Tibet ‘slips out’ of India’s hands; it’s advantage China on the border
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Jun , 2020

The border clashes between India and China, that has cost the lives of troops on both sides, is a pointer to the larger seesaw power game between the two countries for over six decades now. It is all about bargaining power and the degree of leverage one country has over the other.

In this game of thrones, China seems to be gaining over India. One key pawn that New Delhi historically used as leverage, Tibet, seems to be missing from the equation now. As for Beijing, in the last few years, it has shrewdly consolidated its control over Tibet and built special bridges of friendship with countries that India always considered to be its allies, pertinently Nepal and Bhutan.

After 1959, when Chinese troops occupied Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India along with thousands of fellow-Tibetans, the rulers in Beijing realised that this could be used by New Delhi to its advantage. This, notwithstanding the fact that India had already recognised Tibet as being part of China in 1950.

At the time, India and China were almost similar in terms of their population, economic status and military prowess. According to economist Thomas E Weisskopf in the Economic and Political Weekly, “Each entered the post-War era of development as a predominantly agrarian society, with an extremely low level of per capita output and correspondingly widespread poverty.”

For China, holding on to Tibet after occupying it in 1950 was a huge challenge as there was massive resistance from the local populace. In 1954, there was the Kanting revolt involving 40,000 Tibetans. In the four years until 1958, thousands of Chinese troops were killed by Tibetan guerrillas, until Beijing sent in more troops a year later and fought off the resistance.

If resistance challenged the hold of the Chinese, more crucially the Himalayan topography made Tibet more accessible from India rather than China. Theoretically, this meant that if India wanted to intervene in Tibet or allow Tibetan resistance fighters into China it could be done easily – through the eastern border near Sikkim and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The advantage at the time was in India’s favour. The Chinese themselves reportedly used these routes to access Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

In fact, Indian strategists in the then government of Jawaharlal Nehru were confident they could easily take on China which, according to historian Neville Maxwell, led to New Delhi’s adventurism on the border, resulting in the 1962 war.

The war went in China’s favour and since then the dispute along parts of the nearly 3500 km long border has continued to fester. There was one big flare-up, which some describe as a limited conflict, again in 1967 that again saw big casualties on both sides. Whatever goodwill existed between the two countries until 1962 had all but disappeared. Post-1962, at best, relations have been civil and minimally friendly, and at worst, suffers from mutual suspicion and distrust.

From then to now, the overall scenario has changed almost unbelievably. China has raced ahead to become a huge power – politically, economically and militarily – to a point where it is now spoken of in the same breath as the United States and developed nations of western Europe. India has inched forward, developed in fits and starts and overall has remained a distant second, and patronisingly termed an emerging economy.

Tibet, meanwhile, has kept China busy. Without much fanfare, China has discreetly gone about scotching the resistance out of Tibet, populating it with the mainland Chinese to a point where the demographics in the region were altered in its favour. According to the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organisation (UNPO), there are six million ethnic Tibetans and 7.5 million Chinese in the Tibetan region.

Beijing has also poured large amounts of money, injected industrialisation and educational facilities into Tibet with the result that the region today has almost been mainstreamed with the rest of China, a process called Sinicization.

Media reports in 2018, quoting Chinese official figures, said Beijing had spent upwards of $450 million over nearly four decades in a facelift to Tibet’s major monasteries and was planning a nearly $300 million spend until 2023. More is on the anvil. Over the next few years, the Chinese government has budgeted nearly $100 billion, no less, for major infrastructure projects including an array of highways and airports, at a height of 13,000 feet above sea level.

These developments have meant that India’s ability to influence events in Tibet has all but evaporated. The Tibetan government in exile, based in India’s Dharamsala, remains a mere figurehead while the thousands of exiles from the Himalayan region dream of returning to an “independent” homeland some day. The Dalai Lama has, for long, given up the demand for total Tibetan independence instead asking for autonomy.

Compared to India’s complacency, China, meanwhile, has continued to plan its strategy to ensure that it never loses control of Tibet. To get over the geographical disadvantage of access to Tibet, it has built at least four highways – Qinghai-Tibet, Sichuan-Tibet, Xinjiang-Tibet and Yunan-Tibet – that now link the territory to mainland China. In addition, it has constructed a spectacular railway line – Qinghai-Tibet – that alone, according to some reports, has the potential to bring in 70,000 people every month into Tibet.

It has also turned around a potential disadvantage into strength by its friendly overtures to Nepal including aiding it generously and helping Kathmandu in times of crisis as in 2015 during the economic blockade with India. In the case of Bhutan, China has offered to swap land – offering more in return for less. If that comes through, China will have the advantage of easier access to Indian territory.

Except for Sikkim, which the then government of Indira Gandhi strategically subsumed into India in 1975, the rest of the border – on the eastern front and to the north of India has been defanged by China.

The moot point is India has lost a crucial bargaining chip in the form of Tibet, as it no longer poses the kind of threat it did to China even at the turn of this century. This frees up Beijing to try occupying the undefined border with India as much as possible to gain vantage points that will further its hold over the entire Himalayan region and gain long-term advantage.

It is for this reason that Beijing opposed the August 2019 action of the Indian government to abrogate the special status to Kashmir. New Delhi’s direct control over Ladakh, now a union territory, troubles Beijing even though it is only a politico-administrative re-arrangement internal to India. China’s opposition indicates the high-level of sensitivity with which it views any change in its border with India. The recent clashes at Galwan show it will go to any extent to protect its interests, even at the risk of an enlarged conflict.

As for India, with Tibet no longer in its armoury, all that it has now is on the trade front in the form of a sizable market to Chinese goods. However, from a Chinese perspective, its exports to India account for a mere three percent of its overall exports and that may not mean much.

