China’s Tibet handicap

China’s attitude to its own security is like the United States’, or of any great power in earlier times. It seeks absolute security, which means absolute insecurity for every other country, especially states in its vicinity. The chimerical nature of absolute security results in ever more aggressive, frenetic, and inventive efforts to achieve it, putting peace at risk in the extended region. India is a laggard in the great power race and, unlike China, defines its national security as territorial defence. Combined with a propensity to appease Beijing, it has resulted in a pitiful approach to tackling the ever-growing Chinese menace.

With such a mindset, there’s seemingly no insult by Beijing that New Delhi isn’t prepared to swallow, no provocation it isn’t willing to ignore, leading to uncontested consolidation of Chinese presence in India’s backyard — the Indian Ocean, and landward in Pakistan and Myanmar. The question arises: Is there anything that will get the Indian government and military to wake up from their self-induced stupor? Maps routinely show land and sea territory belonging to neighbours as Chinese, leading to still bigger claims. The Indian government dutifully protests such cartographic aggression, Beijing makes conciliatory noises without correcting the offending maps, and the issue dies down until the next time when another display of such brazen-ness is detected. This is the Chinese modus operandi to define and legitimate a greater China. India has suffered from this policy as have Southeast Asia and Japan, with the latest map, for instance, encompassing 130 more islands than in the last series of maps. It generates paranoia in Southeast Asia and the Far East, which New Delhi should fashion into a solid front, but hasn’t, believing that would be needlessly provocative.

Map-wise, Tibet constitutes more than half of mainland China and its status is disputable, especially as Chinese maps have depicted Arunachal Pradesh as ‘southern Tibet’. It should long ago have led India to show all of Tibet, including portions of eastern Tibet — the regions of Kham and Amdo merged into five Chinese provinces, in a different colour to indicate its indeterminate status. This map-rejig should have been in lock-step with New Delhi raising the issue of Tibet in bilateral meetings, pointing out that India had accepted Chinese sovereignty but only over the Tibet Autonomous Region, and insofar as Tibet does not enjoy true autonomy, New Delhi is not bound by the old formulation.

Logically, India’s leading an international movement for autonomy in Tibet that the Dalai Lama has campaigned for, should have followed. If, geopolitically, Southeast Asia is the ‘weak underbelly’ of China, the Tibet issue has the potential for ripping apart the Chinese pretence of peaceful assimilation, encouraging other suppressed peoples, like the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, to seek similar distancing from Beijing. Internal dissent and turmoil within China is, from the view of Asian states fearful of irredentist Chinese policies, a good thing to keep a growingly hegemonic Beijing distracted, preoccupied by internal problems.

It will highlight the matter of forcible assimilation of minorities that, in the words of Sun Yatsen, president of the first Chinese Republic of 1911, means ‘rubbing’ them out, which is precisely what the Communist Chinese regime has tried to do. Sixty-odd years of this policy of eliminating the distinct cultural and ethnic identity of Tibetans has bred anger and resulted in unending self-immolations, highlighting the bankruptcy of the Chinese policy of Han-ization. That a stream of young Tibetans — products of Chinese socialism with only distant memories of Lamaist traditions — are willing to kill themselves in this way has alarmed Beijing. The depth of Tibetan disillusionment and despair, the Chinese ruling cabal fears, will spread the discontent to other parts of that country.

The absence of an international response to Hitler’s holocaust against European Jewry still engenders much hand-wringing. The decimation of Tibetan culture and people pricks the international conscience but has so far generated precious little global pressure on Beijing to ‘cease and desist’ its inhumane practices in Tibet. Even the supposedly strongest power, the United States, has done little more than appoint an ornamental special representative for Tibet, even as a much reduced Europe is cowed by the fear of adverse Chinese reaction to any support for the Tibetan cause. India’s failure of nerve to lead the international charge against China on the issue of Tibet is nevertheless a major geostrategic opportunity to hinder Beijing’s march that’s being lost by a diffident New Delhi. It reflects India’s shrunken policy horizon and fear of adverse response. Except, what more can China do to needle India? It has not retreated from its cartographic adventurism. It has vetoed low-interest loans from the Asian Development Bank to fund development projects in Arunachal, persisted with its policy of providing assistance to insurgencies in Assam and the Indian northeast and safe-haven to rebel leaders, such as Paresh Barua, and nuclear missile-armed Pakistan.

In return, the Indian army brass, like the government, pooh-poohs, the Chinese threat, insisting that as long as the borders are inactive, there’s no threat from the north, while talking up distrust of a weak Pakistan. Indian defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma betakes himself to Beijing for the fifth annual strategic dialogue with China, and agrees on the resumption of joint military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army. Remaining engaged with China in the military sphere is no bad thing if, mirroring the Chinese tack, separate policy streams to seriously handicap China at every turn are also activated — fuelling the movement for a truly autonomous Tibet, ending the neo-colonial trade involving mainly export of Indian iron ore, and upgearing security cooperation with the US, Japan, and the Southeast Asian countries, including deals enabling Indian naval and air presence in the Philippines to bookend similar arrangements with Vietnam.

The Indian government and armed forces have still to appreciate the basic dictum of national security that an adversary is best neutralised far from home shores. Such thinking backed by appropriate force deployments will win New Delhi respect in Beijing, not a knavish attitude and posture.

[Published January 25, 2013 in the ‘New Indian Express’ at]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Pakistan, Pakistan military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to China’s Tibet handicap

  1. RV says:

    Great strategist, for whose consumption is this article?

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