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Walk The Line

China’s stand on Tawang lies inextricably close to its suspicions of India’s intentions on Tibet. Therein lies the rub....

Walk The Line
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Walk The Line

Back in February 1951, when New Delhi sent its ‘political officer’ to establish India’s authority over Tawang, he was received with howls of protest and clamorous ululation from the Tibetan monks owing allegiance to Lhasa. Surprisingly, the Communist leadership in Beijing (which already had its troops in Tibet in 1950) didn’t react. Nearly six decades later, the picture is quite the reverse—Tibetans in Tawang keenly await the Dalai Lama’s arrival here on November 8, and China is fuming.

For more than a month now, the Chinese have been publicly expressing their displeasure over Arunachal Pradesh, at times even adopting aggressive postures. First, its foreign office issued a harsh statement criticising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for visiting the state in early October. Next, the Chinese ambassador to India, Zhang Yan, issued a demarche to South Block officials protesting against the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit to Tawang. Perhaps the demarche was aimed at making the Dalai Lama refrain from issuing political statements. Like, when on his arrival in Tawang after he fled Lhasa in 1959, the Tibetan leader had expressed support for the McMahon Line, recognising it as the border between India and Tibet (not China).

So why is China so upset by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang? The answer is linked to the festering border problem between the two countries and the Tibet question, both issues inextricably woven into a complex problem. Says Srinath Raghavan of the Centre for Policy Research whose book War and Peace in Modern India will soon be out, “Tibet has always been central to Sino-Indian relations. Till 1961-62, territorial claims in the eastern sector were not the issue. Tibet was.”

As early as the ’50s, even Chinese leaders recognised Tibet’s importance in Sino-India relations. Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, while briefing a group of ambassadors from the Soviet bloc in ’59, even cited Tibet as the main cause of tension between India and China.

In turn, the problem of Tibet is linked to China’s perception of the Dalai Lama. To India, he’s a charming, benign “spiritual leader” of Tibet, engrossed in matters extra-mundane. But the Dalai Lama also wears another hat—of the head of the Tibetan state. This duality rankles the Chinese who claim the Dalai Lama has always had a political agenda, bolstering their argument by pointing out that on trips abroad he mainly meets government heads. Beijing even views his demand for “cultural autonomy” as a political demand that seeks to reunite Greater Tibet, an entity one-third China’s size that Beijing carved up and merged with other provinces.

Says ex-foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, “The Chinese are allergic to the Dalai Lama and Tawang is crucial to them.” China’s allergy to the Dalai Lama is understandable—he symbolises the Tibetan resistance. But the moot question is: why should the Chinese covet Tawang?

“The Chinese are allergic to the Dalai Lama and Tawang is crucial to them. We should be prepared for the long haul.”
—K. Natwar Singh, Former foreign minister

For answers, one has to look to the hellishly complex border problem between India and China. More than 1,20,000 sq km of land are in dispute between the two countries. This is spread over three sectors—the western sector (Ladakh), the middle sector (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) and the 90,000 sq km that constitutes Arunachal Pradesh falling in the eastern sector. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs through all three sectors, a line which, unlike the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan, isn’t part of any formal agreement. The LAC came into existence when the Chinese troops unilaterally withdrew from much of the territory they had occupied in the 1962 war. (The LAC’s existence, however, does not preclude the claims made by India and China on territory held by each other.)

But the border issue is complicated in the eastern sector because of the existence of another controversial line there, the McMahon Line. This came into existence during the Simla Conference of 1914, convened to demarcate the border amongst Tibet, China and British India. And though the Chinese representative had initialled the document, it was rejected by China without ratification. China’s 1914 stand has been reiterated over successive decades.

