Tibet and its neighbours: China’s stakes and India’s concerns

Tibet’s two giant neighbours, China and India, have a lot at stake in a meaningful settlement of the future of Tibet, and joint efforts need to be made for arriving at a mutually acceptable solution.

Since the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 and the subsequent flight of the 14th Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, to India, through the Himalayas, ‘Tibet’ has become a subject of global socio-political discourse. Much has been written and debated about the historicity of the contending claims made by the Tibetans and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as the status of those living within the confines of that geographical entity itself. For the sake of clarity ‘Tibet’, in this paper, would refer to the region before 1950, wherein it included all the areas of the present-day Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and the Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties amalgamated, in 1965, with the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan in the PRC.

Pro-Tibet Rally held in Delhi to commemorate Human Rights Day.
Demotix/Louis Dowse. All rights reserved.

It is worth considering the role to be played by the neighbouring countries in such dispute resolution and facing the consequences in its aftermath. In the case of the latter, the action/inaction of India would have significant ramifications for both parties since it has become directly involved in this dispute by giving political sanctuary to the Dalai Lama, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the Tibetan émigré population. To a certain extent, the role played by the USA-led western powers also has to be taken into account to determine the PRC’s response, especially in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s renunciation of temporal authority to a directly elected Prime Minister in 2011, and the emergence of the Fifth generation of leaders in the PRC following the conclusion of the Eighteenth Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November, 2012.

Covering a total geographical area of 2.5 million square kilometres, Tibet has a population of six million, of which 2.09 million live in the TAR, and the rest outside it. In 1950, before the Chinese takeover, Tibet was divided into three main geographical regions: U-Tsang, comprising mostly the TAR; Amdo, including parts of present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces; and Kham, having parts of the TAR, Sichuan and Yunnan. According to the PRC’s estimates for 2007, the population of the TAR stood at 2.84 million, of which more than 2.5 million were Tibetans. Following the Uprising against the PRC rule in 1959, the Dalai Lama’s asylum in India, and incessant localised struggles carried on by the hardy Khampa guerrillas, the PRC authorities decided it in their best interests to divide the entire area into smaller regions and assimilate them into the neighbouring provinces so as to make the Tibetans a minority in their respective regions. What remained of Tibet was the TAR, which has been governed with an iron grip by the provincial bureau of the CPC ever since. 

Divergent views over history

An observer of Tibetan affairs is always caught in a dilemma. As Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama in 1997, “Typical of nationalistic conflicts, the struggle to control territory has been matched by a struggle to control the representations of history and current events. Both sides (and their foreign supporters) regularly portray events in highly emotional and often disingenuous terms intended to shape international perceptions and win sympathy for their cause”. Looking back, what both sides agree to has been the Mongol rule over all of China, including Tibet, under the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 AD). It is only the period thereafter that the debate over the nature of the relationship between the Sino-centric world order, centred on the person of the ‘Son of Heaven’ (the emperor), and the rulers of the peripheral regions, like Tibet, emerges. The Chinese state since the times of the Qing dynasty has laid claims to rule over all areas governed by the Yuan dynasty, and this has been the dominant position taken by the PRC also.

However, the Tibetan position on this issue challenges the very notion of Chinese suzerainty. They argue that Tibet has always been an independent country and the Yuan dynasty was nothing but an interlude. According to the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, in The Mongols and Tibet: A Historical Assessment of Relations between the Mongol Empire and Tibet (2009) - ‘In the first place, the Mongols were and are a race distinct from the Chinese; and their empire was a Mongol empire, not a Chinese empire……China can hardly claim credit for the conquests of the Mongols in Europe or Asia”. Rather than a relationship based upon that of an imperium and a vassal, it was one of Cho-Yon, or Priest-Patron. “This unique central Asian symbiosis entailed the protection and making of offerings by the secular patron to his spiritual teacher and master, in return for religious teachings and the bestowal of spiritual protection and blessings by the lama to his patron”. The granting of honorific titles by either side should be seen through the prism of expressions of mutual respect and recognition. The best cited examples are that of the Mongol prince, Altan Khan, giving the title of Tale (Dalai) Lama meaning Ocean of Wisdom, in 1578, to his spiritual teacher, Sonam Gyatso, and the Fifth Dalai Lama giving the title of Dharma Raja to his patron Gushri Khan in 1642. Such practices were continued even later under the Ming and the Qing emperors with the Tibetans. Therefore, the very basis of the PRC’s claims, according to the CTA, of claiming sovereignty over Tibet is untenable.

Various claims made on the extent of Tibet.
Wikimedia/University of Texas Libraries. Some rights reserved.

