I have an article up at Asia Times Online under the pen name Peter Lee entitled Dalai Lama at apex of Sino-Indian tensions.
It’s keyed to a high profile news item–the Dalai Lama’s provocative visit to a border town in territory held by India but disputed by China–and a significant but rather underreported development–the escalating political struggle between pro-Chinese and pro-Indian political forces now reaching its climax in Nepal.
The Chinese themselves have said that the biggest irritant to Sino-Indian relations is the unresolved border dispute. To them, it’s more of an issue than economic competition, India’s growing integration into the U.S. South Asian security regime, or Indian unease at Beijing’s cozying up to Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives at New Delhi’s expense and raising the specter of maritime encirclement.
This would seem counterintuitive, since the remote boondocks that have formed the basis of the border dispute—the desolate wasteland of Aksai Chin (China’s share of the Kashmir dispute) in the west and the multi-tribal mélange of Arunachal Pradesh in the east at the Burmese border—are already occupied by the parties that have the strongest claim. A simple swap—the Indians recognize Chinese jurisdiction over Aksai Chin and the Chinese acknowledge Indian control of Arunachal Pradal—has, indeed, been on the table for a half century.
I make the case that perpetual tensions at the border reflect the destabilizing potential of the “Tibet card”—the possibility that India will abandon its “One China” policy once the current Dalai Lama passes on and overtly or covertly support Tibetan independence activities along the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
China wants to secure its borders and also increase its ability to project power into adjoining areas in order to deter potential shenanigans by the Tibetans with Indian connivance. India, on the other hand, wants border conditions favorable to a possible play of the “Tibet Card”.
The slow-motion collapse of Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region and India’s major military antagonist, has deprived Beijing of its most important asset. The idea that, if India messed with Tibet, Pakistan would unleash hell in Kashmir with Chinese support, is a vain hope today.
With this geostrategic deterrent out of the picture, the focus has shifted to securing the physical space at the borders. Both China and India are pouring money and troops into the border region and arguing over the status of a little town in Arunachal Pradesh called Tawang.
The map to the right, provided by Andy Proehl, shows the disputed area of AP.
In the political map of AP below, Tawang is the district to the west sticking out between Tibet and Bhutan.
Tawang is in the news because the Dalai Lama is visiting there on November 8 to visit old friends and figuratively stick his thumb in the dragon’s eye. The Dalai Lama already made some serious waves last year when he reportedly departed from his usual apolitical stance and said that Tawang—within the contested territory in Arunachal Pradesh—was part of India.
It might be noted that the Dalai Lama looks slightly out of line here.
In 1947, the Tibetan government (the Dalai Lama was at that time a youth of twelve who had been identified as the reincarnation and resided in Lhasa but had not yet been enthroned) tried to renegotiate its border deal with the British (the famous Simla Accord of 1914 between Great Britain and Tibet that generated the McMahon line but was never accepted by China) to get acknowledgment of its de facto control of the town.
In fact, according to an interesting Wikipedia entry, the status of Tawang has been the key factor in the contested Himalayan border for well over one hundred years:
Early British efforts to create a boundary in this sector were triggered by their discovery in the mid-19th century that Tawang, an important trading town, was Tibetan territory. In 1873, the British-run Government of India drew an “Outer Line,” intended as an international boundary … [In 1912-13] the Outer Line was moved north, but Tawang was left as Tibetan territory…. When the British demanded that the Tawang monastery, located south of the McMahon Line, cease paying taxes to Lhasa, Tibet protested. …. In 1944, NEFT [North Eastern Frontier Territory] established direct administrative control for the entire area it was assigned, although Tibet soon regained authority in Tawang. In 1947, the Tibetan government wrote a note presented to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs laying claim to Tibetan districts south of the McMahon Line. In Beijing, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 and declared its intention to “liberate” Tibet. India, which had become independent in 1947, responded by declaring the McMahon Line to be its boundary and by decisively asserting control of the Tawang area (1950-51).
How ’bout that. This backstory makes the Indo-Tibetan posturing over Tawang appear pretty provocative.
However, in my piece I argue that the true focus of international attention should be Nepal, which is careening into a political crisis as pro-Indian and pro-Chinese factions slug it out for dominance (with the barely concealed political, diplomatic, and financial support of their respective patrons).
At the same time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal Pradesh, the pro-Chinese Nepalese Maoists are threatening to bring the current, pro-Indian government down through mass action. The Nepalese Maoists, who abandoned their insurgency to participate in the political process, emerged from the 2008 elections as the largest political party in parliament.
This clip of the Maoists’ anti-government rally in Kathmandu on November 1, beyond some Triumph-of-the-Will type thrills, gives an idea of the intensity of the current political scene in Nepal.
