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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Caught in the middle: India, China, and Tibet

June 1, 2015

By Ellen Bork

World Affairs, May 26, 2015 - My friends and I had gone as far as we could toward the border with China. We were tracing, in reverse, the Dalai Lama’s path into India from Chinese-occupied Tibet in March 1959. We stopped in this village, on a rise in the road overlooking a river in the far western corner of India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, to look for anyone old enough to remember the Dalai Lama passing through on his way into exile.

We were unable to find anyone. Restrictions on foreigners’ travel prevented us from driving farther on, so we sent our Indian driver off alone, to the next town toward the border. After some time, he returned with Bumpa, a compact, weathered man in his eighties, in the seat beside him. When the Dalai Lama arrived, Bumpa recalled, he was wearing a robe of reddish brown, “the color that tea leaves make in water.” It was, Bumpa said, “like looking at Avolokiteshvara himself.” Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama is the manifestation of Avolokiteshvara, or Chenreizig, the Bodhisattva of compassion, an enlightened being who postpones the attainment of Nirvana to serve humanity. 

It’s getting harder to find people like Bumpa, who is among the last of a generation that can remember a free Tibet. Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, historic cultural and religious bonds connecting Tibetan Buddhists from various ethnic groups—including Bumpa’s own Mon people—stretched unhindered between the two countries. Bumpa recalls the local townspeople trading across the border and walking for days on pilgrimages to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. He also recalls sleeping by the road as he trekked in the other direction, to escape Chinese troops who surged through Arunachal Pradesh during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. 

In late 2014, my companions and I traveled to this area of northeastern India in Arunachal Pradesh, and to Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir state, another heavily Tibetan Buddhist region on the western end of India’s disputed border with China. We wanted to appreciate the remote, high-altitude setting for this standoff between two strategic rivals, one an authoritarian communist regime, the other a democracy developing ties with the United States. In particular, we wanted to consider the conflict’s enduring connection to Tibet.


While the world accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet as a fait accompli, that conquest continues to be destabilizing to the region more than half a century later. When Communist China invaded Tibet, in the 1950s, it acquired a lengthy, ill-defined border with newly independent, democratic India. Soon, India would become host to more than 90,000 Tibetans, the largest population outside Tibet. In addition to the Dalai Lama, India is home to Tibet’s exile government, which completed a democratic transition in 2011. It is now headed by a prime minister and parliament elected by the Tibetan diaspora in South Asia, Europe, and the United States.

The border standoff between India and China, two enormous, nuclear-armed rivals, receives less attention as a potential flash point than the East and South China Seas. Conflicts in those waters could draw in the US, through its alliances with Japan and the Philippines and a defense commitment to Taiwan. However, with the “natural partnership” President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed during Obama’s unprecedented visit to New Delhi, for India’s National Day, in January 2015, the border, and Tibet, should receive more attention from Washington. 

“When there is relative tranquility in Tibet, India and China have reasonably good relations,” writes C. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategist. “When Sino-Tibetan tensions rise, India’s relationship with China heads south.” Under what Mohan calls this “iron law” of Sino-Indian ties, tensions are sure to rise in the years to come.

In 2008, the spread of rioting across Tibet revealed the failure of China’s efforts to subjugate the region and destroy its distinct identity. Beijing responded with tougher measures, imposing restrictions on travel inside Tibet and controls of monasteries that were so stringent that many monks simply left. Since 2011, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, more than 130 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as an act of protest against China’s repression and the Dalai Lama’s forced exile. 

Greater unrest may follow the eventual passing of the Dalai Lama, who will turn 80 in July. Beijing is preparing to install its own candidate for Dalai Lama, and has adopted “guidelines” that give the State Council, its highest administrative body, the authority to approve reincarnations. When procedural methods are inadequate, Beijing has resorted to other means. In 1995, the authorities seized the six-year-old boy the Dalai Lama had identified as the incarnation of the Panchen Lama, historically the second most prominent Tibetan religious figure, and replaced him with another boy Tibetans refer to as the “fake Panchen.” The real Panchen Lama has not been seen since, while his imposter, now a young man, is being groomed for a larger role in Beijing’s use of Buddhist “soft power.” 

The contest over the Dalai Lama’s succession is neither esoteric nor abstract. Beijing’s efforts to subvert the process by imposing its own choice could inflame Tibet. They may also directly involve India if Beijing tries to interfere when, as the Dalai Lama has indicated, his successor will be found outside Tibet. The monastery in Tawang may play a role in the succession process. It has been closely associated with the Dalai Lamas since its founding in the 17th century. Top Chinese officials routinely refer to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet,” implying it belongs to China. 

On my journey last fall, getting to these areas wasn’t easy, either bureaucratically or physically. Permits are required for foreigners traveling to the areas we wanted to visit, and acquiring them required considerable persistence. The altitude in Tawang and Leh, the main towns on our itinerary, was in the range of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. It didn’t affect us too badly, although travels within Ladakh took us to 15,000 feet, bringing on bad headaches and labored breathing. Transportation was yet another challenge. On the way to Tawang, a thrice-weekly helicopter from Guwahati, the capital of neighboring Assam, was grounded due to bad weather on the day of our flight, and we had to wait a few more days for the next one. The alternative was a couple of days in a car on bad roads. 

Bad roads are not only tourist inconveniences, but also obstacles to security and development for the local population. China has assiduously built up infrastructure on its side, both civilian and military. Although India has embarked on various infrastructure and defense projects, it is still far behind. 

