In the 13th and early 14th centuries, a Chinese historian by the name of Ma-Twan-Lin wrote a grandiose history of China in multiple volumes filled with exaggerations on the so called glory of imperial China. One such account is of Emperor Harshavardhana, demonstrating his subjugation to Emperor Taizong of Tang China in front of the latter’s envoy, by accepting an imperial decree (that invited Harsha to submission) on bent knees. Besides this exaggerated incident, the account ignores the detail that the newly united Tibetan empire of those days, under Emperor Songtsen Gampo, was a bigger player in southern Central Eurasia.
Chinese historians like Ma-Twan-Lin conveniently skip the fact that Songtsen was also Taizong’s son-in-law, and the two had established a period of Sino-Tibetan peace in the 10th century – their alliance was such that when childless Harsha’s successor Arjuna persecuted Chinese representatives, the more powerful Songtsen sent his troops to take revenge upon them on behalf of his father-in-law. Kamarupa’s king, Bhaskarvarman also had a brief diplomatic tryst with the Tibetans (to maintain peace), and even this fact is distorted by Ma-Twan-Lin into Bhaskar sending tributes to Taizong directly. Such glorious accounts by Chinese historians are found in plenty, and most of them are nothing but overstatements, and reflections of the country’s fantasies of global domination.
Now, the dangerous part; most countries in the world have evolved in the modern era and rethink their strategies as per the needs and demands of the age. However, the Chinese mindset remained the same throughout centuries, as demonstrated by the writings and quotes of Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, the man who harboured dreams of world domination. The Belt and Road initiative of China is reflective of how the country sees itself as the centre of the world – the so called silk road, which gives an idealistic foundation to this plan, is nothing but a term coined by a German geographer in as late as 1877 CE.
The central Eurasian trade route was part of the wider land and sea route that included India’s maritime Spice Route; trading of various goods took place along the Eurasian Steppes, like Frankincense, Ivory, Indian Muslin, Horses etc. Silk was but only one of the products available along this route and China had lost its dominance over this market, once the Japanese and Byzantines started producing silk as well.
The difference between the Chinese and Indians lies in the fact that the former’s vision of global penetration (which started way back in the 2nd century BCE, with the visit of their officer Zhang Qian to the northern trade routes) has sustained, and grown to even envelop the ancient Indian trade routes, whereas India has stopped talking about her Spice Route, and concentrates more on tenuous concepts like the glories of the Vedic era. India has lost the safety of her borders for good; China and Pakistan will forever breathe down her neck, regardless of the direction taken by global politics. Opposition political leaders have screamed about Doklam in the light of the Modi-Xi informal summit, but are not seeing the covert war that China has been waging against India through her left leaning academia, the debts that China imposes on her neighbours, and Chinese support of Indian militant groups.
The tendency to score temporary brownie points among Indian politicians, combined with a corrupt bureaucracy, is a loophole in the country’s system that a hawkish country like China can capitalise on fairly easily.
Totalitarian Nationalism, and not Socialism, describes the Chinese regime with a Han leader (whose family was once a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution) at the helm of affairs. The uniqueness of China’s history springs from the fact that they have managed to keep their identity intact, despite being ruled by foreign powers during large periods of their history. The Jurchens, Mongols and Manchus all took Sinicized names for their dynasties and mingled with Chinese culture – but the Chinese never accepted them as locals.
Historians say that this is because of the fact that the Han Chinese elite maintained the continuum of their culture, and guided the emperors, even under foreign rule. A look at the big-seven of Chinese politics today, i.e. the members of the current Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP, reveals the strict Han leadership that China maintains even now – all seven, led by Xi Jinping, are of Han ethnicity – so much for left wing, liberal politics. A detailed study of the ethnicities of past members is beyond the scope of this article.
