The border clashes between India and China, that has cost the lives of troops on both sides, is a pointer to the larger seesaw power game between the two countries for over six decades now. It is all about bargaining power and the degree of leverage one country has over the other.
In this game of thrones, China seems to be gaining over India. One key pawn that New Delhi historically used as leverage, Tibet, seems to be missing from the equation now. As for Beijing, in the last few years, it has shrewdly consolidated its control over Tibet and built special bridges of friendship with countries that India always considered to be its allies, pertinently Nepal and Bhutan.
After 1959, when Chinese troops occupied Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India along with thousands of fellow-Tibetans, the rulers in Beijing realised that this could be used by New Delhi to its advantage. This, notwithstanding the fact that India had already recognised Tibet as being part of China in 1950.
At the time, India and China were almost similar in terms of their population, economic status and military prowess. According to economist Thomas E Weisskopf in the Economic and Political Weekly, “Each entered the post-War era of development as a predominantly agrarian society, with an extremely low level of per capita output and correspondingly widespread poverty.”
For China, holding on to Tibet after occupying it in 1950 was a huge challenge as there was massive resistance from the local populace. In 1954, there was the Kanting revolt involving 40,000 Tibetans. In the four years until 1958, thousands of Chinese troops were killed by Tibetan guerrillas, until Beijing sent in more troops a year later and fought off the resistance.
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If resistance challenged the hold of the Chinese, more crucially the Himalayan topography made Tibet more accessible from India rather than China. Theoretically, this meant that if India wanted to intervene in Tibet or allow Tibetan resistance fighters into China it could be done easily – through the eastern border near Sikkim and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The advantage at the time was in India’s favour. The Chinese themselves reportedly used these routes to access Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
In fact, Indian strategists in the then government of Jawaharlal Nehru were confident they could easily take on China which, according to historian Neville Maxwell, led to New Delhi’s adventurism on the border, resulting in the 1962 war.
The war went in China’s favour and since then the dispute along parts of the nearly 3500 km long border has continued to fester. There was one big flare-up, which some describe as a limited conflict, again in 1967 that again saw big casualties on both sides. Whatever goodwill existed between the two countries until 1962 had all but disappeared. Post-1962, at best, relations have been civil and minimally friendly, and at worst, suffers from mutual suspicion and distrust.
From then to now, the overall scenario has changed almost unbelievably. China has raced ahead to become a huge power – politically, economically and militarily – to a point where it is now spoken of in the same breath as the United States and developed nations of western Europe. India has inched forward, developed in fits and starts and overall has remained a distant second, and patronisingly termed an emerging economy.
Tibet, meanwhile, has kept China busy. Without much fanfare, China has discreetly gone about scotching the resistance out of Tibet, populating it with the mainland Chinese to a point where the demographics in the region were altered in its favour. According to the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organisation (UNPO), there are six million ethnic Tibetans and 7.5 million Chinese in the Tibetan region.
Beijing has also poured large amounts of money, injected industrialisation and educational facilities into Tibet with the result that the region today has almost been mainstreamed with the rest of China, a process called Sinicization.
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Media reports in 2018, quoting Chinese official figures, said Beijing had spent upwards of $450 million over nearly four decades in a facelift to Tibet’s major monasteries and was planning a nearly $300 million spend until 2023. More is on the anvil. Over the next few years, the Chinese government has budgeted nearly $100 billion, no less, for major infrastructure projects including an array of highways and airports, at a height of 13,000 feet above sea level.
These developments have meant that India’s ability to influence events in Tibet has all but evaporated. The Tibetan government in exile, based in India’s Dharamsala, remains a mere figurehead while the thousands of exiles from the Himalayan region dream of returning to an “independent” homeland some day. The Dalai Lama has, for long, given up the demand for total Tibetan independence instead asking for autonomy.
Compared to India’s complacency, China, meanwhile, has continued to plan its strategy to ensure that it never loses control of Tibet. To get over the geographical disadvantage of access to Tibet, it has built at least four highways – Qinghai-Tibet, Sichuan-Tibet, Xinjiang-Tibet and Yunan-Tibet – that now link the territory to mainland China. In addition, it has constructed a spectacular railway line – Qinghai-Tibet – that alone, according to some reports, has the potential to bring in 70,000 people every month into Tibet.
It has also turned around a potential disadvantage into strength by its friendly overtures to Nepal including aiding it generously and helping Kathmandu in times of crisis as in 2015 during the economic blockade with India. In the case of Bhutan, China has offered to swap land – offering more in return for less. If that comes through, China will have the advantage of easier access to Indian territory.
Except for Sikkim, which the then government of Indira Gandhi strategically subsumed into India in 1975, the rest of the border – on the eastern front and to the north of India has been defanged by China.
The moot point is India has lost a crucial bargaining chip in the form of Tibet, as it no longer poses the kind of threat it did to China even at the turn of this century. This frees up Beijing to try occupying the undefined border with India as much as possible to gain vantage points that will further its hold over the entire Himalayan region and gain long-term advantage.
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It is for this reason that Beijing opposed the August 2019 action of the Indian government to abrogate the special status to Kashmir. New Delhi’s direct control over Ladakh, now a union territory, troubles Beijing even though it is only a politico-administrative re-arrangement internal to India. China’s opposition indicates the high-level of sensitivity with which it views any change in its border with India. The recent clashes at Galwan show it will go to any extent to protect its interests, even at the risk of an enlarged conflict.
As for India, with Tibet no longer in its armoury, all that it has now is on the trade front in the form of a sizable market to Chinese goods. However, from a Chinese perspective, its exports to India account for a mere three percent of its overall exports and that may not mean much.
Or, another factor in New Delhi’s favour could be its alliance with the US-led western front including Australia, Japan and Singapore. But each of these countries has its own robust relationship with China and cannot be depended upon to come to India’s aid during a crisis. Is India therefore left clutching at a straw?