In the meantime, China is actively contesting the border. According to figures released by the Indian government in response to parliamentary questions, the number of incursions by Chinese Army (PLA) troops doubled between 2011 and 2012, and this trend has continued since. One of these incursions took place in late September, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived for his first visit to India since Modi took office in May 2014. PLA troops crossed the border into Ladakh, near the village of Chumar, which is located on a grasslands plateau close to the Chinese border used by nomadic herders. Over the next few days, both sides sent in reinforcements. 

During the standoff, which lasted a few weeks, we met local officials, in Leh, the regional capital. Representing districts near the border, they expressed frustration with the national government’s response to the encroachment. According to the locals, New Delhi’s aversion to conflict with China has led it to preemptively cede land, including valuable grazing lands herders need to support their livestock, thus seriously undermining India’s hold on its own territory.

Gurmet Dorjay, the head of the Hill Council, a local government body, had just sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi providing specific details of areas ceded to the PLA, which he said have been omitted from official Indian maps. He complained that the Indian Army prevented him from visiting these areas although they are within his constituency. According to the Ladakhi officials, Chinese troops along the border advance their interests by blending assertiveness with careful cultivation of herders, including some on the Indian side. By contrast, they say, the Indian military can be both arrogant and passive. 

A clash of cultures probably contributes to misunderstandings between the hardy Ladakhis and Indian troops, mostly transplants from other parts of the country. “It’s a big deal if [the temperature in] Delhi hits zero degrees [Celsius],” one of the officials told us, “while we’re living in tents in minus 34 degrees.” 

Siddiq Wahid, a Ladakhi historian, found much the same in a 2013 tour of the area. In a paper for a New Delhi research organization, he wrote that Indian civilians near the border believe “Indian military personnel are more concerned with ‘maintaining the peace’ and in their eagerness to do this, burden citizens on the Ladakhi side.” 

Ladakhis complained to Wahid about an incident when villagers from Korzok went into Chinese territory to retrieve stray horses:

The PLA apprehended and questioned them. On ascertaining that the three were not spies, they were fined a “grazing tax” by the PLA, given warm clothing, and allowed to return. However, on the Indian side . . . they were promptly arrested . . . their new clothes [were] confiscated and then [they were] released on bail a day or two later, presumably to be tried over an extended period and after protracted argument.

The day after our meeting with the Ladakhi officials, we headed to Dorjay’s Korzok constituency, which includes Tsomoriri, a large lake close to the border with China. The six-hour drive southeast from Leh gave a sense of the challenge India faces in building up its infrastructure, for civilian and defense needs. We encountered dozens of Indian troop trucks shuttling back and forth, and small-scale efforts at road improvement. At a base next to the lake, troops just back from the border rested against a fence. An officer who had been among those pulled back described the Chinese incursion as the largest he’d seen. A few weeks later, I saw members of a paratroop force practicing parachute landings outside of Leh.  

Despite the Ladakhis’ perceptions, their situation, and the underlying issue of Tibet, is receiving attention in policy circles in New Delhi. In addition to Wahid’s report, the Foundation for Nonviolent Alternatives, a small think tank based in the capital, has issued a call for a “reappraisal” of Tibet policy and made recommendations on issues ranging from relations with local populations to countering Beijing’s strategy of Buddhist soft power through emphasis on India’s unique role as the source and (now) protector of Tibetan Buddhism. The group also calls for upgraded relations with the Dalai Lama and the democratic exile government, as well as measures to extend greater employment, property rights, and travel documents for Tibetans in India. 

Addressing the border issue inevitably touches on the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who set India on the non-aligned path that has guided its foreign policy ever since. Nehru accepted Chinese assurances regarding Tibet’s autonomy in the hopes of an anti-imperialist solidarity that never materialized, according to Lalit Mansingh, who served as India’s foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States. India, says Mansingh, needs to recognize these and other “errors of judgment,” such as accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet without reciprocal guarantees of respect for Indian territory.

Just as important, and perhaps more unusual for someone of his stature, Mansingh advocates placing Tibet high on the agenda of the US-India relationship. “I can see no other issue on which there is a coincidence of shared issues and shared interests as in the case of Tibet,” he told a conference in Washington in 2012. 

It has been a long time since the US viewed Tibet in strategic terms. In the 1960s, Washington supported Tibetan rebels fighting the PLA as part of a wider effort against communism in Asia. Later, the US attitude toward Tibet changed as Washington sought a different relationship with China, first as a counterweight to the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and then in a new economics-driven engagement policy. 

As China increases its pressure on India and its border regions, the US needs again to see Tibet in strategic terms. Today, US policy focuses on supporting Tibet’s “distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage.” Surely that should include helping India to defend its border regions and preserve the Tibetan religion and culture there. Another top priority should be to help Nepal stand up to increasing Chinese pressure to end its historic role as a way station for Tibetan refugees on their way to India. Washington also needs to counteract China’s overbearing and successful efforts around the world to delegitimize the Dalai Lama and the elected Tibetan exile government under its sikyong, or political leader, Lobsang Sangay. 

From time to time, the Dalai Lama returns to Tawang, but from the other direction, and not on foot, as he did in 1959, but by helicopter. He plans to visit again next fall. China can be counted on to object. It did so, strenuously, when Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh in February—which is a little like Canada objecting when the US president visits Detroit. Border incursions are likely to continue. 

As for Bumpa, he hopes to make the trip to see the Dalai Lama again. The sad truth is that neither man is likely to live long enough to see Tibet free. The struggle over Tibet is poised for a new phase. The consequences of Beijing’s occupation of Tibet more than half a century ago will continue to be felt beyond its borders, posing a challenge to India and its developing partnership with the United States for years to come. 

Ellen Bork writes about democracy and human rights in US foreign policy as a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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