Can Tibet be defended?
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Issue Book Excerpt: 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga | Date : 21 Jun , 2013

One often hears in Indian military circles that the ‘next war’ with Pakistan will be on Pakistani territory, though unfortunately, the ‘next’ one with China will be on Indian soil.

With the successful launch of Agni V, it might not now be entirely true; the Chinese have realized the change.

Beijing then threatened: “India should not overestimate its strength. Even if it has missiles that could reach most parts of China that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China…”

Soon after the test, the Chinese Government saw that the game might be different hereafter. The Global Times elaborated: “It seems India’s path for boosting its military strength has not met too many obstacles. India is still poor and lags behind in infrastructure construction, but its society is highly supportive of developing nuclear power and the West chooses to overlook India’s disregard of nuclear and missile control treaties.”

Beijing then threatened: “India should not overestimate its strength. Even if it has missiles that could reach most parts of China that does not mean it will gain anything from being arrogant during disputes with China. India should be clear that China’s nuclear power is stronger and more reliable. For the foreseeable future, India would stand no chance in an overall arms race with China.”

The point is that for the first time, India had the capacity to carry out a war on the territory of China.

Was it the first time?

No, as we will show in this chapter based on the British Archives.

But let us look first at the historical background.

A few months before India’s Independence, not only was Tibet a de facto independent State and the British wanted it to remain so, but they were ready to carry out a military action to protect Tibet’s status.

For this, a detailed military intervention plan was prepared by the General Staff of the British Army.

A few months before India’s Independence, not only was Tibet a de facto independent State and the British wanted it to remain so, but they were ready to carry out a military action to protect Tibet’s status.

In early 1946, in a Top Secret Memo,1 the General Staff sent an “Appreciation of the scale of direct military assistance which could be provided in support of Tibet.”2

The Objectives

The purpose of the Memo was to find a solution in case of “domination of Tibet by a potentially hostile major power [which] would constitute a direct threat to the security of India.”

India’s objectives were clearly expressed: “The Government of India are therefore, vitally interested in maintaining friendly relations with Tibet and in preserving for Tibet at least that measure of autonomy she now enjoys.”

The objective of the study was unambiguous, London (and Delhi) did not want to have a new neighbour on its borders, particularly not the Soviet Union or China.

Once again the ‘autonomy’ envisaged by the Government of India was different from the one mentioned by Chiang Kai-Shek in his speech in the Chinese Assembly. The Memo thus defines the British perception: “The basis of Tibetan autonomy must rest in strong diplomatic support by HMG [His Majesty Government] and by India so that the Tibetans will not be subjected to pressure by any potential hostile power.”

The British Government did not think only in terms of an armed invasion (by Russia or China), but also about ‘infiltrations.’ As recently witnessed in Nepal, where local elements have encouraged a slow take-over of the country by the People’s Republic of China, infiltration has been a method recurrently used by successive Chinese leaders.

London thought that it could be a source of real danger for Tibet as some elements in the monasteries were not against a renewed ‘special’ relation with China to replace the defunct Choe-Yon (Priest-Patron) partnership.

The Memo states: “In particular Tibet must be supported against the methods of ‘peaceful penetration’ subversion which have been employed so successfully by Russia in Northern Persia and which China is very likely to employ against her [Tibet].”

From Two Directions

It is interesting to note that one year before India’s independence and a few months after the end of World War II, the British saw the threats coming from two directions, two former allies during the War, Russia and China.

…Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister declared: “India has neither the resources nor the inclination to send armed assistance to Tibet.

The Memo affirms: “Neither Russia nor China must be allowed to violate Tibetan autonomy by such methods, since it would then be possible for them to build roads and airfields to their own advantage, which would vitally affect India’s strategic position.”

Then the Memo comes to the crunch of the issue: “Should it prove impossible to preserve Tibetan autonomy by diplomatic methods alone or should Russia or China attack Tibet, it might to necessary for the Govt [Government] of India to provide direct military aid to Tibet which would involve war. The purpose of this paper is to study the extent and manner of direct military aid that could be given to Tibet in pursuance of the political object.”

The objectives of the military plan to defend Tibet make interesting reading. Over the centuries, Tibet had never been a military or strategic threat to India’s borders and this, for several reasons; the first one being that Tibetans were peaceful people and did not strive to acquire any large military means. The Land of Snows contented itself with basic means to defend itself.

The Memo asserts: “The object of military aid is to prevent a hostile power establishing itself in areas from which it can threaten India. In practice this means preventing the enemy from occupying those parts of Tibet from which air attack or rocket missiles can be launched on India.”

Five years later: a letter from Sardar Patel

This is what would happen soon after the entry of Chinese troops in Lhasa in September 1951, with disastrous consequences for India. Most of the leaders of independent India (with perhaps the exception of Patel) were too blind to see the menace looming above the Indian borders.

In this context, it is interesting to recall the well-known letter sent by Sardar Patel to Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1950.

This raises a serious issue: was Tibet ready or willing to defend itself against an outside attack or even ‘incursions,’ during the time of the Minority of the Dalai Lama?

It was a good analysis, although it was already too late for Tibet.3 The People’s Liberation Army had already ‘liberated’ Tibet.

On November 1, 1950, a few weeks after Tibet was invaded, in an interview with United Press, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister declared: “India has neither the resources nor the inclination to send armed assistance to Tibet.4 He cited the case of the Dogra War when the Sikhs of Zorawar Singh were decimated during the winter in Tibet.

The same day Nehru cabled B.N. Rau:5 “Chinese military operations against Tibet have undoubtedly affected our friendly relations with China. But these developments do not affect our general policy or even our policy regarding admission of new China in United Nations.”6

This was 4 years after the Memo was written; Nehru probably did not know about its existence. The Appreciation/Memo continues: “The maintenance over these routes of hostile forces in Tibet will present grave difficulties, and will limit the size of the forces that can be deployed.”

