Tibet: China’s strategic vulnerability


It was Francis Younghusband’s expedition in the early 20th century, from the exposed and vulnerable southern direction, that jolted the slumbering dragon to a possibility of British expansion from India into Tibet. Soon after, China moved an army to reassert its hold over Tibet. The gains made by ruthless generals like Chao er-Feng, Fu Sung-mu and Chang Yin-tang from 1905 till 1912 dissipated during the revolution of 1912, and the consequent internecine war between Manchu loyalists and nationalist elements of the army. Those who survived this conflict were provided with safe passage through the Chumbi valley to India by the British.

To a large extent, British India and independent India helped China reestablish its hold on Tibet. India facilitated the Tibetan delegation to proceed through India to Peking to formally accept the offer to be an autonomous part of China. The 17-point agreement signed in 1951 has remained controversial and as something done under duress. The Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 was a classic case of India’s largesse and diplomatic naivety that resulted in ending India’s presence in Tibet, without gaining much as a quid pro quo.

The Chinese claim in the eastern sector was never seriously pressed home till the mid-1980s. ‘South Tibet’ as a term for Arunachal was never a part of Chinese lexicon in the boundary negotiations till the 1990s. It is a later invention, similar to the recent adoption of Chinese names for a few places in Arunachal. The Chinese claim to this ‘South Tibet’ is without any historic basis. There has never been a Chinese presence, let alone administration, in tribal territories south of the Himalayas.

China’s vulnerable backdoor is exposed by an unstable Tibet. According to recently declassified Chinese documents, China believes that India has had an influence on Tibet since ages and, particularly after the Younghusband expedition, they perceive a ‘long-term’ design, too.

The fact is that Chinese efforts towards ‘sinification’ of Tibet for the past six decades have not entirely succeeded. There is a latent potential for unrest in Tibet, and this is seen as a serious security challenge by China. China sees India’s role as a facilitator of a Tibetan ‘government in exile’ in Dharamsala, blessed by the Dalai Lama, as a causative factor for friction in the relationship. The Dalai Lama’s activities, though purely ecclesiastical, and his religious visits to various places in India and Arunachal Pradesh in particular, are considered by the Chinese as provocative and unfriendly acts by India. This is an incorrect perception.

Another conflict-prone dimension is related to the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama on his eventual demise. China has announced that the next Dalai Lama would be chosen by a draw at the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, and ‘can only assume his role after their approval’. This has been rejected by the Dalai Lama. He has categorically stated that any candidate chosen on political grounds by China shall not be accepted. According to him, if it is decided after consultations with ‘high Lamas’ and other stakeholders that the institution of Dalai Lama should continue, the responsibility for discovering the reincarnation in accordance with tradition shall rest with the officials of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust.

The Chinese have a lurking fear about India’s ability to play the Tibet or the Dalai Lama card, if required. This does not stand to reason, especially when India has consistently endorsed ‘One China’ policy and their sovereignty over Tibet. China would find it hard to substantiate such apprehensions as India has never taken any action along the 4,057km-long border with China, except to safeguard our territorial integrity. Having served for over five years as a governor in a border state, I can emphatically state that we are endeavouring to improve the infrastructure in the region more for socioeconomic development and prosperity of remote areas, than for any ulterior designs.

India has been a peace-loving nation that has consistently complied in letter and spirit with the immensely significant peace and tranquillity and other agreements with China, particularly those of 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2008. I believe the sagacious and pragmatic leadership being displayed by President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to contribute handsomely to ensure peace and stability in the region and the world.

The author is former chief of Army staff and governor of Arunachal Pradesh.