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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

The India - China - Tibet Triangle

Sunday 23 December 2018

by Madhuri Santanam Sondhi

Historical and Strategic Background

About the significance of Tibet in India-China Territorial Disputes, perhaps I can start by reminding ourselves of a few familiar facts—

1. In contemporary times, and I stress this because it was not always so, Tibet, China and India constitute a strategic triangle—a triangularity dictated by recent history and a geography that has endowed Tibet with immense natural wealth including water and mineral resources.

2. For China Tibet, along with these resources, vastly increases her cartographic presence, provides lebensraum or living space for her dense population and gives her immense strategic advantage, especially over the countries of South and South-East Asia.

3. Although in contemporary times both China and India are described as civilisation-states, India’s is more of a salad bowl, a diversity in an overall unity, whereas China, with far fewer minorities, is like a roughly blended soup, driven as she is by a compulsive need for homogenisation.

4. If, as the Report1 released today emphasises, Tibet was never a part of China, then China’s takeover was nothing short of blatant imperialism. But paradoxically, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, the term imperialism is reserved for overseas annexations of territory: contiguous land annexation somehow escapes this categorisation. So when China annexed Tibet or Mongolia, or when the erstwhile Soviet Union absorbed the countries of Central Asia and brought those of Eastern Europe under her control, did not attract the same opprobrium as the European powers for colonising trans-Mediterranean and trans-Oceanic countries.

5. At the start of her now almost 60 years occupation of Tibet, China used the language of communism and liberation to justify her military takeover; during her ferocious attempts to stamp out Buddhism and control the plateau, Tibetans lost one-sixth of their population. Yet despite largescale persecution of the landed class, destruction of monasteries, indoctrination of monks, nuns and laymen et al., China’sattempts at ideological conversion were a spectacular failure. This, combined with her own distancing from orthodox Marxism, led China, amongst other things, having failed to abolish them to control Tibetan religious institutions including lama reincarnations, substitute Chinese for the Tibetan language and control the local population through economic disadvantaging and forcible sterilisation, drowning the remainder in waves of Han settlers.

6. Methods for achieving the above are spelt out in detail in the Report released today, such as radical reorganisation or gerrymandering of Tibetan into Chinese provinces, imposition of Chinese over local administration, state takeover of land and properties, suppression of human rights, subversion, if not Sinicisation, of Tibetan culture, militarisation of the plateau and, last but not the least, Chinese demographic infiltration.

7. Despite her professed atheism China lays political and territorial claim to the entire religio-cultural universe of Tibetan Buddhism, to areas of the cis-Himalaya like Aksai Chin or parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh which were not governed from Lhasa but connected monastically with Tibetan religious centres. By the same logic she might tomorrow lay claim to parts of Karnataka, Himachal, Odisha and other Tibetan settlements in India!

8. As Tibetologist Elliott Sperling points out, the border claims of India, Tibet, China are today couched in the language and reifications of modernity selectively superimposed over a relatively amorphous and shifting historical landscape of power and custom. Thus while China maintains that for centuries Tibet and the Chinese mainland were one seamless entity despite a few fights and differences, and separated only during periods of mainland confusion and weakness as during the so-called Century of Humiliation, Tibetans not only stress a distinct ethnic and cultural background, but an independent history. Tibet’s early history is of an active military power as when King Songtsen Gampo in the 8th century conquered the then capital of China at Ch’ang-an (present-day Xian); after her conversion to Buddhism Tibet abandoned war and instead her lamas became spiritual teachers to several of her more aggressive neighbours. Thus the special Cho-yon relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Manchu emperor lasted up till the 19th century, regardless of the vagaries of political power between the concerned nations. Regrettably the British introduced the Western concept of suzerainty, that is, sovereignty over an internally autonomous state, to describe this Cho-yon relationship, excising it from its cultural context and giving it a politically linear interpretation.

