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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Book Review: Graveyard of Indian Idealism -- Tibet. The Lost Frontier by Claude Arpi

October 26, 2008

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
October 25, 2008

The Lost Frontier
by Claude Arpi.
Lancer Publishers, Olympia Fields (October 2008).
ISBN: 0-9815378-4-7.
Price: US$27, 338 pages.

Although the absorption of Tibet into China since 1950 has been
copiously discussed from different angles, there is a dearth of
understanding about the regional politics surrounding the "roof of
the world". Since time immemorial, Tibet's fate has been intertwined
with that of its two giant neighbors, China and India. French scholar
Claude Arpi's new book teases out the complex workings of this
triangle and throws light on how Indian idealism came a cropper
against Chinese realpolitik.

Arpi begins with a historical distillation about the nature of the
triangle: "Tibet and China always had a relation based on force and
power, while Tibet and India had more of a cultural relationship
based on shared spiritual values." (p 25) In the Medieval age, Indian
and Tibetan Buddhist seers and translators crisscrossed their
respective borders in a constant exchange of knowledge and wisdom.
Arpi classifies Tibet as "a child of Indian civilization".

However, the decline and disappearance of Buddhism in India pushed
Tibet to find new protectors to preserve the Dharma and this set the
stage for priest-patron relationships with Mongol and Chinese
emperors. This politico-spiritual system lasted for centuries until
Manchu troops invaded Tibet in 1908.

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, Manchu representatives in
Lhasa forced Tibet to shut foreigners out from gaining trading
benefits. By 1904, though, Chinese suzerainty over Tibet became a
"constitutional fiction" and the British penetrated the land of snows
with boots on the ground. When the Chinese saw that London was
vacillating after its initial foray, they adopted a policy of
reintegrating Tibet into the Manchu Empire by brute force. In an
effort to "Sinicize" Kham (eastern Tibet), Chinese General Zhao
Erfeng razed monasteries and beheaded monks with unprecedented brutality.

The Chinese assault forced the 13th Dalai Lama into political asylum
in British India in 1910. Desperate for public legitimacy, the
occupying Chinese tried to pit the Panchen Lama against the Dalai
Lama, but this only raised the ire of Tibetans. Once Chinese troops
were driven out of Tibet, the Dalai Lama returned and formally
proclaimed independence in 1913. He saw the need to have a balance in
relations with the great powers in the neighborhood and also believed
in "using force where force is necessary". (p 93)

The stubborn obstruction of the Dalai Lama's modernizing reforms by
big orthodox monasteries led to his prophecy in 1932 that "Tibetans
shall be slaves of the conquerors". The opportunity for Tibet to
assert its independence and build a strong army was also missed due
to infighting between the Khampas and Lhaseans, which softened the
state for communist raiders.

Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang considered Tibet a part of China and
bequeathed this legacy to the succeeding communists. Chairman Mao
Zedong was well aware of the strategic importance of Tibet as a
gateway through which the Indian sub-continent could be threatened.
His "liberation" of Tibet from 1950 onward was a "demonstration to
the world of who the real leader of Asia was" and a humiliation of
India as a "paper tiger". (p 18)

For some time, newly independent India followed the British line of
recognizing Tibet as a de facto sovereign state. Even up to the early
part of 1949, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru held that Tibet was a
separate entity with a separate government. New Delhi supplied light
arms and ammunition to the Tibetan government without informing the
Chinese and stated its "readiness to help Lhasa with its security
concerns". (p 134)

But by late 1949, Nehru did a volte-face and accepted the fait
accompli that Tibet would be invaded by communist China. The Indian
army chief, General Cariappa, said his forces would be unable to
engage the Chinese in a full-fledged high-altitude war as he was hard
pressed on the Pakistan front. Britain and the United States
regretted India's tendency to "throw up its hands and say nothing
could be done [to save Tibet] and retire to its own frontiers". (p
143) Due to the compulsions of geopolitics, the rest of the world
placed the onus on India to act before it was too late.

Nehru sacrificed Tibet on the altar of a chimerical "eternal
friendship" with China. A week before the People's Liberation Army
(PLA) marched into Tibet, India's ambassador in Beijing, K M
Panikkar, consciously changed the word "suzerainty" to "sovereignty"
to define the status of Tibet vis-a-vis China. Arpi deduces that
"perhaps the Chinese received indirect [or direct] assurances from
Panikkar that India would not intervene". (p 166)

When the Tibetan parliament decided to appeal to the United Nations
(UN) against Chinese aggression, India refused to sponsor it for fear
of "upsetting the Chinese". (p 176) Nehru was not keen on criticizing
China regarding Tibet, in the hope that he might "play a more helpful
role in mediating between communist and Western powers" over the
Korean War. He worked to defer consideration of the immediate concern
of Tibet at the UN in order to obtain a ceasefire in distant Korea.
India, which had a direct stake in Tibet's future, acted unclearly
about its own national interests at a momentous juncture in its history.

