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India needs to change its Tibet policy

By Rajiv Sikri
March 27, 2008 15:35 IST
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Recent events in Tibet have put an uncomfortable spotlight on China. Although the Tibetan uprising appears to have been put down for the moment, the Tibet story is not over. Troubles could erupt again. The world and the people of China realise that China's Tibet policy has been a failure. A group of eminent Chinese writers and intellectuals have shown the courage to publicly question the Beijing regime's Tibet policy.

The psychological impact of developments in Tibet could be debilitating for China in the long term. It could inspire other disaffected ethnic groups in China like the Uighurs to try to coalesce with Tibetan groups, both within China and abroad. The more repression there is within China, the less credible is China's claim of 'peaceful rise'. Tibet may well hold the key both to China's internal stability and Hu Jintao's political longevity. No wonder Beijing is hysterical and considers Tibet a 'life-and-death' question.

The settlement of the India-China border and the status of Tibet are interlinked issues. Unless there is all-round agreement that Tibet is a part of China, there is only an India-Tibet boundary, not an India-China boundary. By the crude and aggressive reiteration of its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, China has already ruled out any early settlement of the boundary question with India; recent events in Tibet would only reconfirm Chinese thinking not to settle the border with India unless it has Tibet firmly under its control. Therefore, India should deal with China with this perspective clearly in mind.

Although it has already extracted significant concessions from India on Tibet, China remains uncertain and anxious about India's Tibet policy. The Dalai Lama's periodic statements, including recently, that India's policy on Tibet is over-cautious reinforce China's suspicions and fears. The failure of six rounds of talks between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government seem to indicate that the Chinese leaders have made up their minds that a satisfactory solution to Tibet, from China's point of view, is unlikely while the present Dalai Lama is still alive.

China's mistrust of the Dalai Lama has only intensified after the recent troubles. Yet, contrary to what the Chinese government may be thinking, a post-Dalai Lama situation may become more radicalised, unpredictable and violent.

In India's relations with China, Tibet is a key issue that requires skilful handling by India. India has recently taken some welcome tentative steps to review its Tibet policy. The first move was made in January when the statement issued at the end of Indian prime minister's visit to China did not carry any reference to Tibet. It is not clear whether this was a deliberate policy move, or a one-off measure. The widespread disturbances in Tibet in March provide an opportunity for India to continue with its subtle policy shift. India's official statement on March 15, was a step in the right direction. Firstly, clearly refuting official Chinese propaganda, it stated that "innocent people" had died in Lhasa. Secondly, by expressing its "hope that all those involved will work to improve the situation and remove the causes of such trouble in Tibet… through dialogue and non-violent means," New Delhi has conveyed its message to Beijing that there is merit in the demands of Tibetans, that the onus is on Beijing to find a solution, and that such a solution requires dialogue, not use of force.

In describing the Dalai Lama as a man of non-violence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has clearly conveyed that India does not endorse the harsh and vituperative official Chinese denunciations of the Dalai Lama. China's recent offensive and patronising approach and behaviour about India's stand on Tibet, including summoning the Indian Ambassador in the middle of the night, required an appropriate riposte. It is good that India has put off Commerce Minister Kamal Nath's visit to China. At the same time, India has sought to reassure China that India considers Tibet as "an autonomous region of China." One hopes that in the coming months the government gives its Tibet policy a clearer strategic direction.

While formulating its policy on Tibet, India has to keep in mind that it is uniquely placed vis-à-vis Tibet, and therefore must have a unique policy that conforms to its national interests, irrespective of what the rest of the world says or does. No other country has as important stakes in peace and stability in Tibet as India does. A Tibet in ferment makes India's Himalayan frontiers unstable and insecure. As a democratic country that is hosting such a large number of Tibetans, India has a legitimate interest in what happens in Tibet. Since developments in Tibet have direct consequences for India, Tibet cannot be, as the Left parties in India make out, just an internal matter of China.

If there is a severe crackdown on the Tibetans, it is likely to lead to an increased Chinese military presence in regions close to India's borders, which would have implications for India's own defence planning. It will also inevitably trigger off a fresh influx into India of Tibetan refugees, whom India would find it difficult to turn away on practical and humanitarian grounds.

In subsequent official statements and/or through authoritative but deniable unofficial channels, India could emphasise that while it firmly upholds the principles of supporting the territorial integrity of duly constituted states and non-interference in other states' internal affairs, its own experience shows that the peace and stability of multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural societies requires dialogue and accommodation within a democratic framework.

Ethnic and separatist problems require political solutions that give every citizen the confidence of being an equal stakeholder in the state. India expects that China would put in place policies that would stabilize Tibet and give the Tibetan Diaspora in India the confidence that they can return to their homeland.

India needs to take full advantage of an important nuance, perhaps unintended, in India's acceptance of Tibet as a part of China: India has merely conceded that the "territory of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a part of the People's Republic of China;" it has not accepted that Tibet (whose borders historically and in the minds of the Tibetans extend beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region) was always a part of China. As a matter of fact, Tibet was quite independent of Chinese rule and had all the attributes of a sovereign state between 1913 and 1950.

Traditionally, thousands of Indian pilgrims have made pilgrimages to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar lakes in Tibet without needing any permission from the Chinese authorities. If China can lay claim to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds of its cultural, historical and spiritual links with Tibet, the case for India's claim to Kailash-Mansarovar region on similar reasoning is probably more substantive. Secondly, if at any time in the future the People's Republic of China were to give way to another entity India could well argue that it is not obliged to recognize Tibet as a part of any new political entity of China. Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario, but the Chinese would not miss such nuances and subtleties.

India needs to take a leaf out of China's book in the matter of observance of solemn bilateral commitments. Just as China, contrary to the agreements with India in 2003 and 2005, has re-opened very aggressively its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, has still not fully accepted Sikkim as a part of India, and does not want an early settlement of the boundary question, India too should subtly reopen the whole question of the legitimacy of China's claim to Tibet, which is the basic foundation for China to make any territorial claim on India.

There could be many ways in which India could introduce some nuances in its traditional policy. For example, India could state that it considers Tibet, as an autonomous region, to be a part of the territory of the People's Republic of China -- the implication being that it is only if Tibet is a truly autonomous region that India recognises it as a part of China.

Ironically, China, in welcoming the Indian approach during the recent uprising, has given legitimacy to India's unofficial policy shift. The Chinese should be made aware that subtle shifts in India's Tibet policy will continue, and that India will remove the ambiguities in its Tibet policy only under the following conditions: firstly, if the situation on the ground permits it (very unlikely if China persists with its present repressive policies); secondly, if there is a definitive settlement of the boundary issue; and, finally, only as a quid pro quo for China recognising all of Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part of India.

It is time for India to get out of its defensive mindset and timid approach in dealing with China. There are vital national security interests at stake. Relations with China must be handled from a strategic, not a legalistic, perspective. The approach India follows should be multi-dimensional. India does want better relations with China, but it must also evolve a calculated and calibrated policy to put China under some pressure to safeguard its interests and concerns.

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Rajiv Sikri