A Buffer to protect British India; drawing a Line

London drew a line passing by Chamdo7-Nagchuka8-Garyarsa9-Leh.10 Any invasion or infiltration, south of this line was considered as dangerous for the defence of India’s borders by the General Staff.

The appreciation adds an important point; the Tibetans should contribute and participate in the defence of their own country: “Military aid must depend upon the goodwill of the Tibetans, and confidence in us both now and when direct military assistance is sent to them. It will therefore be essential to protect the capital and the wealthier provinces of the country.”

This raises a serious issue: was Tibet ready or willing to defend itself against an outside attack or even ‘incursions,’ during the time of the Minority11 of the Dalai Lama?

It is difficult to answer this question as between the will to protect its borders and the implementation of any plan, there was more often than not a large gap. In the Tibetan system of governance, between an old Regent, a conservative National Assembly and a practically powerless Kashag,12 chances to take Churchillian decisions were minute.

For the British Government, the ‘Military Object’ of the plan was defined after considering the geographical and other factors: “To prevent the enemy establishing himself south of general line Chamdo-Nagchuka-Garyarsa-Leh.”

It thus created a de facto buffer zone between the two expansionist powers (Russia and China) and India.

The Operations

Then follows the detailed study of possible military operations on the Roof of the World, as: “direct military aid is most likely to be required by Tibet at a time when a major war is imminent or in progress. Therefore only a small part of the resources of India and the Empire would be available to give aid to Tibet.”

The Memo starts by a study of the geography and ethnology of Tibet, pointing to different issues such as the “overall sparcity of population, groups and animals; the comparative wealth of South Eastern Tibet13 [Kham province or Xikang for the Chinese], the unique historical and religious importance of Lhasa, the non-existence of any roads for wheeled traffic, and the remoteness of the country from all possible enemy bases.”

All this had to be taken into account for preparing defence plans.

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The Memo acknowledges the military importance of Nagchuka and Chamdo while: “the height and breadth of the mountains surrounding Tibet, and the height and character of the country: airborne operations will be hazardous and comparatively difficult; the present types of aircraft could only be operated from Tibetan airfields by the most experienced pilots, and even then the risks involved would be extremely high; gliders cannot be used; with present equipment it is not possible to use para troops at these heights.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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5 thoughts on “Can Tibet be defended?

  1. over the years china giveing aid topakistan tryeing to enter in tonepal and srilanka and bangladseh. china violteing internatioal law byconstructing road viakashmir tobalouchistan. over theyears china seem thinking india is softstate.
    china is communeist country india is democracycountry .the china and india samepopulation threatening india everyoccasion if theystrong coventionally theyhave toinvade taiwan and vietnam and japan.these soverignstates china
    threaten against them invade them capture them . whathappen to HITLER
    IT WILLNEVER TO CHINA..china willnever succededoccupy any enemy territory
    day by day they threatening india china cancapture delhi in twodays .india soliders eating icecream. china canplay plasystation . this kind of attitude bychina
    undermininy india army china thinks indias army liketoys.

  2. Even after 5 decades of war with China, India is still not capable of defending itself, let alone Tibet. It may sound harsh, but that is the sad reality. In case of a war with China, India is at high risk of losing territory in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and North East. Chinese may even be able to capture Kashmir if Pakistan joins the war. The 3 services work in silos and have only recently started working together to integrate the services. However this is being done on a piecemeal basis. India has not made any attempts to stop Chinese proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan. This has created additional problems for India. However, it is India which can really stand out against China and even counter it if the political and military leadership of India work together to identify the goals and strategy in case of a war. If push comes to shove, the military forces should be clear about the political objective. The political objective of India should be to liberate Tibet and East Turkestan. We should ensure that the land link between Pakistan and China is broken. From the military perspective, the services needs to be integrated thoroughly. Appointing a CDS with full operational powers will be the first step. The IDS reporting to CDS, should be responsible for integrating the services broadly under 4 categories. The categories are operational, functional, supporting and admin commands. The Northern, Central and Eastern commands facing China should be grouped under 1 military region. It should be headed by a General/equivalent rank officer. India should rapidly develop & induct long range ballistic and cruise missiles for offensive operations & rapidly modernize air and missile defensive operatiions. India should increase the strength of the army infantry to 2.4 million. Atleast 1.8 million troops should be assigned to counter China. India should induct 3600 fighter jets to counter China and Pakistan. At least 2400 jets should be deployed against China.

  3. The issue of Tibet, also rested with the case that either the Cultural Revolution was ongoing, or that it had ended. It seems, that had China been peaceful internally, or that Mao harbored no doubt about China, not to do with what he saw as an internal situation in Tibet, the Chinese troops would not be required on the mountains that border India and China. Apparently, India had a situation in parliament, also. Indian parliamentarians did not generally agree with what they saw as deliberate policy implementation during the first, and consequent five year plans, and they were both Congressmen, and not. Nehru had to seem, as if he wasn’t anti-national interest himself, to many parliamentarians, also. The discussion with China, weren’t facilitating understanding, and both China, and India, weren’t making the P. M., confident about what both wanted to discuss, and he thought he might be looking at an exercise of one man to perception, trying to up the other, and for a situation that wasn’t seemingly existing, before.

  4. I follow most of your articles but to our when will Indian government awake from its slumber. Arre Arpiji we Indians (Oh! Mr Arpi we Indians ) please publish your articles in national news papers some one might read them . no matter how much you goad us we will remain complacent like the head of the Ostrich. Arre koi kuch karo ( someone please do something)

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