“Following the logic of power, empires in their expansive phases push out their frontiers until they meet the resistance of a strong neighbour, or reach a physical barrier which makes a natural point of rest, or until the driving force is exhausted. Thus through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British power in India expanded, filling out its control of the peninsular sub continent until it reached the great restraining arc of the Himalayas. There it came into contact with another empire, that of China.
In the central sector of frontier zone, where lay petty states and feudal territories, there began a contest for dominance which continues to the present day. In the North-East and North-West where no minor independent polities existed to act as buffers, the British sought secure and settled boundaries with China, which they failed to achieve. The failure was to lead in the middle of the twentieth century to the border war between India and China”.
No wonder that whenever our leaders visit China, the first thing Chinese like to hear from them is that Tibet is an integral part of China.
Contrary to the popular belief, it is not the border question that has bedeviled the relations between India and China. It is the larger issue of resolution of the Tibet problem to China’s satisfaction which is the greatest impediment to normalisation of relations between the two Asian giants. Status of Tibet is the test case for China’s survival as a nation. No wonder that whenever our leaders visit China, the first thing Chinese like to hear from them is that Tibet is an integral part of China. If the Chinese had their way, they would perhaps ask it to be written on a judicial stamp paper and handed over to them at Beijing airport on arrival by the Indian VIP.
Historically Tibet has never been a province of China. It has been autonomous over the centuries. China had loose control over it under Manchu Tributary system similar to the one it exercised over Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan where their rulers paid tribute to China and possessed Chinese official rank. Not many people may be aware that in AD 763, Tibet conquered large parts of Western China and the then Emperor of China was forced to marry Princess Wencheng to the Tibetan King Song Tsnen Gam Po. Around the ninth century, Tibet came under Buddhist influence and by the thirteenth century, almost entire Tibet converted to Buddhism. The hand that held the sword was now supporting a prayer wheel.
A warrior nation had turned pacifist. Mongols conquered Tibet in thirteenth century and the Tibetan Lamas went into an arrangement with the Mongol rulers known as Cho Yon, meaning Patron-Priest relationship. The Lama became the spiritual and temporal head in Tibet, albeit with foreign support. The concept of the Dalai Lama, which was Mongolian in origin, also came into being during this time. Tibet’s troubles seem to have started with the Lama getting used to ruling with foreign support. The concept of national security was totally neglected with far reaching consequences in 1950-51.
Under Nehru’s myopic policy of appeasement of the Chinese at any cost, there was only a mild protest at the annexation of Tibet by China, which the Chinese rudely brushed aside. The only person who foresaw a future clash was Sardar Patel…
By the beginning of the twentieth century Tibet had become the Great Game pawn between China, Britain and Russia. On the pretext of sending a trade mission to Tibet, British troops entered Tibet, resulting in the conclusion of a Treaty in 1904 between Tibet and Britain. Obviously the Treaty was concluded on unequal terms. China played the role of a bystander totally ignoring her responsibility, if any. The treaty was bilateral and clearly signified the independent status of Tibet. The Manchu court refused to countersign the Treaty as it failed to recognize Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. On protracted negotiations, China concluded a treaty in 1906 with Great Britain which prevented Tibet from concluding direct negotiations with any foreign power without the consent of China.
China, however, was excluded from the category of foreign powers. An Anglo-Russian Treaty signed in 1907 also accepted a measure of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Both London and Moscow undertook to refrain from violating Tibet’s territorial integrity and interfering in her internal affairs. Both parties were precluded from entering in direct negotiations with Tibet except through the good offices of China. Nothing can be read in these bilateral treaties among Great Britain, China and Russia. They could not legislate or decide pertaining to a third country behind its back. These were intrigues of power in the region promoting their interests or forestalling the perceived threats.
Only from 1907 to 1911, has Tibet been under direct Chinese rule when the Zhao brothers – Zhao Erxen and Zhao Erfang conducted a military campaign to bring Tibet under Chinese rule. Once Manchu dynasty was overthrown by Sun Yat Sen revolution of 1911, Tibet reverted to its former status as an independent country till 1950 when it was annexed by the Communist People’s Republic of China.