9. For the record, Tibet’s sovereignty in modern terms was exemplified in her treaty-making powers as with Kashmir in 1642 (during China’s Ming rule), and with Ladakh in 1852 and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1894 (during the Manchu period). There is no ambiguity about the 1913 proclamation by the 13th Dalai Lama declaring Tibet to be a sovereign independent country, or the 1913 Treaty between Tibet and Mongolia and Tibet’s participation in the British-initiated Shimla negotiations along with China in 1914. It is also important to note that even when defeated by neighbouring powers, Tibet was never administered by any of them in the manner, say, India was administered by British colonisers right down to the village level. The Chinese Ambans stationed in Lhasa were influential ambassadors of a strong power, not Viceroys, and though they might have tried interfering in the Golden Urn selection process of the Dalai Lama with greater or lesser success, in no sense did they govern or administer the country.

Present Impasse

The porous pre-Westphalian Indo-Tibet ‘border’ was used by generations of Tibetans and Indians for trade, pilgrimage, religious and educational purposes. But post the MacMahon demarcation and China’s occupation of Tibet it has become a point of contestation.

A publication of the Australian Defence College2 concerning the territorial dispute between India and China3 shows how Tibet and Tibetans have emerged as the centre of a strategic stalemate between India and China which constitutes a “relatively stable but tense security status quo”.

This also contains what might be described as a not-so-frozen Tibetan sub-triangle—constituting the Dalai Lama-in-exile, Tibetans inside Tibet, and Tibetan refugees living in India and abroad under the umbrella of an elected Central Tibetan Administration.4 With the fading dream of an immediate return to Tibet, many exiles are integrating into, or acquiring citizenship of, the new countries that have adopted them, but still remain vocal and active propagandists for their country of origin. Indeed the CTA also runs an active foreign policy department if one may call it that, which apart from informal diplomacy and propaganda tries to keep lines of information open to the Tibetan mainland—for sure, now increasingly difficult.

India, slow in responding to China’s presence on her northern border, also does not appear to have shown great urgency in attempting to bring the Tibet or border problem to some conclusion. As it happens, Tibet is the only effective card India can play against China, especially after her ignominious military defeat in 1962. But there is no satisfactory explanation as to why she not only refrained from taking up the Tibet issue at the UN much before 1962 but positively discouraged other countries from doing so. (Nor has she raised the issue at Asian forums.)

As of today, India is militarily no match for China: not only does China have the second strongest military in the world after the US, but her location on the high plateau of Tibet now bristling with airports, railways and road communications gives her incomparable geographical and logistical advantages. Recently India has indeed made serious efforts at improving her infrastructure and communi-cations and shoring up her defences in the cis-Himalaya, but she has much catching-up to do.

India, China and Tibetan Initiatives

China remains suspicious of India that she still harbours ideas of an independent Tibet. Thus at every session of the India-China border talks she asks India to formally declare her recognition of Tibet as part of China, although India has not managed to get reciprocal recognition of the cis-Himalayan states as part of India—not even of Sikkim. Only when current Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj failed to get a declaration from China that PoK is part of India—an area where both Pakistan and China hold territories claimed by India—did the Indian side stop obliging China.

It may be recalled that there was considerable commotion on August 10, 2013 over the Shyam Saran report.5 Leaks talked of some 654 sq km territory ceded to China over the years. According to a Government of India response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Chinese transgressions into India increased from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017. The most famous such crossover of Chinese troops was in 2014 when Prime Minister Modi was hosting President Xi in Gujarat.

Some analysts argue that given her unfinished business in Tibet, China as of now prefers an undefined border with India: it justifies her enormous military presence on the plateau and her tight police surveillance over its inhabitants. By keeping the border dispute alive she can pressure India to prevail upon the exiles to refrain from political activities about which she is extremely sensitive. She herself can make new claims as exigencies arise—as, for example, on Arunachal which came as late as 2005—if not later.

India, for her part, while keeping the Tibetan refugees on leash as it were, occasionally, as circumstances seem to demand, allows them to growl at China. And China remains suspicious of India’s intentions in harbouring the exiles, believing it is done to encourage Tibetan ‘separatism’—and constantly demands curbs on their political activities.