Or, another factor in New Delhi’s favour could be its alliance with the US-led western front including Australia, Japan and Singapore. But each of these countries has its own robust relationship with China and cannot be depended upon to come to India’s aid during a crisis. Is India therefore left clutching at a straw?

Courtesy: The article first published on

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13 thoughts on “Tibet ‘slips out’ of India’s hands; it’s advantage China on the border

  1. Mr. Murthy speaks absolute truth. Also, reorganization and modernization of PLA is almost complete. Many brigades still have older tanks and artillery, in the newx few years it going to be all new. Brigade has 4 battalions with four companies (all composite), and six brigades make an army.

  2. it says “In the case of Bhutan, China has offered to swap land – offering more in return for less. If that comes through, China will have the advantage of easier access to Indian territory.”
    India can do the same with Bangladesh around Silguri corridor.

  3. This article is of such a poor quality that it can’t be considered as an article of any importance, but a mere paid propaganda by Chinese vested interest. The author of this article must be a paid agent of the Chinese interest as it becomes clear from it’s contents which conveniently ignores the fact that China is becoming more isolated in the world by the day for her attempted bullying of her neighbors. The latest Chinese adventurism against India will be proved to be a costly mistake for China. Above article missed an important point that China is becoming a country of aging and more materialistic population leaving less numbers of young and willing Chinese to fight for PLA. China tries to bully other smaller countries by the strength of it’s shear numbers which is heading towards an irreversible decline. While India is a younger country with a growing population and this time is more prepared to give such a befitting reply to this Chinese misadventure that China will loose her face. Moreover China is going to loose an important growing market which can’t be compensated by all the associated BRI countries put together. For India boycotting less important Chinese imports will be an opportunity for relevant Indian industries to grow.

  4. Excellent findings. But the author should have dropped a few more words on Kashmir which is the root of all causes. To defend Kashmir, I am afraid India might have to pay a much higher price alike her other half Pakistan who have been swallowed up by China. The present NDA Government came to power to adopt adequate amenable measures to overcome the flaws committed in past. But they conked out too as neither the abrogation of special status of Kashmir yeilded fruits nor Muslims subjugation. Kashmir should be freed by both the countries and allowed dominion under UN surveillance. Like minded people to be allowed to migrate from both the countries. The responsibility mostly rest with India as they don’t intend to invite a third party, even the UN to mediate. These Governments and its people never given a second thought about how much they are spending on Kashmir monetarily and militarily by dropping the interests of the greater part. NE to Northern borders remained unprotected for lack of development measures due to fiscal insufficiency, countries along with Bangladesh, Srilanka and Maldives are maintaining cold relationship with India due to aggressive dialogue and mussel flexing by the people on chair. Indian people are not an exception either. They. would bounce back asap how can we become headless – that shut down the door for an open debate. Every sensible Govt is working to enrich their country and its People’s wellness. Perhaps, the exceptions are these two countries who are hell bent on Kashmir. Add me too on the list as an ace.

  5. This person is just beating the air.. not at all informative and ridiculous prediction his own thinking which is far from the facts on the ground. Wrong evaluation of the situation.

  6. You are correct that since 1950’s India has allowed its opportunity on Tibet slip out of its hands. That is now history – history of Indian blunder. But you are wrong in saying that now India cannot do anything on Tibet leverage. 6 millions ethnic Tibetans have been made minority by 7.5 million ethnic Chinese but even 6 million belligerent population CAN DESTROY Chinese advantage if actively motivated by Tibetan govt in exile and actively helped by Indian side – just like Johadis are helped by Pak. Plus, India must be in top gear to lay down infrastructure in this boarder area. Plus, India must cobble a “joint defence” treaty with all 16 neighbouring countries whose land is encroached – or claimed – by China. India needs FAST PACE to compensate its lost time. And, also supply BrahMos type weaons to Vietnam and other enemies of China. It should be a treaty like NATO – if China troubles 1 country, there must be attack on it on 16 fronts at the same time – be ot Taiwan, Hong Kong … or anyone of the 16. India has to take initiative … and not wait for Chinese moves.

  7. The author has been heavily influenced by Chinese propaganda. No one wants dictators and people of another race to subjugate you. Not even all the Han, leave alone the Tibetans and Uighurs.
    Time will tell.

  8. P.S So far Tibet is concerned, India never had expansionist character to annex it. In fact India in the past considered Tibet as part of One China policy. Subsequently, voices were raised for Tibet to be a free independent country, which will act as buffer between India and China, something like Nepal or Bhutan. So losing or winning of Tibet is an non- issue for India.

  9. The author, while narrating the past history (inaction or follies) has painted the future of India as bleak viz a viz China. He has forgotten or deliberately glossed over the military solution of resting back the illegal occupation of Aksai Chin and Shakasgam tract ceded by Pakistan out of independent Gilgit Baltistan without justification to China.
    As the situation emerging in the Ladakh, military show down between China and India is a foregone conclusion. Pakistan may jump in the conflict which will justify the India’s friend countries to intervene.
    India should not waste this moment in Deplomacy or salvaging relations with China, which never kept the sanctity of Agreements in the past.
    Agreed that war is accompanied with many problems but it is always better to suffer once than suffer perpetually.

  10. No one will disagree with points made by author about China’s systematic annihilation of Tibetan culture and people and steps taken by it to bridge the gaps in the geographical disadvantage to connect Tibet with mainland China.

    However the article does not give any suggestions or views about what and how India can counter these developments and gain the lost ground. I presume Indian Defence Review is expected to act as think tank to Indian policy makers. It is sad that the author at the end concludes that India can do nothing about it. Is it fair ?

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