Chinese desire to incorporate Tibet into China stems from two reasons. First is historical. Chinese realised early on during Manchu dynasty that a defensive policy of having the Great Wall as a Maginot Line is not deterring aggression. Therefore an aggressive policy and Chinese security became interlinked. Secondly the increase in China’s population has brought about a need for “LEBENSRAUM” so urgent that occupation of a defenseless Tibet became a necessity.
The Chinese annexed Tibet in 1950-51 and began a systematic campaign of Hanaisation of Tibet. In order to rule Tibet more effectively, the Chinese created a truncated version of Tibet called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in Sep 1965. TAR has an area of 1.23 million sq miles as against 2.5 million sq miles of greater Tibet, large parts of which were merged with Quinghai, Gansu and Schezuwan provinces of China.
Under Nehru’s myopic policy of appeasement of the Chinese at any cost, there was only a mild protest at the annexation of Tibet by China, which the Chinese rudely brushed aside. The only person who foresaw a future clash was Sardar Patel who wrote a prophetic letter to Nehru on 7 Nov 1950, warning him that China is a potential enemy. Nehru ignored this letter. He considered India’s foreign policy as his personal fiefdom and kept up his efforts at befriending China. Forsaking the Tibetan cause is a classic case in point. It was forgotten that Buddhism went from India to Tibet and India has a centuries old relation with Tibet by way of religion, trade and an emotional affinity. Tibet was forsaken for an elusive Chinese friendship.
Tibet acts as a launch pad for a multi pronged offensive into India. There are reports of deployment of Chinese missiles in Tibet which are targetted at Indian cities.
It has been argued that, both on moral and strategic grounds, the Nehru government should have moved energetically to ensure international recognition of Tibetan independence even before the Communists consolidated their position in China. In the opinion of many international law experts, on 15 August, 1947, Tibet was more fully qualified to be treated as an independent state than a great number of countries which are members of the United Nations today. However, it was also true that no country had recognized Tibet as an independent sovereign state and that, whatever the legal position, the Chinese, both the Nationalists and the communists, were convinced that Tibet was an integral part of China.
There were other reasons as well as to why India, more or less passively, accepted the ‘liberation’ of Tibet by China:
- While China may not have had a clear-cut case in favour of its claim to sovereignty over Tibet, it did appear to have some sort of a claim to authority over Tibet for which the British had used the term ’suzerainty’.
- British India had acquired, through use of force, certain extra-territorial rights in Tibet, and India did not want to be seen as seeking to inherit the mantle of British imperialism.
- Tibetan behaviour was erratic (including sweeping territorial claims in a message sent to Delhi soon after India became independent).
- India did not have adequate military capability to act on its own. Nehru was not about to invite the Americans (the only power with the capacity and, perhaps, the will) to stop the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from moving into Tibet’.
Tibet comprises an integral part of China’s nation building process. China was specifically concerned about Tibet given its ’suzerain’ status. In fact, Tibet emerged as a bone of contention among the imperialist powers in the nineteenth century. The British power in India accorded suzerain status to Tibet to keep out the Russian influence from the region. Suzerainty implied a low level of Chinese administrative and military presence and a high level of both Tibetan autonomy and British-India influence. In effect, it meant turning Tibet into a buffer zone. In the twentieth century the United States, given its commercial interests and Open Door policy, also upheld China’s suzerainty over Tibet. In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China came to power, it was determined to end the ‘century of humiliation’ and establish sovereignty over Tibet.
For China, control over Tibet was important for two reasons: first, to enhance its security on the western frontier and, second, to exploit the abundant mineral resources of the region.
For China, control over Tibet was important for two reasons: first, to enhance its security on the western frontier and, second, to exploit the abundant mineral resources of the region. Both these reasons were important to consolidate China’s power and to build a strong nation in order to end the ‘century of humiliation’.
From this geo-political perspective, the building of a road through the Aksai Chin area gained salience. The road through Aksai Chin area comprised one of the three main routes to Tibet from the rest of China. It was also a route which was open year-round and least hazardous and in turns also least expensive. Therefore, control of Aksai Chin was perceived as essential in Chinese strategy to control the whole of Tibet.
