in the ultimate analysis, did flow from the barrel of a gun. Having understood the currency of power they quickly went on to occupy Tibet while India was embroiled in Kashmir. Indian leaders were not able to grasp the global reality of that period. They tried to rebuild India on the platform of idealism. They made way for the Chinese in Tibet. They have been making way for the Chinese ever since.

Militarisation of any region takes place on account of perceived military threats to that region. In the second half of the twentieth century the Chinese rapidly militarized Tibet to consolidate their grip on the conquered territory. In addition to the internal unrest caused by the occupation they might have had misgivings regarding the intentions of India and/or the USA. Mention is made of only these two countries because no other nation or community of nations had, or would be likely to have in the foreseeable future, the direct interest or the military wherewithal to mount any credible challenge to continued Chinese occupation of Tibet. Today the world at large and certainly USA and India are reconciled to the Chinese presence in Tibet. The misgivings that China may have entertained in the twentieth century – if at all – of being militarily challenged in Tibet cannot obtain at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Therefore, since no country seriously questions the status quo, China can safely undertake the demilitarization of the Tibetan Plateau and the loosening of its harsh grip on the Tibetan people without any qualms. The perceived raison d’etre for the militarisation of Tibet having disappeared altogether in the new millennium makes it possible for the Chinese to arrive at an accommodation with the Dalai Lama and undertake demilitarization without a backward glance.

Today, the view from Beijing on the Tibetan issue would be that everything is moving along better than expected. From the Chinese standpoint it is a dead issue. Washington and the European capitals, they feel, keep the issue alive merely to embarrass China. In the Chinese perception, as far as the West is concerned economics will, hereafter, propel geopolitics. Hence, if geo-economics is what matters China is exceptionally well placed – at least for the time being. The other power that has any locus standi is India. As Beijing sees it, India does not have the stomach to question China’s policy in Tibet.

For several decades India was a little more than a bit player vis-à-vis China in Central or South East Asia or for that matter anywhere else, with some exceptions. Therefore, it really did not have many options regarding Tibet. Not only did it supinely accept Chinese outrages in Tibet, linked to developments that threatened the security of India, it curtailed severely the options that could have been exercised by the Dalai Lama to enlarge the Tibetan question. It needs to be restated here that India did not advocate the challenging of China’s position in Tibet in the last century, nor does it wish to do so now, unless China by its actions forces India and the rest of the world to throw open the whole question of the occupation of Tibet. To obviate such a situation the obvious course for China would be to settle the boundary dispute with India and meet the very reasonable minimum demands of the Dalai Lama. (Emphasis added)

China has sat on the question of autonomy for Tibetans and the boundary dispute with India for several decades. It may not be prudent for it to prolong these issues in the fashion that it did before. Dramatic changes could take place that might not be in China’s interest if it continues to drag its feet from a position of near-absolute unassailability, to the extent that the world had practically reconciled itself to the Chinese position, primarily because the prime contenders, India and the Dalai Lama, were not willing to challenge it or do anything about it.

The moment the twentieth century mindset is shed, as being totally inadequate, the realization dawns that the simple issue of the restoration of the Dalai Lama has assumed such extraordinary military dimensions that one is hard put to find any parallel in recent times. The nature of the military build up in Tibet is just not commensurate to the challenge that the Dalai Lama poses. How on earth can a handful of followers of an itinerant monk militarily challenge the might of the Peoples’ Republic of China? The very notion is absurd. Whichever way they look at the problem the military dimension should not enter into the reckoning unless the Chinese wish to use Tibet as a launch pad for aggression against India at some future date. That assumption too becomes difficult to comprehend in the case of Tibet. In the eyes of the Government of India, except for not insurmountable differences on the boundary issue, the Tibetan question has been settled once and for all. The Dalai Lama has not advocated an armed uprising and nor would the Indian government countenance such action from Indian soil. Hence, China is very comfortably placed vis-à-vis Tibet at the dawn of the twenty-first century. By not demilitarizing Tibet it forces India to militarise the eastern Himalayas. Should over-militarisation again erupt into a major conflagration the ‘settled’ Tibetan question would automatically stand re-opened, regardless of the outcome of the struggle. The rest of the world acquiesced in the Chinese conquest of Tibet in the 1950s because India did so. Had India challenged the usurpation, the world, without doubt, would have sided with India at that time. China should remain eternally grateful to India for not only serving Tibet to it on a platter, but for compounding the Himalayan blunder by then going on to champion that country’s case before the rest of the world, in the difficult years following the communist takeover. Thereafter, India maintained a stoic silence while the genocide in Tibet proceeded apace. Hence, from a geopolitical standpoint it is vital to China’s long-term interests to demilitarize Tibet with concomitant demilitarization of the eastern Himalayas on the part of India.