China’s interests in Tibet

The Chinese have always viewed themselves as the proud inhabitants of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (Zhong guo) around which the rest of the world revolved. This Sino-centric world system endured for centuries due to the existence of a strong bureaucracy selected through tough examinations, based upon a thorough study of the Confucian traditions. This bureaucracy had survived dynastic changes, through millennia, and provided a sort of continuity into the formulation of domestic and foreign policies of the imperial court. The first rude shock to this entire concept of infallibility of the imperium came with the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 AD, when the Europeans extracted tough concessions from the Qing court on the opening up of trading ports along China’s eastern seaboard. There was a perceptible difference in the Chinese psyche at looking at foreigners. While they still considered the Yuan and the Qing dynasties to be non-Chinese, they also realised that these rulers had settled down in China and adopted the local customs and traditions in governing the empire. The problem with the Europeans, and later, the Americans and the Japanese, was that they came to rob the natives of their resources and showed an utter contempt for their local culture, history and emotional sensitivities. The feeling of ‘national humiliation’ became entrenched in the minds of the people. The urge grew to regain the lost glory of the Zhong guo.

Tibet also came to be seen as an integral part of the motherland, which a few recalcitrant chiefs along with the help of the British in India were trying to sever away. The Younghusband expedition of 1904, to Lhasa, culminating in the Simla Convention of 1914, showed the malign intentions of these foreigners in nibbling away Chinese territory. The Japanese occupation of China in the 1930’s and 40’s further cemented this determination to unify the motherland at all costs. This was one of the driving factors for Mao to send the Red Army in ‘to peacefully liberate Tibet’ in 1950. It was an attempt to end the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1839/40-1949 AD). As John W. Garver writes in his Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, (2001) ‘The concept of “suzerainty”, with its implied limitation of China’s presence in Tibet, was rejected as an instrument of imperialist aggression against China. China’s government would now exercise absolute and unlimited - that is, sovereign - authority over Tibet’.

Connected to this political goal, there was also an economic dimension attached to Mao’s efforts in integrating Tibet to the PRC. On 25 April, 1956, Mao outlined his policy towards the minority areas in his speech On the Ten Major Relationships to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC. ‘We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; as a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich, or at least in all probability their resources under the soil are rich…..We must foster good relations between the Han nationality and the minority nationalities and strengthen the unity of all the nationalities in the common endeavour to build our great socialist motherland’. There was a clear indication of the need for exploiting the vast natural resources of the sparsely populated minority areas, which amount to nearly 60 percent of the PRC, to cater to the Han majority population concentrated in the areas along the eastern coast. Tibet is home to some of the life-giving rivers of East, South and Southeast Asia; such as the Yangtze, Lancang/Mekong, Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra, Nu/Salween etc. The exploitable hydropower potential is around 56.59 million kilowatts, about 15 percent of the PRC’s total reserves. In terms of geothermal energy, the Yangbajain geothermal field in Damxung County, Lhasa, is the largest high temperature steam geothermal field in the PRC, and one of the largest in the world. Tibet also has about ninety types of important minerals of which eleven minerals, including chromium, iron, copper, boron and lithium, rank among the top five in China. Graver concludes, ‘From a Chinese nationalist perspective, if the Chinese people are to raise themselves to prosperity and international prominence, they must exploit Tibet and its resources. This is a powerful, though typically unspoken, incentive for the Chinese to conclude that Tibetans are Chinese and that the ancestral land of the Tibetans is rightfully part of China’. 

India’s position in the Sino-Tibet imbroglio

The British in India were always paranoid about political instability in their dominion owing to outside influences from the Russians and the Chinese. They tried to create buffers along the entire trans-Himalayan cum Karakoram region to safeguard the fertile Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra valleys. In this scheme, with respect to China, influence over Tibet was important. While Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim provided the immediate cushion, Tibet was integral to keep the Qing empire at a great distance from their economic interests in Assam, the Terai region etc. arising out of tea, oil, timber and other commodities.

As mentioned above, the Younghusband expedition of 1904 to Lhasa as well as the Simla Convention of 1914 were aimed at securing a strategic foothold in the Pamir plateau and furthering vested economic interests. Although they strictly adhered to this policy, the British never acceded to the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s demand for explicitly recognising Tibet as a sovereign entity.

This ambiguity was skilfully exploited by Mao to the detriment of the Tibetans themselves. India being the successor state of the British Raj inherited the Tibet problem. However, there was no longterm coherent policy to deal with it. Independent India neither had the means nor the will to play another Great Game with Red China. Pandit Nehru renounced all the special privileges India had enjoyed over Tibet since the early twentieth century and strove to create a strong working partnership with the Communist regime at Beijing. However, he erred in taking up a moralistic approach towards international relations. He could not win China’s trust over non-interference in Tibet by failing to quell the rising nationalistic clamour among the right-wing Indian politicians calling for strong counter-measures. The granting of political asylum to the fourteenth Dalai Lama in India in 1959, along with Nehru’s personal meeting with the former, finally cemented the PRC’s suspicions about Indian ulterior motives to break up their motherland. The Sino-Indian border row of 1962 was also partly influenced by the Tibet issue. Mao, in a meeting with his top deputies on 25 March 1959, blamed India for the Tibetan Uprising. In a subsequent commentary released by the Xinhua News Agency, on 6 May 1959, he accused Nehru of aiding the ‘rebels’, ‘arguing that Nehru and the “bourgeoisie” in India had sought to maintain Tibet as a buffer zone and restore its semi-independent status’.