The Tibetan question in the Chinese nation building process inevitably exposed the nature of the international border it shared with India. India inherited the British policy of keeping Tibet as a buffer zone and therefore Tibet’s suzerain status suited its national interests. In the post 1949 period, India urged China to let Tibet be autonomous, as it would minimize China’s military presence in the region. However, the entry of twenty thousand PLA troops in 1951 ended Tibet’s status as a buffer zone. At the same time, it exposed the Sino-Indian border as undefined and invalidated the previous agreements between Tibet and British India on border delineation.
The Military Dimension
Strategic Importance of Tibet
Tibet had acted as a buffer between India and China for centuries. The British fully understood this; unfortunately we did not and tamely accepted China’s military occupation of Tibet. We even dissuaded the Americans not to let Taiwan raise this issue in the UN. Tibet acts as a launch pad for a multi pronged offensive into India. There are reports of deployment of Chinese missiles in Tibet which are targetted at Indian cities. It is reported that there are 8 x ICBMs, 70 x MRBMs, 20 x IRBMs, 15 x Radar Stations in TAR. Any envisaged Indian offensive into Tibet does not hurt mainland China. Indian Air Force does not have the reach upto mainland China. Any offensive undertaken by India into Tibet will be in a void. So the importance of keeping Tibet as a buffer between India and China was understood by China, but un-fortunately not by India.
Economic Potential of Tibet
Tibet is rich in unexploited mineral resources, particularly the strategic materials like uranium, oil, coal, gold iron, forest and hydro potential. According to many geologists, Tibet is perhaps the last and the largest untapped oil belt in the world. The stratum is similar to the oil fields in the Persian Gulf and Karakorum.
Tsaidam Basin has oil reserves of 42 billion tons and natural gas reserves of 1500 billion cubic meters. Natural gas reserves in Tibet and Tibetan ethnic areas can alone sustain China’s requirements for seven years. 200 million tons of oil has also been found in Chang Thang in Lhunpula Basin. Tibet has the world’s largest deposits of Uranium around the eastern mountainous shores of Koko Nor. Known mines
Tibet and Tibetan ethnic areas are endowed with the greatest river system in the world. Its rivers supply fresh water to 85% of Asia’s population and approximately 50% of the worlds population.
of Uranium include Tsaidam Basin, Thewo in Amdo, Yamdrok Tso and Damshung near Lhasa. Cesium is a rare metal used in military hi-tech application, particularly in atomic clocks and high energy solid fuels. Cesium deposits worth around $ 6.5 billion have been reported in TAR.
Tibet and Tibetan ethnic areas are endowed with the greatest river system in the world. Its rivers supply fresh water to 85% of Asia’s population and approximately 50% of the world’s population. Three of the world’s major rivers (Yarlung Tsangpo or Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Mekong) have their headwaters in Tibet or in Tibetan ethnic areas. The South Asian Sub-Continent is nourished by perennial flow of four major rivers originating from different directions of the Kailash Range in western Tibet. Other mighty rivers flowing from Tibet, such as the Yangtze, Yellow, Salween and Mekong sustain the lives of millions in China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Chinese Infrastructural Development in Tibet
Greater connectivity between mainlands in China has been provided by the Western, Central and Eastern Highways. It should be remembered that it was the issue of Western Highway passing through Aksai Chin which acted as the trigger for the 1962 war. The Gormo – Lhasa railway has been completed. Together with the three Highways, it greatly enhances Chinese capability for induction of forces in Tibet. The Gormo – Lhasa pipeline has a capacity of half a million tones of fuel annually. All the airfields in Tibet have been lengthened and upgraded. Road communications to the border have been greatly improved.
It may be noted that China uses the Tibetan plateau for the development of its nuclear bombs. The Chinese military arsenal on the plateau is believed to include 17 top secret radar stations, eight missile bases with at least eight inter-continental ballistic missiles, 70 medium-range and 20 intermediate-range missiles, and 25 airfield and airstrips. Some of the missiles have a range of a nearly 13,000 Kms, which could reach many parts of Asia. However, so far lack of transport facilities had greatly restricted China’s military maneuverability.