The History of Sino-India Tensions

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The History of Sino-India Tensions

Watchers of Asia’s two big rising powers are getting it wrong, says The Diplomat’s Madhav Nalapat. In focusing on economics and a border dispute, they are overlooking the biggest irritant to ties: a soft-spoken monk who was granted asylum in India 50 years ago.

History in India is written almost entirely by individuals reliant for their livelihood and research on state funding. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s been almost no serious analysis here of the consequences of the 1959 decision by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ignore Chinese Premer Zhou Enlai’s warning not to give asylum to the Dalai Lama.

This is a crucial omission, because although most commentators on Sino-India affairs focus on the border issue or the economic rivalry between the two nations, the root of Beijing’s mistrust of Delhi is actually the soft-spoken monk who has been an honoured guest in India for decades.

Nehru’s decision to disregard his Chinese counterpart’s request was momentous and his welcoming of the Dalai Lama created a fissure between India and China that persists even today. It’s one which has also prompted China to hold up agreement on matters, including the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, in an effort to press India to make the Tibetan community within its borders as unwelcome as possible.

Indeed, that single decision has had so momentous an effect on Sino-Indian relations that it seems extraordinary that this ‘Tibet factor’ in India-China relations has generally been so little commented upon, with most scholars in the United States and European Union apparently reluctant to draw attention to the consequences of the decision to welcome the Dalai Lama and, indeed, any Tibetan who fled China and sought asylum.

Competing Narratives

Although often strident in language, in practice both Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru softened their positions when confronted with opposition–a stark contrast with the leaders at the cusp of taking over India’s largest neighbour, China. While the Nehruvian narrative put India front and centre of the struggle against European colonial powers, the Chinese Communist Party version was that Nehru and his team were mere quislings who pretended to be independent but were actually bound almost as firmly to the apron strings of Europe and the United States as they were when still a colony. The true heroes of de-colonisation in this competing view were China’s communists themselves, led by Mao Zedong in their battle against first the Japanese, and later the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek.

As one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and even decline a tentative US offer of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (in place of China), India under Nehru sought to ensure that Beijing became as close an ally as was Nasser’s Egypt and Soekarnov’s Indonesia. Nehru even disregarded the advice of Deputy Prime Minister Valabbhai Patel and gave up all the rights that had been enjoyed by the Indian government in Tibet, including free access.
All these sacrifices were pocketed by Mao as nothing more than his due. Of course this isn’t how Nehru saw it–he saw the moves as creating a moral debt that the Chinese needed to repay with a policy of adjustment toward Indian concerns. But China did not, meaning Nehru effectively wrote off Indian interests without getting anything in return.

In 1955, Indonesia was the venue for a gathering of African and Asian rulers, including from the Koreas, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran and Turkey. Nehru saw himself as the senior anti-colonialist present, representing the country that was among the first–and certainly the biggest–to win freedom from European powers. But Zhou returned to Beijing with a growing conviction that the smooth and sugary talk of Indian officials was actually a cover for more nefarious activities being undertaken in sync with other nations out to destabilise China.

Zhou  returned to Delhi in 1956, and it was at this point he explicitly stated to Nehru how important Tibet was to Beijing–a veiled warning over any dealings that the clearly unhappy Dalai Lama might have with Delhi. By warning Nehru about the adverse consequences should the (then visiting) Dalai Lama decide to stay back in India, Zhou was in effect cautioning Nehru against offering asylum to the monk. During that same visit, Zhou urged his Indian hosts to accept the ‘colonial’ McMahon Line (a boundary China now rejects), pointing out that the Sino-Burmese frontier too was based on this line, and offering a border settlement based on this. Nehru, for reasons that remain obscure, declined to take the Chinese up on their offer.

Because of cuts in military spending and the fact that the Indian Intelligence Bureau expended the bulk of its efforts on uncovering political threats to those in power, Nehru’s intelligence agencies were, until 1958, unaware that the Chinese had completed a road within Kashmir that linked Xinjiang with Tibet, and claimed the territory through which the road passed (known locally as ‘Aksai Chin’). Nehru was furious when he discovered this land grab, and ordered the army to occupy as much of the area as it could. Such bravado was a little late in coming though, given that the Chinese had marched into an area that had been wholly undefended by India, despite being part of the Ladakh region of Kashmir. Indeed, there wasn’t a single Indian soldier or administrator on any of the lands taken over by China in the 1950s.

China, meanwhile, regarded itself as under threat from the United States and Britain since intervening in the Korean War to prevent a takeover of ally North Korea. And it had always regarded Nehru and his Congress Party as mere puppets of the former colonial powers, believing Delhi feigned independence to conceal its participation in efforts to ‘split’ the People’s Republic of China. The fact that the Dalai Lama and his followers received money from the CIA for several years following his move to India did nothing to dampen such fears.