The Tibetan Dilemma
It is apt to say that the world was never serious about Tibet when Mao’s China occupied it in the 1950s. Myopic goals prevented every nation from actively pursuing Tibet’s independence. Russia had been funding the Communist Party of China since the 1920s; Britain and France had their Achilles’ heel in Hong Kong and the French colonies respectively, and the United States was more interested in creating disruptions within Tibet to prevent another Communist bastion during the cold war. India had the highest stakes in Tibet, something it didn’t realise, or willfully ignored because some of the newly independent country’s left leaning leaders held ambitions of leading a new Asia, hand-in-hand with China.
Today, Chinese economy and influence (in global politics) has grown to such an extent that it is nearly impossible for Tibet to come out of its clutches completely – even if it does, one can imagine the mammoth task for such a new country to gain foothold in world affairs. While a large number of Tibetans lament Chinese rule and their inability to practice their religion, there is a sizeable section that has benefitted from Chinese subsidies and development projects – even as the country bleeds environmentally, spiritually, and from suppression of human rights, there would be no dearth of culturally assimilated persons opposing the removal of Chinese rule.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s stance of asking for genuine autonomy, aka Hong Kong, appears to be the right measure for Tibet to remain on the global stage, without creating much chaos within. The spiritual leader has faced much opposition from some of his own for relinquishing the idea of total independence, but he has maintained his stand, a stand that looks achievable and practical.
The Road Ahead
However, the question that arises under the current geopolitical scenario is how this autonomy will be achieved or rather, will it be achieved at all. Of late, global alignments are shifting fast, probably faster than is desirable. The manner, in which things are changing, should sound an alarm bell for all earthlings who have been kept outside of the real picture of events. A cold war has started between US and China led alliances, with fresh international realignments and a projection of this can be seen in the following developments:
‘Rocketman’ Kim Jong Un has suddenly been raised to the pedestal of an ‘honourable’ leader and is being wooed by both America and China; however, it should be borne in mind that the Chinese never aggravated Kim through strong words during the nuclear test period in the DPRK. No matter how much Trump tries, in case of a realignment leading to rigid global alliances, Kim’s preference will be for Communist China, combined with South Korea and Russia
‘Trump Whisperer’ Emmanuel Macron’s intense trip to the US, and French participation in the bombing of Syria (along with the UK) is another evidence that the west will not look too far for allies and regroup their ‘nearer cousins’ during periods of need. Macron sees himself as the new leader of post-Brexit Europe, and his ‘bromance’ with Trump seems reasonable under a scenario where China is trying to penetrate Eastern Europe through their money power. Since 2012, China has been holding an annual “16 plus one” Forum on economic cooperation with sixteen Eastern European states. The Nikkei Asian review reported: “The forum includes Hungary, Poland and nine other EU members. If these 11 countries reinforce their ties with Beijing and turn Eastern Europe into a “pro-China bloc,” it would drive a wedge into the EU, which values democracy and the rule of law” (Chinese money sows European disunion: Eastern states are being seduced by the allure of authoritarianism, HIROYUKI AKITA, April 23, 2018)
The oven-fresh development of joint military exercises being declared by the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) to enhance counter terrorism cooperation – an exercise that will bring India and Pakistan together for the first time in such a drill. The paradox to note in this development is the fact that most of the terrorism within India is masterminded by terror mongers based out of Pakistan, and India is joining this exercise with Pakistan itself. This development follows PM Modi’s sudden visit to China, and looks like a war (cold or hot) alliance against US led forces
The last striking development that directly affects Tibet is that Trump’s America, which had even stopped its Tibet fund, passed a Congress Resolution on April 25th, where it resolved that the responsibility of identifying the 15th Dalai Lama rests with officials of the Dalai Lama’s private office, and not with China. The resolution also called for the US Ambassador to China’s meeting with the 11th Panchen Lama, “who was arbitrarily detained on May 17, 1995, and otherwise ascertain information concerning his whereabouts and well-being” (https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-resolution/429/text). This looks like another war tactic of Trump’s America against China – Tibet has once again, been relegated to the status of a ‘Card’
Two prime factors have led to the above developments; the first is Donald Trump’s inward looking agenda, and the second is China’s aggressive global expansion plan. The first has smoothened the way for the second, and China is now poised to be the next biggest world power – Trump’s trade war has become an immediate cause for China to intensify its quest for strong alliances.
