Burma and Tibet: At the Core of India-China Relations

Counter China’s Designs

Burma and Tibet
are pivotal to Indian strategy 


Times of India, January 16, 2008

One issue emblematic of the Sino-Indian
strategic dissonance is Burma.
Indeed, there are several important parallels between Burma and the vast
territory whose annexation brought Han forces to India’s borders for the first
time in history — Tibet. India
and China may be
5,000-year-old civilizations but the two had no experience in dealing with each
other politically until Tibet’s
forcible absorption made them neighbours. In contrast, India has had close historical ties with Tibet and with Burma, part of the British Indian
empire until 1937. The majority people of Burma, the Burmans, are of Tibetan
stock, and the Burman script, like the Tibetan one, was taken from Sanskrit.

Today, Tibet
and Burma
are at the centre of the India-China relationship. Having lost the
traditionally neutral buffer of Tibet,
India sees Burma as a hedge against China’s
authoritarian rise. It is significant that the resistance against repressive
rule in both Tibet and Burma is led by iconic Nobel laureates, one
living in exile in India and
the other with close ties to India
but under house arrest in Rangoon.
Equally remarkable is that the Dalai Lama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel peace prize in quick
succession for the same reason: For leading a non-violent struggle, in the
style of Mahatma Gandhi.

Yet another parallel is that heavy repression
has failed to break the resistance to autocratic rule in both Tibet and Burma. More than half a century
after Tibet’s
annexation, the Tibetan struggle ranks as one of the longest and most-powerful
resistance movements in modern world history. With no links to violence or
terror, it actually stands out as a model. Similarly, despite detaining Suu Kyi
for nearly 13 of the past 19 years, the junta has failed to suppress the
democracy movement, as last September’s monk-led mass protests showed.

        For the autocrats in Beijing, who value Burma
as an entryway to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean,
the demonstration of people’s power in a next-door state was troubling news
because such grassroots protests could inspire popular challenge to their own
authoritarianism. Having strategically penetrated resource-rich Burma, Beijing is
busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor involving road, river, rail and
energy-transport links between Burmese ports and Yunnan.

For India,
such links constitute strategic pressure on the eastern flank. China is already
building another north-south strategic corridor to the west of India — the
Trans-Karakoram Corridor stretching right up to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar
port, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz — as well as an east-west
strategic corridor in Tibet across India’s northern frontiers. In Burma, Beijing
is also helping construct a 1,500-km highway leading to Arunachal Pradesh.  

Such links hold serious implications for India
because they allow Beijing to strategically
meddle in India’s
restive northeast and step up indirect military pressure. Operating through the
plains of Burma in India’s northeast is much easier than having to
operate across the mighty Himalayas. In 1962,
Indian forces found themselves outflanked by the invading People’s Liberation
Army at certain points in Arunachal (then NEFA), spurring speculation that some
Chinese units quietly entered via the Burmese plains, not by climbing the

The potential for Chinese strategic mischief has to be viewed against
the background that the original tribal insurgencies in the northeast were
instigated by Mao’s China,
which trained and armed the rebels, be it Naga or Mizo guerrillas, partly by
exploiting the Burma
route. During World War II, the allied and axis powers had classified Burma as a “backdoor to India”. Today, India shares a porous 1,378-km border with Burma, with
insurgents operating on both sides through shared ethnicity. 

Tibet and Burma are going to stay pivotal to
Indian security.  The centrality of the
Tibet issue has been highlighted both by China’s Tibet-linked territorial claim
to Arunachal and by its major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer
projects in the Tibetan plateau, the source of all of Asia’s major rivers
except the Ganges. By damming the Brahmaputra and Sutlej and toying with the
idea of diverting the Brahmaputra waters to the parched Yellow River, Beijing is threatening to fashion water into a weapon
against India.

The junta has run Burma
for 46 years, while the communist party has ruled China for 59 years. Neither model
is sustainable. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern
history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. But
while Burma has faced
stringent sanctions since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the post-Tiananmen
sanctions against China did
not last long on the argument that engagement was a better way to bring about
political change — a principle not applied to impoverished Burma. 

         India cannot afford to shut itself out of
Burma, or else — with an
increasingly assertive China
to the north, a China-allied Pakistan on the west, a Chinese-influenced Burma
to the east, and growing Chinese
naval interest in the Indian Ocean
— it will get encircled. Just as India has not abandoned the Tibetan cause and
indeed remains the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile despite doing
business with China, India will continue to support the Burmese democracy
movement and remain home to large numbers of refugees and dissidents despite a
carefully calibrated engagement with the junta aimed at promoting political
reconciliation and stemming the growing Chinese clout.

The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.

© The Times of India,

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