If the Maoists succeed—which appears very likely—India will face the unwelcome prospect of Nepal edging into the Chinese camp.
Considering that, in the 1970s, India dealt with its other unruly satellite state—Sikkim—by orchestrating the overthrow of the monarchy, dispatching Indian troops to Sikkim at the request of local pro-Indian politicians, and arranging a plebiscite that voted for union with India and the extinction of Sikkimese independence by a vote of 97.5%–there is no guarantee that the Nepalese imbroglio will end quickly or amicably.
Nobody, not even the Nepalese Maoists, seem interested in having this thing boil over into a regional crisis, and perhaps that’s why the whole mess has been almost invisible from the standpoint of the international media.
But Asia Times Online has the story. Hey, go read the thing!
As a lagniappe for China Matters readers, some serious scholarship was done on the origins of the Sino-Indian War of 1962—the mother of all Chinese border conflicts—after the Chinese government declassified documents relating to the origins of the war.
Bottom line: misunderstandings on both sides.
The Chinese misinterpreted Nehru’s expressions of sympathy with the Tibetan people and their aspirations for autonomy as an active Indian policy to challenge the PRC’s control of its Tibetan regions.
Nehru, on the other hand, made a more fatal miscalculation, believing that China lacked the military heft and will to push back when he decided to expel the PLA from Aksai Chin.
Perhaps the key psychological element in the war was the fact that Nikita Khrushchev pissed off Mao Zedong.
In his study China’s Decision for War with India in 1962, John Garver (currently professor of international relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology) describes how Krushchev got into Mao’s face about screwing up Tibet:
The question of responsibility for the crisis in Tibet figured prominently in the contentious talks between Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing on 2 October 1959. After a complete disagreement over Taiwan, Khrushchev turned to India and Tibet, saying: “If you let me, I will tell you what a guest should not say — the events in Tibet are your fault. You ruled in Tibet, you should have had your intelligence [agencies] there and should have know about the plans and intentions of the Dalai Lama” [to flee to India]. “Nehru also says that the events in Tibet occurred on our fault,” Mao replied. After an exchange over the flight of the Dalai Lama, Khrushchev made the point: “If you allow him [the Dalai Lama] an opportunity to flee to India, then what has Nehru to do with it? We believe that the events in Tibet are the fault of the Communist Party of China, not Nehru’s fault.” “No, this is Nehru’s fault,” Mao replied. “Then the events in Hungary are not our fault,” the Soviet leader responded, “but the fault of the United States of America, if I understand you correctly. Please, look here, we had an army in Hungary, we supported that fool Rakosi — and this is our mistake, not the mistake of the United States.” Mao rejected this: “The Hindus acted in Tibet as if it belonged to them.” [emph. added]
Self-reflection and the willingness to admit a mistake were not Mao Zedong’s signature virtues under the best of circumstances.
Having Khrushchev—who had not only presided over de-Stalinization (a process that Mao detested) and the Sino-Soviet split; he was also pursuing a strategic alliance with India!– rub his nose in the embarrassment of the Dalai Lama debacle and take India’s side undoubtedly infuriated the Chairman.
In this context, it isn’t surprising that Mao would welcome the opportunity to assert China’s position on the Sino-Indian border and humiliate Nehru, who was not only Mao’s rival as leader and role model for the Non-Aligned Movement; he was also Krushchev’s current darling.
When war came in 1962, the Indian Army, acclimated to service in the plains and lacking the logistical wherewithal to push men and supplies up through the Himalayan foothills to the front lines, was resoundingly thumped by the PLA.
China fielded units and commanders battle-hardened in the harsh conditions of the Korean War, and benefited from the more manageable logistics involved in resupply across the Tibetan plateau.
India’s defeat was a shock to its military planners, and the lessons of the war have guided the Indian Army’s order of battle and the militarized infrastructure development of the border regions to this day.
In this context, it’s interesting to note that the Indian government, as part of its strategy to entrench itself in Afghanistan and irritate and terrify Pakistan has the same outfits building strategic roads in Afghanistan (such as the Zaranj highway connecting Afghanistan to Iran and intended to bypass Pakistan and the Khyber Pass for trade and military resupply) that build them on the Sino-Indian border: the Border Roads Organization engineers guarded by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
China still holds the high ground on the Sino-Indian border, however. This year India announced it was moving a squadron of nuclear-capable Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters to within striking range of the border at Arunachal Pradesh, just to keep things even.
It looks like the Tibetan problem will keep the Sino-Indian border tense for the foreseeable future.
The maps of the contested Himalayan regions were prepared by Andy Proehl, proprietor of the blog Random Axis.
The map of Arunachal Pradesh is from Wikipedia.
Photo of Dalai Lama at Tawang November 8, 2009 flanked by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu AP Photo/Manish Swaru