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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

RIC Triangle and Tibet’s Political Aspirations

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

‘Look East’ is a phrase which pops up occasionally among the Asian nations whenever they seek to counter Western dominance and the West’s vested agenda. The possible reason for this East-ward inclination could be the internal geo-polity of Asia and the domestic situation of a particular nation. Whatever may be the case, the regions like Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang which are fighting a battle for autonomy under the Chinese regimen, are pushed to redraw their strategy in the light of the changed geo-political environment. Their political aspirations, at the same time, can be perceived as a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of a nation and a blessing for others. This commentary explores the emerging political aspiration of Tibet by triangulating the territorial ambitions of both Beijing and Moscow in view of the RIC (Russia-India-China) relationship.

The analogy of a triangle always has a strong conceptual premise to bring in new perspectives and fresh debates regarding the political aspirations of Tibet whenever it is looked from an RIC perspective. The nature of this triangle is unstable and unpredictable, but had always shown its presence consistently with the changing world political order and regional conditions. China’s emergence as a world power and regional dominance may push this triangle to become more unilateral which may seriously harm the political aspirations of Tibet by suffocating the free-Tibet movement to a permanent death. But contrary to this, the emergence of India as a political power in Asia and its closer ties with the US have a possibility to make this triangle bilateral or unilateral having Indian dominance thus leaving a scope for Tibet to exploit the regional political conditions in its favour.

The Russian Dominance and Tibet

Historically speaking, since the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this triangle has never been unilateral even though Russia was a dominant world power before it collapsed in 1991. Russia never used her international stature to permanently defeat and dislodge China’s expansionist policy, especially in the context of Tibet. Russia might have done this by collaborating with the USA as the both countries once appeared to have similar stances over the Tibet issue. But that also was beyond all possibility for two valid reasons: one, Russia was involved in a ‘Cold War’ against imperialist forces, notably the USA itself, and second, Russia shared about 2600 miles border with China. Tibet’s independence with Russian intervention would have meant creating serious security situation at the Russia-China border area.

Before the Soviet collapse, Russia appeared quite inconsistent in dealing with the Tibet question. (Wersto 1983) In November 1950, when for the first time the Tibet question came before the United Nations, Moscow argued that Tibet was an integral part of China and any interference would mean an insult to the Chinese people. It termed Chinese incursion as the ‘liberation of Tibet’ from the international imperialistic forces, feudal lordship and high priesthood. Russia was quite convinced of China’s claim of terming the revolt as an attempt by reactionary Tibetans influenced by imperialist circles. Interestingly, Russia never reacted on India’s action of granting asylum to the Tibetan religious head, the Dalai Lama, and allowing the Tibetan refugees to settle in India.

Sino-Russian relations became strained over Russia’s increasing closeness with India. From the 1960s upto Mao’s death in 1976, Russia remained critical of China’s Tibet policy. Moscow charged Beijing with the allegation of violation of human rights in Tibet. It criticised Beijing for disavowing the Marxist-Leninist principles of minority rights. Russia alleged that China was trying to change the demography of Tibet by installing the Han Chinese in the Tibetan region.

In 1976, after Mao’s death, Russia tried to improve its relationship with China. But these efforts could not produce substantial results owing to each other’s counter-position on the Afghanistan and Vietnam crisis. In 1979, surprising everyone, Russia completely reversed its stance on Tibet and for the first time described the Chinese activities in Tibet in the 1950s as aggression. In the 1980s, the Russian-Tibet relations grew even more firm. During the first half of the decade, the Dalai Lama twice visited Russia. China noted the political overtone of this development and denounced the visits as an attempt by Russia to organise subversive activities. It was said that during the last visit of the Dalai Lama, Moscow offered military aid to the exiled leader. This move of Russia forced China to call it Russia’s Tsarist intention toward Tibet. However, Moscow’s offer was turned down by the Dalai Lama himself in view of the ongoing dialogue with Beijing. The 1970s and 1980s were the decades when Russia at various political and diplomatic forums addressed Chinese activities in Tibet as ‘oppressive’, ‘colonial’, ‘against human rights’, and described Beijing as an ‘aggressor’.

After the disintegration of the VSSR in 1991, Russia lost its political prestige and power of regional and international dominance. This led Russia to change its stance on the Tibet issue. Russia strategically started disintegrating herself from the Tibet question. Although in March 2008, when riots took place in Lhasa, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that Russia hoped that the authorities of the People’s Republic of China will take all the necessary measures to curtail unlawful actions and ensure the speedy normalisation of the situation in the autonomous region (Faulcon-bridge 2008), the tone was mellow. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s closeness with China and acceptance of its sub-status under China brought both the countries to similar positions on the Tibet issue. And this was what Tibetans and their supporters all over the world never wished to happen.