The recent contretemps at Doklam provides a good illustration of this mutual deterrence: the new Indian Government started off in a fairly robust way by inviting Dr Lobsang Sangay to the Prime Minister’s oath-taking ceremony, and encouraged His Holiness to visit Arunachal Pradesh where he was received with great warmth and acclamation. This sent alarm signals to the Chinese who claim Arunachal as ‘southern Tibet’ and triggered the Doklam faceoff. Lt. Gen (retd) Prakash Menon and Anirudh Kanisetti6 have described this episode, contrary to official propaganda, as ending unfavourably for India. Certainly since then India has been far more circumspect with regard to visits by the Dalai Lama to this area, and cancelled the holding of a Tibetan ‘Thank You’ event in New Delhi, not to mention the flip flop over whether, thanks to the Chinese representative’s objections, Minister Kiren Rijuju should attend India-China bilateral security talks concerning Arunachal or not. (Ultimately, he did.) It might be simplistic to allege that the Modi Government’s aforementioned ‘provocations’ were the sole reason for precipitating the Doklam crisis—it is located in a strategically sensitive area and has been an important bone of contention between Bhutan, India and China for a long time, but the timing of the event—and India’s behaviour towards the Tibetans after Wuhan—seems to convey its own message.

China also seems to have a matching card against India in her long-standing ally, nuclearised Pakistan, under the effective control of an Army and host to numerous terrorist organisations. Apart from the current crisis in the Valley, Pakistan has ceded territory to China in Sindh and acquiesced in the Belt and Road route through her territory—though one also hears some rumbles of discontent with regard to the last. India has always, wrongly, as Prof M.L. Sondhi was wont to say, regarded Pakistan as her main security threat, and Bharat Karnad, in his recent publication Staggering Forward, also critiques the over-hyped menace from Nuclear Pakistan.7

Be that as it may, neither China nor India have shown much interest in seriously disturbing the status quo along the northern border over the past half-a-century. They maintain a strong trade relationship—tilted in favour of China and substantial enough to act as a deterrent to much military adventurism. Despite pinpricks or worse, the overall situation between the two countries seems to demand preservation of the status quo with border incursions as part of the package.

New Initiatives and the Future

Yet because the India-China stalemate has held roughly since 1962, there is no guarantee that it will continue despite the latest India-China “reset”. Although the BJP Government would not welcome an incident on the eve of the 2019 elections, the Chinese, as Lt Gen Prakash Katoch has speculated,8 might want just that if it suits them.

There are, however, a few pointers towards some new movement in the status quo, but where it will all lead is as yet anyone’s guess:

1. At some time in the late eighties His Holiness announced to the world a new Middle Way policy—abjuring the demand for total independence and modifying it to ‘genuine autonomy’ for Tibet. This was followed by several fact-finding and explorative Tibetan missions to China, but they achieved little.

2. More recently in 2017 the CTA launched the Five-Fifty Vision, popularly translated as a policy of ‘Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst’. This vision-statement aims to maximise the CTA’s efforts to resolve the Tibet issue in five years based on the Middle Way approach. The CTA’s goal is the creation of a Tibetan political entity within China with genuine regional autonomy maintained as a zone of peace. Other long-standing demands include de-militarisation of the plateau, responsibility for internal security and the environment, maintaining Tibetan as the main language and removal of all ‘illegal immigrants’ (that is, mostly Hans) from the plateau. Ideally, and depending on its acceptance by local Tibetans, they would like their experience of democracy to be replicated within Tibet. There has also been talk of the return of His Holiness to his ‘rightful home’. Tibet is no longer the same country it was sixty years back, reorganised and carved into a shrunken TAR with other regions like Amdo having parts hived off into three Chinese provinces. Thus there is a huge agenda for negotiation.

3. Otherwise or concurrently, the Vision entails that exiles cultivate the resilience to sustain the Tibetan freedom struggle and preserve Tibetan culture for the next fifty years, if necessary.

4. Last fall the Ven. Samdong Rimpoche, former head of the CTA, is said to have met Beijing’s representatives to explore the possibilities of a visit by the Dalai Lama to Tibet and according to a recent Al Arabiya report of October 21 published from UAE (which does not seem to have been picked up by the Indian press), the head of a five-member parliamentary delegation confirmed that backdoor talks with China are on with the blessings of the Indian Government. This seems to indicate a coordinated explorative effort by China, India and Tibet towards breaking the stalemate.


The centrality of Tibet to the India-China dispute is undeniable.

1. China accepts in practice, though not in principle, that the border between India and China is a border between India and Tibet.