Chinese leaders have invariably taken a long-term view of China’s security since the communist takeover. Even in the turbulent early stages when the communist regime was threatened from various directions and faced large-scale internal unrest on account of collectivization they did not hesitate to challenge the might of USA in Korea. This was in spite of the fact that the USA possessed atomic weapons and the Chinese did not. They were also aware that the USA had demonstrated its ability to use atomic weapons in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Having conquered Tibet, unopposed by India, they would not only have readily accepted the boundary indicated by India, but might have even agreed to a forward Indian presence beyond its boundaries for a given period had India adopted an uncompromising attitude in the early turbulent period of China’s consolidation. Unfortunately for the Tibetans and the world at large the leaders of the country south of the Himalayas displayed a lack of geo-political realism.

Post–1962 it was difficult for Nehru’s successors to undo the initial blunders of that great statesman, whose idealism, in this particular case, was wholly misplaced. The country had to live with the initial mistake till it was able to show some spine in the closing years of the 20th century. By that time its economic position had started improving and it was able to declare itself a nuclear power after the Pokhran II tests of 1998. The latter could have been a feather in the cap of another tall leader of the country had Mr. Vajpayee not then gone on to compound the monumental error of the Nehruvian period on his visit to China as prime minister in 2003. Pandit Nehru was naïve. India had just become independent. He was experimenting with non-alignment. He was hoping to co-opt China into the same fold. After full 50 years there was absolutely no excuse for Mr. Vajpayee and his team of strategic advisers to compound the original sin – for it was nothing less than a sin – by making the statement in China that India considered Tibet a part of that country. The Chinese strategic community must have been stunned by India throwing away its last trump card in such cavalier fashion. Vajpayee’s successors went and repeated the assurance, thereby leaving themselves no escape route for a rainy day. No wonder the Chinese in the final declaration after the Hu Jintao visit said repeatedly that they were happy to note that India accepted Tibet as a part of China. Put in another way they were happy to note that it was India itself that had further undermined the Dalai Lama’s position and the cause of Tibetan autonomy; the question of independence had been abandoned much earlier. At this stage it is worth examining the consequences of the ineptitude of India’s leaders with regard to the countries’ long-term strategic interest.

First of all by reiterating that Tibet is unquestionably a part of China it gives the Chinese, or rather confers upon them, the legal right to question the boundary with India as well as Bhutan. What is more, it confers similar rights on their successors. When the Chinese occupied Tibet they would have been relieved to have negotiated a treaty with India on the autonomous status of Tibet had this country opposed their occupation of Tibet tooth and nail. In those earlier years, in fact for several decades thereafter, the Chinese were not really interested in occupying more Indian territory after 1962. They kept - and continue to keep – the boundary question alive so that Indian leaders never question China’s occupation of Tibet or its activities in Tibet, which include the marginalisation and genocide of Tibetans and the ecological devastation of Tibet.

From the time of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency and more so after her demise Indian leaders have gotten into the groove of sacrificing the national interest in the internal governance of the country. The same tendency is reasserting itself in external relations as well. There is a strange phenomenon operating in this country whereby national leaders – and this includes military chiefs as well – get carried away on their visits to foreign countries, especially the USA and China. The charm offensive and the encomiums showered upon them by their hosts evidently work wonders. Almost invariably they end up giving much more than they get in return. Moreover, there is a tendency amongst these leaders to shine personally as great statesman on the world stage at the cost of the long-term interest of the country. The same tendency manifests itself in other fields as well.