Indian policy vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama has been influenced by its deep-rooted notions of its Golden Age in history. As Garver comments, ‘The modern Indian nationalist narrative sees Tibet as part of India’s historic sphere of cultural influence’. Tibetan Buddhism came out of a synthesis of the local Bon religion, on the one hand, and the influence of Indian Buddhism and Hindu Tantricism, on the other. Even the Tibetan script is derived from Sanskrit. Garver argues that it is the systematic upstaging of this Indian-influenced Tibetan culture by the Chinese, through the use of every means possible, which has caused much heartburn in India.

Prayers flags abound along the Tibetan hills and mountain paths during the holy month of Saga Dawa. Demotix/Kalpana Kartik. All rights reserved

Officially, India has maintained its position that the Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader and an honoured guest. The CTA/Tibetan government-in-exile is treated as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) looking after the well-being of the Tibetan diaspora in India and abroad. Political activities aimed against the PRC are strictly regulated by the Indian government; something which it also emphasises upon in its talks with the PRC authorities, to show Indian neutrality. However, what cannot be overlooked is that both China and India are emerging great powers, struggling for spheres of influences in their immediate peripheries that in many cases overlap. Out of this competition, both will try to safeguard its interests and thwart the motives of the other in intruding upon their ‘legitimate space’. The relative strength of one would also depend on to what extent it could cause immense harm to the other when the need arises. Such potential devices could also be used as bargaining chips to balance each other. Tibet could be used as one such card by India, in the future, if the PRC threatens its national interests. One of the possible flare-ups could a border dispute between them. Another might be a post-fourteenth Dalai Lama scenario, when China would nominate its own protégé and try to settle the Tibetonce and for all. Radical Tibetan groups might try to use Indian soil to hit at the PRC through violence. The Indian response to such issues has to be well thought out and calibrated from now on.


Tibet’s political future as an independent nation-state, as of now, looks uncertain. The Chinese look upon time through the lens oflong duree. They are willing to wait for the opportune moment as long as possible to settle the issue to their liking and advantage. Their stand against Splittism, i.e. splitting away Tibet from the PRC, remains firm. They will not even budge an inch to accommodate the Dalai Lama’s call for genuine autonomy through his Middle Path approach. Since he is ageing, they are willing to wait for a few more years till his demise and appoint their own nominee as his successor. That would leave the CTA and its appointee with no legitimacy to conduct negotiations of any sort. The matter would end there.

Basically, the PRC leaders want to resolve things through a position of unassailable strength by bulldozing the opposition into accepting its will. The Dalai Lama, having sensed this, has instituted two major political reforms. Firstly, he promoted direct elections for the post of the Prime Minister (Kalon Tripa) of the CTA in 2001. Secondly, he devolved all of his temporal power to theKalon Tripa and the Kashag (cabinet) in 2011, and went into a state of semi-retirement. He also stated the re-incarnation issue would be dealt with when he was ninety years of age, i.e. roughly a decade later. This meant that the new dispensation would have enough time to entrench itself in the political sphere and earn its legitimacy among all Tibetans and the outside world as the sole spokesperson on Tibetan affairs.

This would nullify the PRC’s attempts to appoint the fifteenth Dalai Lama themselves. Given the way the Dalai Lama has conducted himself, it can be said that he has still some cards up his sleeves. The best way possible would be a compromise between the Middle Path and Chinese calls for a solution within the confines of the PRC. The ball lies in the PRC’s court. The recent spate of self-immolations in the Aba Prefecture of Sichuan province, and elsewhere in the Tibetan inhabited areas outside the TAR, is a pointer to deep-seated resentment against the policies of the PRC clamping down on the practice of Tibet’s culture, language and religion. The CPC has tried to portray this as a crime incited by the agents of the Dalai Lama. On the sidelines of the 18th Party Congress of the CPC, officials of the Tibetan Bureau pointed out the new measures taken to improve the lives of the people; including the building of 330,000 out of a target of 400,000 homes for farmers and herdsmen, providing social security for the monks etc.

Tibetan monks gather to show solidarity with those who self-immolated.
Demotix/Louis Dowse. All rights reserved.

What these measures mean is that the CPC is still wary of the challenges emanating from Tibet’s burning cauldron. The resumption of the composite dialogue process with the Dalai Lama and the CTA is a must for approaching any meaningful settlement in the future. Tibet’s two giant neighbours, China and India, have a lot at stake and joint efforts need to be made for arriving at a mutually acceptable solution.

About the author

Ambuj Thakur is a doctoral student in the Chinese division of the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.