India’s Tibet ‘card’

Recently, a few Indian commentators have renewed calls for New Delhi to re-evaluate its China policy, and the position accorded to Tibet in interactions with Beijing. At the heart of these arguments is the fact that India's China policy has been "tepid", "defensive" and "excessively cautious", especially when the subject has been Tibet. They argue that it is imperative for New Delhi to employ counter-pressure vis-à-vis Beijing, and Tibet provides that much-needed leverage.

To begin with, New Delhi will need to identify and link its Tibetan leverage towards some well-defined Chinese behaviour that it seeks to change, and ensure that this is efficiently communicated to Beijing, lest the entire strategy leads to a further deterioration of the security dilemma on the Himalayan frontiers.

Realists will appreciate that India currently does not possess a relative advantage in offensive military capabilities to replay British India's policy that sought to reconcile the symbolism of China's "suzerainty" over Tibet while simultaneously buttressing Tibetan autonomy under the cover of British power. A coercive strategy would require India having to bandwagon with an outside big power. Given the Cold War history of covert Western activity in the Himalayas, this is an extremely dangerous proposition and likely to escalate into armed conflict. Columnist Ashok Malik states it bluntly: "India is not a Central Asian frontline state, has limited stakes in Tibet, and, as a conservative regional power, cannot easily welcome adventurist scenario-building in its near neighbourhood."

Yet, as Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic affairs at the Centre for Policy Research, notes: "between appeasement and confrontation lie a hundred different options." It is vital then that while playing the Tibet ‘card', India avoids being perceived by Beijing as an adjunct or partner in US security policies. India's new Tibet policy will be have to be based on a non-coercive strategy that seeks to play on Beijing's sensitivity toward its international image and its quest to cultivate the perception of China as a responsible status quo actor. In this context, ‘legitimacy' of China's ownership of Tibet is perhaps more important than the number of Peoples Liberation Army divisions securing the plateau.

But where does India derive its Tibetan leverage from?

Very simply, the presence of the Dalai Lama and 120,000 Tibetans on Indian soil provides New Delhi with a unique (if latent) influence on the affairs in Tibet. It is also worth noting that India's so called "defensive" posture and policy on Tibet has largely been the result of New Delhi's attempts to reassure Beijing that India will neither encourage nor condone any Tibetan political activity on Indian soil. Such a cautious attitude got further entrenched after the armed conflict of 1962, which itself partially had its origins in the first Tibetan revolt of March 1959 that subsequently led to the flight of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees to India.

Over the years, however, India, in its quest for confidence-building and the pursuit of stable relations with China, has been unwilling to adjust its unilateral acquiescence of 1954, which was the first time India acknowledged the sovereignty of China over an ‘autonomous Tibet'. In fact, India's policy of unilaterally placating China has over the decades led to a paradoxical situation: the presence of the Dalai Lama and his fellow émigrés on Indian soil has somehow become a source of weakness-a burden-in India's China policy. Beijing has astutely perpetuated such a condition, largely by its policy of repeatedly seeking India's reiteration of its 1954 position and generously receiving it by a variety of political dispensations in New Delhi.

Moreover, New Delhi seems to have convinced itself that Indian actions somehow contributed to the Tibetan problem. But as Nikita Khrushchev reminded Mao Zedong in an October 1959 encounter, "If you allow him (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". In a similar vein, John Garver, a noted China scholar, in a recent analysis of Beijing's decision to go to war with India in 1962, argues: "India became the main object of Chinese projection of responsibility for the difficulties that Chinese rule encountered, and in fact Chinese themselves created, in Tibet circa 1959." Such a Chinese threat perception (or misperception) continues to this day.

The net result-a potential Indian advantage vis-à-vis Tibet has been converted into a liability that no policy-maker in New Delhi has been able or willing to adjust since India's fatal concession to China in the 1954 Panchsheel Treaty. It is this absurd situation that some contrarian voices in New Delhi's strategic community are seeking to adjust -that while New Delhi has been consistent in its reiteration of Beijing's ownership of Tibet, it has received no reciprocal gains from China.

And this brings to the fore perhaps the most vital question. What does India propose to use its so-called Tibetan leverage for? Surely not for moral posturing, which some among the civil political elite seem to relish.

India can link a final and unequivocal legitimisation of China's sovereignty over Tibet to a settlement of the border dispute. The logic of Chinese claims to some of the disputed pockets of territory south of the 1914 line stem entirely from historical Tibetan claims. Thus, the centrality of Tibet in the border dispute cannot be wished away.

Even more specifically, India could use the Tibet ‘card' in the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh, arguably the most contentious pocket in the eastern sector of the overall border dispute, and a strategically vital location from an Indian security perspective.

Finally, such a strategy does not in any way imply a reversal of India's bipartisan China policy, which since the late 1980s has sought to de-couple the border impasse with progress on other normal inter-state fronts, particularly in the economic sphere. This pragmatic China policy, however, does not preclude linking Tibet with the resolution of the overall border dispute.

To be sure, such a Kautilyan strategy would require a firm, patient and nimble foreign policy machine that enables New Delhi to signal its intentions to China. Interestingly, the joint communiqué from the January 2008 Sino-Indian summit in Beijing did not include a reference to Tibet.

India must ensure that it has the institutional capability and a sustained political will to employ the Tibet ‘card' as part of a coherent strategy for resolving the otherwise intractable border dispute with China.

The writer is an international relations analyst.