The sprawling, mountainous country of Tibet was annexed by China in the 1950s, eliminating a historical buffer with India. Today, the region remains at the heart of Sino-Indian problems, including territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds. Beijing lays claim to adjacent Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than an ethnic Chinese connection.
So when Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled in mid-September to India — home to Tibet’s government in exile — Tibet loomed large. The Tibetan plateau, and the military tensions the issue provokes, will also figure prominently in the Sept. 29-30 summit at the White House between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama, who has urged Beijing to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader revered as a god-king by Tibetans.
Xi’s visit to New Delhi began with the visitor toasting Modi’s birthday. But, underlining the deep divide regarding Tibet, the visit was overshadowed by a Chinese military incursion across the traditional Indo-Tibetan border. It was as if the incursion — the biggest in terms of troop numbers in many years and the trigger for a military standoff in the Ladakh region — was Xi’s birthday gift for Modi.
Modi’s government, for its part, allowed Tibetan exiles to stage street protests during the two days that Xi was in New Delhi, including some close to the summit venue. This reversed a pattern that had held since the early 1990s, in which police routinely prevented such protests during the visits of Chinese leaders. During the decade-long reign of Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, police would impose a lockdown on the Indian capital’s Tibetan quarter and beat up Tibetans who attempted to rally.
Such brutal practices would have befitted a repressive autocracy like China, but not a country that takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. In any event, the muzzling of protests won India no gratitude from an increasingly assertive China.
It was a welcome change that India permitted members of its large Tibetan community to exercise their legitimate democratic rights. Even the Dalai Lama felt at liberty to speak up during Xi’s visit, reminding Indians: “Tibet’s problem is also India’s problem.” The Tibetan protests, although peaceful, rattled China, which had grown accustomed to Indian authorities doing its bidding.
When Modi took office in May, the prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to the swearing-in event. So Xi sought an assurance that the Modi government regards Tibet as part of China. Modi has yet to speak his mind on this issue in public, but the Chinese foreign ministry, apparently citing private discussions, announced: “Prime Minister Modi said that Tibet is an integral part of China, and India does not allow any separatist activities on its soil.”
Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — separated the Chinese and Indian civilizations until relatively recently, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contact, with no political relations. It was only after China forcibly occupied Tibet that Chinese military units appeared for the first time on the Himalayan frontiers.
The fall of Tibet represented the most profound and far-reaching geopolitical development in India’s modern history. It led to China’s bloody trans-Himalayan invasion in 1962 and its current claims to vast tracts of additional Indian land.
Yet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 surrendered India’s extraterritorial rights in Tibet — inherited from Britain at independence — and accepted the existence of the “Tibet region of China” with no quid pro quo, not even Beijing’s acknowledgement of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. He did this by signing a pact mockingly named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, or the five principles of peaceful coexistence. As agreed in the pact, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet and conceded to China, at a “reasonable” price, the postal, telegraph and public telephone services operated by the Indian government in the region.
Years later, another Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went further. During Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, China wrung from India the concession it always wanted — an unambiguous recognition of Tibet as part of China. Vajpayee went so far as to use the legal term “recognize” in a document signed by the two nations’ heads of government, confirming that what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region was “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
This opened the way for China to claim the large northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — three times the size of Taiwan — as “South Tibet,” a term it coined in 2006. Since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over the Indian portion of the disputed northern region known as Jammu and Kashmir, a former princely state of which China occupies one-fifth and Pakistan more than a third. In response to such increasing belligerence, a pattern reinforced by a rising number of border violations by Chinese troops, India stopped making references to Tibet being part of China in the same year.
Yet, in a significant diplomatic blunder, the joint statement issued by Modi and Xi after their summit referred to India’s appreciation of the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash-Mansarover — a mountain-and-lake area of Tibet that is sacred to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet. The wording gave Beijing an implicit Indian endorsement that Tibet is indeed part of China.
Widen the focus
The spotlight today is on China’s claim to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, rather than the status of Tibet itself. The blunders of some of Modi’s predecessors served to narrow the focus to what China wants, reinforcing Beijing’s views. Those territorial claims must be negotiable, and can only be settled on the basis of give and take — or, as China puts it, on the basis of “mutual accommodation and mutual understanding.”
India can reclaim leverage by emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s hold on Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to the plateau, whose elevation is so high that it is called the “Roof of the World.” Instead of granting autonomy, China has brought Tibet under tight political control and unleashed increasing repression, triggering a wave of self-immolations and grass-roots desperation.
Having ceased to be a political buffer between China and India, Tibet could become a political bridge between the world’s demographic titans if Beijing were willing to initiate a process of reconciliation to ease Tibetans’ feelings of estrangement. Otherwise, Tibet will remain at the core of the China-India divide. The tense military standoff triggered by intruding Chinese troops is a reminder of that.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.