The Covid-19 crisis is opening up some windows of opportunities for India to effect strategic course correction and reset its relationship with China. Besides the military capability, China’s ability to leverage its economic prowess to ‘win friends and fend off enemies’ is likely to come under severe strain in the post-Covid world. There are signs of an anti-China global platform emerging but New Delhi would be advised to wait and watch its progress before committing to be part of it.
And the Tibet card is only one of them.
The anatomy of a dispute
As reports of de-escalation of the border standoff in Ladakh trickle in, New Delhi seems to have conveyed to Beijing that the onus of restoring normality lies lie with China.
The Ladakh stand-off could be the result of China’s stiff opposition to India laying a key road near the Pangong Tso and another connecting the 255-km-long Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldi road in Galwan River valley that will allow the Indian Army easy access to its post in the Karakoram Pass, which oversees Chip Chap River, Trig Heights and Depsang plains.
China’s calculation is that once this area is cleared of Indian Army, it can build its proposed road connecting Tibet with Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, weakening India’s position in Siachen Glacier. Considering the military asymmetry between India and Pakistan, Beijing will go to any extent to protect its entry point to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which ensures it a base in Gwadar, Indian Ocean.
Beijing’s aggressive posturing at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is in consonance with its overall geopolitical objectives of regional geographic expansion through aggrandisement and gaining global salience through its hegemonic moves in the region. To that end, Chinese President Xi Jinping, like Mao Zedong, is also using the extremely organised and powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a tool to achieve his goal. Currently, the PLA is firmly under the grip of Xi Jinping who is arguably stronger than Chairman Mao.
The Tibet question
Ironically, the original China established by the Qing Dynasty in 1644 collapsed in the uprising of 1911, paving the way for a new republic. The disintegration of the imperial China and unification of modern China could be traced to a span of about 50 years beginning from the Yihequan unrest (The Boxer Rebellion) against foreign powers, Christian missionaries, local converts (blaming them for disease and poverty), and the Long March culminating in the establishment of Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949 after just 15 years of struggle and violent battles.
On top of Chairman Mao Zedong’s agenda was annexing (and punishing) Tibet, which he referred to as the ‘right palm of China’ while Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are the ‘five fingers’. China confronted India with its invasion of Tibet on 7 October 1950, seriously endangering the stability of not just Tibet and India but the whole of Asia. Then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was advised to consult the British, who suggested that ‘India should do what it can for Tibet … short of military assistance,’ and that ‘recognising Tibetan independence must be ruled out’.
Realising that Tibet is incapable of doing anything more than nominal resistance, Nehru accepted the British government’s advice and, as revealed in a note on 18 November 1950, concluded that ‘neither India nor any external power could prevent the Chinese takeover of Tibet.’ Having taken this position and considering the military asymmetry, Nehru limited India’s concerns to ensuring the safety and security of India, acceptance of Chinese claim over Tibet, and advancing friendship with China.
Four things Modi can do
Seventy years later, recognising Tibet as part of China has not ensured safety and security, India’s defence spending has not reduced, we have no peace and tranquillity in the borders, China is not content with just having Tibet and is looking to “annex the five fingers of its right palm” and there is no lasting friendship. Even the Wuhan spirit is evaporating.
So this is what the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi can do to alter things in India’s favour and also tackle the ‘Tibet question’.
Tibetans world over have a legitimate right to go back to the land of their forefathers and experience their culture and traditions as a free nation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has guided the Tibetans for over 70 years now, kept the flame of Tibet alive and, above all, traversed the path of satyagraha, non-violence and peaceful resistance in a truly Gandhian way. He richly deserves to be honoured with Bharat Ratna.
The domestic anti-China sentiment and boycott of Chinese goods will have immediate effect in the short run but may not be easy to sustain for long. But New Delhi is certainly in a vantage position to demonstrate its economic clout and also pull new leverages out of its hat.
While Pakistan is using the occupied Kashmir (PoK) as a terror launch pad against India, China has built infrastructure projects, using Tibet as an entry point, as part of the CPEC. New Delhi should inform Beijing that all these projects are illegal and India reserves the right to take appropriate action at a suitable time.
China’s vulnerabilities have increased. The crass environmental degradation of water resources in Tibet through dams and diversions is causing grave concerns for the lower riparian countries from India down to geographies in the Indo-Pacific sphere. A new Indo-Pacific architecture can include these countries along with financial hubs like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which will necessarily call for revision of ‘One China’ policy.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.