Indian deputy prime minister Sardar Patel bemoaned Nehru's "lack of
firmness and unnecessarily apologetic" tone towards China on Tibet.
He warned of the dire threat posed by "the disappearance of Tibet and
the expansion of China almost up to our gates". (p 192)
Parliamentarians urged New Delhi to strengthen India's borders in
view of Chinese maps incorporating Assam and Ladakh. But their
prescient words fell on deaf ears. Nehru was intent on appeasing
China and winning a friendship at any cost on the grounds that "the
future of Asia depended on it". (p 203) Ironically, Arpi notes, "By
abandoning Tibetans, he [Nehru] could no longer claim to be the hero
of the trampled and the downtrodden." (p 229)

G S Bajpai, then head of India's Foreign Ministry, said ambassador
Panikkar had "allowed himself to be influenced more by the Chinese
point of view, Chinese claims, Chinese maps and regards for Chinese
susceptibilities than by India's interests". Mao and his premier,
Chou Enlai, exploited Nehru and Panikkar's anti-imperialist instincts
to China's advantage. To Arpi, "The lack of courage and
self-confidence of Indian leaders, demonstrated by their need to
please the Chinese at any price, cost India her chance to be a leader
of the so-called Third World." (p 211)

With all doors of assistance - Indian or Western - closed, Tibetans
had little choice but to consent to be a province of the "Great
Chinese Motherland". India was reportedly "somewhat shocked" at the
extent of Tibetan capitulation to China in the 17-point agreement of
1951, but was thereafter "inclined to adopt an attitude of
philosophic acquiescence". (p 243)

The Indian representative in Lhasa was redesignated a consul-general
under the Indian Embassy in Beijing. Indian diplomats bent backward
to accommodate Chinese demands and conceded rights in Tibet that were
inherited from the Simla Convention of 1914. Panikkar recommended
that India should dismantle its "colonial rights" in Tibet and offer
them to China as a necessary gesture of goodwill. India even began
supplying rice to the PLA forces in Tibet from 1952 to help Beijing
consolidate its conquest. True autonomy for Tibet, which would have
assured security for India's borders, was jettisoned.

When a farsighted Indian Foreign Service officer wrote ominously
about Chinese military designs on the northeast frontier of India,
Nehru dismissed it as "not quite an objective or balanced view as it
was colored very much by certain conceptions". (p 263) At the 1953-54
Beijing conference, Indian diplomats obsessed with "broader
perspectives" and "larger issues", such as creation of a neutral
"third pole" in world affairs, while the Chinese side came with the
hardnosed goal of formalizing its occupation and ownership of Tibet.

The Five Principles (Panchsheel) Agreement of 1954 gave Beijing what
it wanted and saw New Delhi surrender its "old advantages" in Tibet.
India could not even get a confirmation of the McMahon Line as the
undisputed border with China. From June 1954, with no traditional
Tibetan buffer left, Chinese military incursions into Indian
territories commenced. Indian traders and pilgrims were harassed in
Tibet by the new "revolutionary" authorities. About 1955, China
embarked on building a highway through Indian territory in the Aksai
Chin area to connect Tibet with Xinjiang.

Mesmerized by Chou's guile, Nehru justified these Chinese actions
without taking retaliatory measures or issuing timely protests. In
1957, Chou told Nehru that though the McMahon Line was "unfair to us,
we feel that there is no better way than to recognize it". (p 301)
But the Chinese leadership had already decided to "teach India a
lesson" for encouraging and ultimately offering asylum to the 14th
Dalai Lama and his people. The PLA's onslaught on India across the
McMahon Line in 1962 pricked the bubble of "Asian brotherhood".

Nehru's successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, took a tougher stand and
voted in favor of the 1965 UN resolution for self-determination in
Tibet. In 1967, the Indian army repulsed Chinese troops trying to
intrude into Sikkim, in the eastern Himalayas. The incident "made
Beijing think twice" and ushered in frosty Sino-Indian relations for
decades. In 1986, the PLA was thwarted from nibbling at Indian
territory in Arunachal Pradesh in the Sumdorong Chu incident. This
again gave the Beijing leadership pause for thought since it "had
earlier always considered India to be a weak nation". (p 307) Yet, as
of 2008, India's defense infrastructure along the Chinese border
remains below par.

The Sino-Indian border row is unsolved to this day, even as Tibetan
autonomy has vanished. Arpi mocks recent optimism about China among
"Panikkar's children" in the corridors of Indian foreign
policymaking. He nails down the main problem as follows: "While the
Chinese remain pragmatic, most of the Indian leaders are sentimental." (p 313)

The moral from history for India is that atmospherics are superficial
facades behind which China is an unpredictable and wily bargainer.
With the destiny of Tibet already sealed as a graveyard of Indian
idealism, New Delhi is now left to strive for its own territorial
integrity against a surging Beijing. A bilateral settlement that
could not be reached in 1954 has much less chance of materializing
today when China's power is on the ascendant.

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