The Consequences of Failure

The failure of Zhou and Nehru in establishing agreed boundaries came back to haunt the two countries, including their inability to agree on demarcation.

It was soon afterward, in 1959, perhaps out of pique, that Nehru made the momentous decision to offer asylum to the Dalai Lama. Mao saw this move as interference in China’s internal affairs and believed that in doing so, India had finally crossed a red line and made itself an enemy.

But Nehru went even further, giving his blessing to the setting up of a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, a picturesque town not far from the border with Tibet. This Central Tibetan Administration to this day continues to claim it is the true government of Tibet, an area that in its view includes not only the present Tibet Autonomous Region, but substantial parts of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan.

The CTA issues all Tibetans exiled in India a Green Book that is claimed to represent proof of ‘Tibetan’ statehood. And, since 1959,successive governments in India have continued the Nehruvian policy of permitting those Tibetans hostile to Beijing’s control to form a government in exile and to travel across the world propagating the ‘Free Tibet’ cause.

This approach brings praise from capitals from North America to Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand, although all of them combined have failed–by a substantial margin–to do as much for the Dalai Lama and his flock than impoverished India.

Yet while the rights and wrongs of the international community’s approach are still open for debate, one thing is not–the immense geopolitical costs of the decision for India, perhaps best epitomised in the Sino-Pakistan alliance.

The 1962 war resulted in a Line of Actual Control being formed, one that demarcated the effective boundary between India and China. But fast forward almost five decades, and China is yet to align its maps so as to reflect the ground reality. The reason is twofold: Pakistan fears that such an alignment would lead to a thinning out of Indian troops from the border with China, thus giving Delhi a greater number of forces that could be thrown into battle against Pakistan. Secondly, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to hold the border settlement in reserve until there is an overall Sino-Indian accord that takes care of the Tibetan question.

The 2008 unrest in Tibet pushed this issue to the centre of the international stage. Since then, and somewhat uncharacteristically, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has confronted Beijing on the issue of the Dalai Lama, sanctioning his recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, a state that Beijing regards as part of Tibet. The territory was the home of a former Dalai Lama and may yet be the home of the next. If so, it would lead to an interesting situation in which the foremost religious authority in Tibet is born in exile. And this, combined with the much shorter fuses of younger Tibetans outside the country, may create a mix that could prove explosive for Sino-Indian relations.

Rapprochement a Distant Prospect

Although Delhi has been eager to settle the boundary issue in order, in its words, to build trust between itself and Beijing, the reality is that the question is unlikely to be resolved unless there’s already trust between the two sides. Chinese suspicions over the Indian approach to the ‘Free Tibet’ movement, in addition to Indian anger at the nuclear and missile assistance given by China to Pakistan, are likely to continue to combine in a way that stamps out any hope that India will follow Russia in arriving at a rapprochement with China.

Beijing’s price for a border settlement and for normalisation of ties with India, meanwhile, is transparent if unexpressed–that India dismantle the Tibetan settlement in Dharamshala and request the Dalai Lama take up residence in another country. Within South Asia, India is now the only country that has placed the interests of the Tibetan diaspora above the desirability of better ties with China. Every other SAARC member, the latest being Nepal in 2008, has shut the door on those seeking a ‘free’ Tibet, if not in law, then in reality.

Meanwhile, the question of what will happen to the substantial Tibetan presence in India after the present Dalai Lama passes on has not been answered. For countries with a stake in ensuring that China be kept off-balance, it is immensely convenient to have Delhi pick up the geopolitical cost of backing the Dalai Lama, while the benefits flow to other countries. As for Tibetans in Tibet, the departure of the Dalai Lama has left them leaderless. Since the 1950s, Tibet has been in the process of being ‘Sinicized’ — so much so that in the next 40 years, less than a tenth of the population is expected to show any form of deference to the Lama system that has been the traditional way of governance in Tibet.

It is, of course, still possible that the question of Tibetan settlements could become a significant part of the basket of issues that will drive negotiations between India and China. The United States and the EU are fulsome in their praise (if largely in private) of India’s idealism and boldness in ‘standing up to China.’ This has led some policymakers in Delhi to express the view that if India followed the precedent of other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries, it would exact a big toll in terms of frostier relations with the US and the EU, not to mention Canada and Australia.

But the reality is that the China-oriented stance taken by Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and now Nepal have not made any difference in the texture of their relations with these countries, each of whom is individually attempting to ensure a cooperative relationship with Beijing. Unlike in the case of India-Pakistan relations, where both the US and EU have sought to interject themselves at frequent intervals, Western nations have typically steered clear of Sino-Indian issues — particularly those involving the Tibetan community resident in India.

And, with the Dalai Lama’s latest visit likely to have further enhanced the hold he has over the population of that Indian state, there’s no sign of these decades-standing tensions easing any time soon.