2. The Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy aims at winning autonomy and a breathing space for Tibet, which will also contribute to better relations between China and India. Every mountain height and pass in the Himalayan border will cease be a bone of contention if Tibet is at peace and demilitarised. But given that the Chinese Communist state has been diluting the one-country two systems deal for Hong Kong, it is not obvious that she would commit to any type of genuine federal or democratic structure for Tibet.

3. Moreover, the current Chinese regime with its far-flung network of interests and intense internal controls, given historical precedents, can be expected to come up against issues arising out of compulsions of economy, ideology, territory or whatever. Technological, economic and political developments are known to have undermined powerful but unwieldy regimes such as those of the Soviet Union and Britain in the last century.

Lastly, while it is important—not only for Tibetans but for all who deal with China, and given her economic clout today this means practically the whole world—to understand China’s political agenda, terminology and her modus operandi especially in her international dealings, it is also important to subsume all these processes under the principles of the UN Charter to which China is a signatory, but which do not match with China’s Middle Kingdom-centred concepts. If the Middle Kingdom in practice entails imperialistic behaviour with regard to territory, language, culture or whatever, then it is important to call its bluff. By using the other’s terminology one has already conceded half the argument. China understands this only too well and constantly employs and repeats her own narrative to cover actions that may be regarded as against the world order. As I was advised by Father Bochenski, SJ, who ran the Institute of Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg during the mid-sixties after I had made a small presentation on Tibet—never use anyone else’s toothbrush!

In this context I may also draw attention to the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on the importance of studying history to effectively answer China’s historical and cartographical claims. Prof Hon Shiang Lau, formerly of the City University of Hong Kong, has drawn attention to certain historical records and maps of the Yuan (1279 -1368) and Ming (1364-1644) dynasties which demonstrate that China never depicted Tibet as within her national boundaries. Instead, quoting from Chinese sources, Prof Lau mentions that Tibetans were listed as “foreign Foreigners” along with a host of inhabitants from different areas.

The Dalai Lama has also spoken of his interest in the egalitarian ethos of Marxism and the possibility of integrating it into the Buddhist world view. In a somewhat bowdlerised manner this issue was taken up by China last month when she hosted a meeting of the World Buddhist Forum at Putian in Fujian Province. One of the themes discussed there was how to adapt Buddhism to socialist society, in particular how to integrate it with the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’!9 But perhaps the Chinese presenter was unaware that it was precisely along the old Silk Route that not only Chinese silks and tea travelled outwards to foreign countries, but that their cultures travelled back to China, one of the prime imports being Buddhism. If he was aware, then he was indeed making a strong but subversive historically grounded case!

[Based on remarks delivered on the occasion of the Panel Discussion on ‘Changing Geo-Politics: Why Tibet Remains the Core Issue in India-China Relations’, organised by the Central Tibetan Administration, at New Delhi on October 29, 2018]


1. Tibet was Never a Part of China but theMiddle Way Approach Remains a viable Solution (Dept. of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration, (Dharamshala October 2018)

2. February 2015

3. Commodore Katherine Richards, CSC, RAN, China-India: an analysis of the Himalayan territorial dispute, (Indo-Pacific Strategic Papers, February 2015) The Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies (CDSS)Australian Defence College.

4. With the Dalai Lama handing over political leadership to a democratically elected Tibetan government or administration in exile based in Dharamshala and headed by a Sikyong or Chief Executive, the second triangle may as of now look more rectangular since the Dalai Lama still commands enormous salience not only amongst Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, but in China and in the international community. However the overall intention is to evolve towards a single source of political authority.

5. The Report, submitted to Defence Minister A.K. Antony, talked of India’s willing surrender of hundreds of square kms of Indian territory to China in Ladakh.

6. Takshashila Discussion Document, September 12, 2018, Takshashila Institution

7. Bharat Karnad, Staggering Forward, Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, (Penguin/Viking 2018).

8. Prakash Katoch, ‘Will China deliver a strategic shock to India before elections?’, Asia Times, August 16, 2018.

9. Claude Arpi, ‘The Chinese Dichotomy,’ Daily Pioneer, Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The author is a well-known scholar in philosophy. She is the Founding Trustee of the Prof M.L. Sondhi Trust and Director of the M.L. Sondhi Institute for Asia-Pacific Affairs.

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