The Indian Side

Even though India gave political asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 and facilitated him to establish the Tibetans-in-Exile Government in Dharamshala, it under Nehru’s regime mostly worked to build closer ties with China. That’s why the Indian Government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru at that time, accepted the Chinese seizure of Tibet without any quidpro quo. India in a formal document recognised Tibet as an integral part of China. (Kalha 2017) By saying this India accepted that there was no ‘invasion’ of Tibet by China in 1950 and it was just a territorial consolidation. That happened because India at that time was more comfortable to continue with the colonial understanding that Tibet is a neutral buffer between Britain and China. Rather than taking a stand on Tibet by joining hands with Moscow, New Delhi preferred to be a part of the communist crusade and to support the Soviet side. India never opposed China directly on the issue of Tibet.

On the other hand, Russia was also suspicious about the Chinese interest in holding control over Tibet and perceived it as a check against Russian expansion. But China claimed that India was interfering in Tibet. All these suspicions and ill-faith towards each other ultimately resulted in the Sino-Indian break-up and Sino-Soviet split. The triangle in the first edition of the RIC thus turned bilateral with the strengthening of Indo-Soviet ties. But this bilateral tie never benefited the Tibetan cause in the 1970s as Russia later got involved in the Cold War with the US and India struggled with political instability and war against Pakistan.

The Triangulation

The unipolar order emerged after the Cold War in the 1990s scrambled the international politics of both the East and West to re-evaluate their strategic choices of alignments. Since a number of countries in Europe and Asia had developed their political relations with the United States at the time of the Cold War; no choice was left for Russia, India and China except to revive the second edition of the RIC again despite the fact that the first edition had miserably failed. By this time the global geo-politics was quite changed and the American economy emerged as the largest economy of the world. Instead of countering the US dominance by having closer trilateral ties, the second edition of the RIC, especially Moscow and New Delhi, worked more on bettering their own ties with Washington. Meanwhile, the Soviet collapse put a deeper dent on Asian and global politics and the power in Asia gradually shifted from Moscow to Beijing. In the 1990s, the change in the power regime in India from the Congress to NDA started working towards closer ties with the US. This made Russia the weakest corner of this trilateral and thus put pressure on Moscow to depend more on Chinese support. Both Moscow and Beijing decided not to interfere in each other’s territorial ambitions and the trilateral thus became bilateral again. This gave a huge jolt to the Tibet question.

While studying the political allies formed due to territorial invasion and expansion, Lord Palmerston in the 19th century observed that countries do not have “permanent allies, only permanent interests”. (Lipson 2013) This became true in the case of China and Russia. Russia’s own territorial ambitions and its approach to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia pressed hard to look for new allies who could not be judgmental at any time. For this China was quite eligible as it had no reason to cast aspersions on Russia so far as its own regional aspirations in Tibet and South China Sea were not questioned. Even though China is disturbed by the Russian action in Ukraine and its consequence in the form of referendum in Crimea which can create trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang as they may attempt to leave the People’s Republic, its abstention in the UN vote condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea displayed Beijing’s clear support to Moscow’s Ukrainian policy. Further, the way Chinese diplomacy mostly responds on Russia’s military incursions clearly indicates that Beijing prefers to refrain itself on the issue of Russia’s invasions. At the same time, Chinese diplomacy responds promptly on the imposition of sanctions by the EU on Russia. Interestingly, Beijing was always interested to strategise a triangulation between Moscow and Washington on the basis of its own calculations of the emerging geo-political position of the RIC.


Today, if China supports Russia because it suits its own political interests, tomorrow there is a possibility that it may collaborate with the US when its own territorial disputes will be questioned by Moscow. That’s why, the road to resolve the Tibet problem only passes through the Indian soil. Indo-Russian close ties since the 1960s was one of the reasons which pressurised Russia to change her tone and take a reverse stance on the Tibet question in 1970s and 1980s. Presently, the Indo-US relationship, which is coming closer day-by-day, has a probability to serve the same purpose with regard to the Tibet question. India always remained a significant dimension of the RIC triangle: even though having lesser regional dominance than China, India, with its Western allies, has the potential to hinder the Chinese aspiration to push the triangle to become more unilateral. Moscow’s increasing proximity to Beijing may temporarily work as a booster for China, but in the long run Moscow’s definitive stand on Tibet is not guaranteed. History reminds us that Moscow has always been inconsistent, unstable and even unreliable on its stance over Tibet. This is the reason why China, with its newly discovered partner, cannot stretch this triangle to become more unilateral. So, China’s emergence as a world power is not the answer to the ‘Tibet Question’ especially because India too will work as a counter-force in the Asian region to resist the Chinese agenda on Tibet.


Faulconbridge, Guy (2008): “Russia wants China to curtail ‘unlawful’ acts in Tibet”. Available at

Kalha, Rajit S. (2017): “There is no Tibet Card for India to Play. Here’s why”, published on January 13, 2017. Available at

Lipson, Charles (2013): Reliable Partners: How Democracies have made a separate peace, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wersto J. Thomas. (1983): “Tibet in Sino-Soviet Relations”, Asian Affairs, Vol 10, No 3, pp 70-85.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. His research interests include media and civic engagement, political communication and practicing participatory communication approaches for development. Email: nairdevcom[at]

Sandeep Sharma, Research Scholar, Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, School of Journalism, Mass Communication & New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

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