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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Bull In China's Shop

October 26, 2009

Military preparation and dangerous brinkmanship
raise the stakes on both sides of a troubled
border. a Sino-Indian affairs veteran dissects a volatile situation
Prem Shankar Jha
Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 43,
October 31, 2009

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

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.

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.

Beijing cannot understand why, when professing
friendship, India is prepared to let the Dalai
Lama make proposals that are essentially subversive from Indian soil

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.

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.

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

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."


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 nowdestroyed
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.

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.

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

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

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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