Of course it is possible to put an altogether different construction on the attitude and actions of the Indian leaders dealing with China since Independence. China’s history has been one of aggressiveness with its neighbours. India’s historical experience has been just the opposite. Chinese leaders are the product of China’s past, just as India’s leaders are the product of India’s past. The latter’s worldview would, in any case, have carried a pacific strain. Consciously or subconsciously it would have been reinforced by the passage of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian stage in the first half of the 20th Century. No Indian leader of stature has been able to abjure Gandhi’s philosophy, at least not publicly. The influence on the psyche of the people of India as a whole goes much deeper. With this background it would not be wrong to suppose that Indian leaders gave up several negotiating advantages in the belief that India’s and, more importantly, Asia’s long-term interest could only be served by complete harmonization of India-China relations. Most Indians still hold that view, the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the 1962 war notwithstanding. It is not in China’s interest, and certainly not in the interest of Asia and the world that India be forced by Chinese intransigence to abandon its historical perspective and faith in pacifism as an instrument of state policy. It was in this spirit that Nehru went to Bandung as the leading votary of Panchsheel. It would indeed be sad if Chinese leaders in the 21st Century were to take India’s lack of aggressive posturing as a sign of weakness carried over from the previous century.

In the light of what has been stated above China, in its own long-term interest, having been assured of India’s acceptance of Tibet as a part of China, should commence the phased demilitarization of the Tibet Autonomous Region and permit the return of the Dalai Lama on the lines of the very modest proposals put forward by him. Failure to do so would automatically, in the not too distant future, reopen the entire Tibetan question. What is more, it would force India to militarize its borders with China far more meaningfully than at present. Militarization creates its own logic – mostly tragic. China’s demilitarization of Tibet has now become an ineluctable ecological imperative as well. The sooner China gets going on this long delayed step the better it would be for Sino-Indian relations and for peace and harmony in Asia.

The world has been so inured to the China, Tibet, India equation of the previous century that it failed to take into account the importance of perhaps one of the most significant developments of recent years as it moved into the new century. The epoch-making event that needs to be emblazoned across all points of the horizon is that in spite of the merciless repression visited upon the fragile Tibetan nation – fragile in numbers and fragile in its ecology – since the Chinese invaded Tibet the Dalai Lama has remained steadfast in his belief in non-violence. Any other leader, recoiling in horror at the magnitude of the devastation wrought on Tibet and its people, would long ago have changed course; in the manner of so many insurgent and terrorist organizations that have sprung up all over the world to cause a veritable nightmare for the well-being of so many nations. The Dalai Lama stood rock-like in his belief in ahimsa as propounded by the Buddha and Mahavira several millennia ago and as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century when challenging the might of the greatest empire of that age. The Dalai Lama’s steadfastness becomes doubly commendable in the face of the bitter opposition by a large portion of the Tibetan youth who do not see any hope for salvation – for their country or people – at the other end of the road taken by their spiritual leader, no matter how much they might revere him personally. This self-sacrifice and steadfastness of the Tibetan people to uphold the values they cherish, in the face of prolonged inhuman repression, has to be seen in contrast to the violence and suicide bombings erupting elsewhere in the world in the face of much lesser wrongs, imagined or real, perpetrated against oppressed people. Today it is perhaps the only experiment of its type on a large enough scale that the world is aware of. It must not be allowed to fail. More, so for the sake of humanity at large than just the Tibetan people. The whole world has an immense stake in seeing the Dalai Lama’s experiment succeed. The stakes are simply too enormous for humankind in the midst of the turmoil that has now engulfed the world. The spiritual leader of Tibet stands as a beacon for people everywhere. A satisfactory outcome of his struggle will renew humanity’s faith in itself in a world rent asunder by so many hatreds and divisions.

New Delhi
December 7, 2006
© Vinod Saighal



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