The imposition of restrictions on US H1-B visas for Indian companies and refusal of work permits for spouses of such visa holders comes at a time when the Modi government is struggling to provide the employment that it promised to its electorate. The Prime Minister’s springboard visit to China, despite his snubbing the BRI summit in 2017 (and his already planned visit for the SCO summit in June), his government’s sudden rigid stance towards the Dalai Lama, and the US Congress’ resolution should make geopolitical experts sit up and wonder about the developments to follow.
With a war of sorts looming over the world, if China relinquishes its claim on Arunachal Pradesh, or offers a couple of sops to India including support of its membership bid to the NSG, Modi is most capable of putting pressure on the Dalai Lama to accept whatever China offers. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, might already be planning to not indulge in reincarnation politics, and a compromise may be reached with the Tibetans – something he desperately needs to enhance his image as a true leader (‘resolving’ the Tibet issue could even make him a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, especially after his diplomacy with Kim Jong Un). One is yet to discover whether the latest Congress resolution on Tibet is a pre-emptive strike by the US against feelers that they might have received on something similar brewing on the Sino-Indian front.
Ultimately, it is the Tibetans who should decide what they want for themselves; be it independence, genuine autonomy, or simply the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet – the choice is theirs. Developments might be taking place on this front, as can be seen from the visit of former Tibetan Prime Minister-in-Exile, Samdhong Rinpoche to his hometown in Yunnan province. Some analysts see this as a reconnaissance trip to prepare for some other climax (A Secret Visit and Sino-Tibetan Dialogue, Tshering Chonzom Bhutia, The Diplomat, December 19, 2017) – reports and rumours are abuzz about the Dalai Lama finally returning to (or visiting) Tibet.
A crucial factor in influencing the Tibetan administration to expedite a solution is the age of the 83-year old spiritual leader, who has been facing nothing but dangling carrots, and snubs, throughout his entire struggle to free his people. Whereas for Tibetans the Dalai Lama is their face and soul, for India he is a simply a border outpost. The bitter truth that his country of refuge has been flip-flopping in its stances towards Tibet must be bearing down heavily on the mind of the aging monk, who gets jittery whenever he thinks of the future of Tibetans without him.
A Sad Epilogue?
The Modi Government’s treatment of the Dalai Lama has been nothing short of derogatory since the leadership assumed power in 2014. In August of the same year, the Prime Minister met the Dalai Lama in secret at the former’s official residence. The New York Times reported (FEATURE: The Last Dalai Lama? Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, Dec. 1, 2015) that the meeting was nothing short of an insult to the spiritual leader who was ushered into the house like “His Holiness is some sort of a criminal”.
The Prime Minister is reported to have conducted the entire ‘meeting’ in Hindi and confronted the hallowed, octogenarian monk by asking him ‘insulting’ questions. This meeting took place just before Xi Jinping’s visit to India at the same time. Although later developments, primarily driven by the RSS’s agenda of projecting Tibetan Buddhism as a product of ancient Indian wisdom (which the Dalai Lama has anyway vehemently advocated for decades), made observers think that the current dispensation was taking a strong stance against China (by using Tibet as a card); but the cat came out of the hat when Indian foreign officials snubbed the Tibetans by directing them to not host their “Thank you India” events in Delhi and instructed all state leaders to stay away from such programmes – the latter part of the directive might have been primarily directed towards the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister who made bold anti-China statements in 2017 – the year when the Dalai Lama was freely allowed to visit the state that China claims.
It will be nothing but a tearful end to the tumultuous Tibetan saga, if the issue finishes with a compromise of sorts, and not with genuine autonomy; a compromise that this once vibrant highland country did not seek in the first place. Besides, Narendra Modi might very well go down in Chinese history as another Harsha, the king who ran to China at the drop of a hat and accepted the subjugation of Xi’s Han China.