Mostly, the McMahon Line converges with the LAC though there are pockets where India and China’s interpretations vary, leading both sides to accuse each other of intrusions. Interestingly, Tawang is located below the McMahon Line, imparting legitimacy to New Delhi’s decision to bring under its control the border town, which till then had been paying taxes to Lhasa. Despite not recognising the McMahon Line, China didn’t protest New Delhi’s incorporation of Tawang into India. Its silence was partly because of its engagement in the Korean war and partly due to ignorance about where its boundaries lay, what with the Kuomintang leaders—the rivals to the Communists—ferreting away most of the relevant documents as they fled mainland China). In addition, Beijing had enlisted New Delhi’s support, for India was chairing the UN efforts to repatriate prisoners and refugees of the Korean war.

The Chinese troops unilaterally withdrew from occupied territory after the ’62 war.

Over the next decade, China sent troops into Tibet, brought Lhasa under its control and gradually curbed the  Dalai Lama’s functional autonomy, prompting him to flee to India with his supporters. As the Dalai Lama persevered to muster global support for his country’s independence, and oppose China’s occupation of Tibet, Beijing began to covet Tawang in the ’80s. It believed that were it to acquire this Indian border town, the McMahon Line would lose its sanctity. Since the Line was agreed upon between Tibet and British India, it would effectively undermine the Dalai Lama’s claims of heading a sovereign state.

Opinion in China is divided on how to wrest control over Tawang. One school of opinion proposes a military option. But this could result in a war, adversely impact on China’s economy and belie its claims that its rise is peaceful. Also, a war need not go in China’s favour. Another school of thought endorses negotiations to get Tawang back. But negotiations aren’t likely to yield results as India is steadfastly opposed to discussing any area that sends an “elected representative to Parliament”. A third school, therefore, suggests that China should persuade India to hand over an uninhabited area in Arunachal Pradesh, thus enabling it to break the McMahon Line but without entailing a transfer of population.

There’s enough for everyone: Chinese students enjoying a dosa break in Chennai

The hardliners in the Chinese establishment back a tough line to keep India under pressure, hoping to force it into making bigger compromises on the boundary issue. “We should be prepared for the long haul on the boundary issue,” says Natwar Singh, who was liaison officer to Zhou Enlai during his 1960 visit to India.

New Delhi’s position on Tibet, though, has evolved over the years. From initially pursuing British India’s policy on Tibet, it gradually started accepting China’s total control.  A 1954 agreement saw India recognise Tibet as an “integral part” of China, a far cry from accepting it as an “inalienable part of China”, precisely what Beijing wants. Ostensibly, China seems satisfied with India’s stand on Tibet. On several occasions, it has even expressed appreciation over New Delhi’s handling of the Tibetan exiles and preventing them from indulging in “anti-Chinese activities”.

“The only lesson to learn from the 1962 war with China is that as long as we have a trust deficit, nothing will get solved.”
—Srinath Raghavan, Centre for Policy Research

Yet, deep down, Beijing remains suspicious of India’s intentions. It feels India keeps the ‘Tibet card’ close to its chest in order to wield it against China at an appropriate time. Beijing wants to douse the simmering discontent in Tibet, pacify and integrate its population harmoniously, and suspects these goals are undermined because of the activities of the Dalai Lama and his followers in India. Chinese leaders now want their growing global clout to settle the Tibet question for all times. Much of the world is already toeing its line. The British altered their position from accepting Chinese “suzerainty” to “sovereignty” over Tibet. Despite the Lhasa uprising of last year, most world leaders came to Beijing to watch the Olympics inaugural ceremony. Recently, American President Barack Obama avoided a meeting with the Dalai Lama when he visited Washington.

So it’s only in India that China still finds less sympathy for its ‘Tibetan cause’. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Outlook, “China knows India’s policy on Tibet for the past 50-odd years. If things are not settling in Tibet, then China can hardly blame India. We can’t regard the Dalai Lama as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as Beijing may want us to do.” But others advise caution and patience. “The only lesson to learn from 1962 is that as long we have a trust deficit, nothing will get solved,” says Raghavan. But to remove this trust deficit, the leadership in the two countries will have to work a lot harder.

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