US President Donald Trump has signed into law the controversial “Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act”. China has vehemently criticised this law. China considers Tibetan issues its internal affair, and said that any attempt to influence will harm bilateral ties with the US. This law seeks to promote access to Tibet for US diplomats and other officials, journalists and other citizens by denying US entry for Chinese officials deemed responsible for restricting access to Tibet. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the law has sent seriously wrong signals to Tibetan separatists. The Chinese came out in 2015 with a White Paper called the “Golden Period” for Tibetans. But the ground reality is much different. Many journalists and right groups have said that in 2018, the situation for ethnic Tibetans inside what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region remains extremely difficult.
The American policy on Tibet was an instrument for creating a larger space in world politics. Its larger concern was to dismantle the expanding feet of communist ideology from China. America realised this could be easily done with the help of India. President Eisenhower wrote, on a couple of occasions, to Prime Minister Nehru, warning the latter of the impending Communist threat to South Asia. The State Department approached India. It argued that the impending Communist takeover of Tibet might offer a base for the extension of Communist penetration and subversive activities into Nepal and Bhutan and eventually India. The common interest of India and America was meeting a common point. Nehru refused to cooperate with the American plan. The US took the support of Nepal and made 19 airdrops of trained Khampas with arms to liberate Tibet. The attempts did not sustain the onslaught of China.
China continued its grip on Tibet. It declared the Dalai Lama as a separatist. It came out with the White Paper in 2015. It maintains: “Tibet has been an integral part of China since ancient times, and has never been an independent nation.” It pushes China’s claim over Tibet back to the 7thcentury from the 12th century. Stating that there was a close connection between the Tibetan people and the Han and other ethnic groups, it says, “There has never been a break in economic, political and cultural exchanges between Tibet and the rest of China.” This statement has been rejected by the exile Tibetan government and the designated Prime Minster of Tibet at Dharamsala. “Tibet was an independent country, and Tibet is under occupation today,” says Lobsang Sangay.
On the other hand, China claims that Tibetan culture and people have been much better off since its occupation rule began in 1959. It claims: “Tibet’s traditional culture is well protected and promoted, and freedom of religious belief in the region is respected, while its ecological environment is protected, too.” The White Paper also presents data to justify its rule over the last 50 years. It claims: “Earlier Tibet did not have a single school in the modern sense; its illiteracy rate was as high as 95% among the young and middle-aged; there was no modern medical service, and praying to the Buddha for succour was the main resort for most people if they fell ill; their average life expectancy was 35.5 year.”
Even if the above data are true, there are many aspects which are equally true. The Tibetan community has been butchered and subjugated to reduce them to slavery. Their twin identities of faith and pastoral lives were forcefully destroyed by the communist regime. Tibet was been strategically cut into two parts. One part of it, the Tibet Autonomous Regions, has been converted into a nuclear dustbin, spreading deadly diseases such as cancer. Thousands of Tibetans are behind the bar. Their economic status is very low. The policy of transferring Han Chinese into the TAR is making the Tibetans a minority community in their own region. There was further disappointment for Tibetans and supporters across the world at the beginning of 2015 when China announced plans to increase the Han-Chinese population of Tibet by 30% by 2020—a total of approximately 280,000 new arrivals.
Chinese Takeover of Tibet and Its Implications for India
The Chinese takeover of Tibet was a strategic move rather than for historical or ideological reasons, says Prof Dawa T. Norbu. China has always been apprehensive of the influence of external powers in the territory of Tibet. That is why it purportedly shifted the area of buffer zone from Tibet to the tiny Himalayan states like Nepal and Bhutan. China’s Tibet policy impacts on Indian security interests in two ways. One, it exposes the border problem between India and China which led to the 1962 Sino-India war. The Chinese invasion of Tibet ended the buffer zone between the two countries. It also increased China’s reach into South Asia.
In the Northwest region, it has occupied 43,180 sq km of the strategic and mineral rich Aksai Chin, besides 5,180 sq km of Kashmir, ceded by the Pakistan government in its 1963 boundary agreement with China. Aksai Chin is an ancient trade route and the Chinese need it for forming a link between Tibet and Sinkiang (Eastern Turkistan) that was also similarly annexed by them in 1949, advocated T. Jacob, a Sinologist. Other serious consequences of Chinese developmental strategy in Tibet could be in terms of environmental hazards. India’s major rivers originate from the trans-Himalayan region. China’s western development programme is causing major deforestation and ecological imbalance. Tibet is endowed with the greatest river systems in the world. Its rivers supply fresh water to 85% of Asia’s population.
China’s policies towards India have been characterised as a judicious combination of deep strategy and surface diplomacy. The deep strategy consists of striving to gain a strategic edge over India in Inner Asia by courting India’s acceptance of the occupation of Tibet. At the same time China seeks strategic alliance with Pakistan to deny India regional supremacy in South Asia. The surface diplomacy aspect is characterised by frequent visits of all kinds to New Delhi since 1994. China plans to build a 540-kilometre strategic high-speed rail link between Tibet and Nepal, which could pass through a tunnel under Mt Everest. Such a move could raise alarm in India about the Communist giant’s growing influence in its neighbourhood.
“A proposed extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to the China-Nepal border through Tibet would boost bilateral trade and tourism, as there is currently no rail line linking the two countries,” China’s state-run China Daily has reported. The rail line is expected to be completed by 2020. However, there was no word on the cost of the project. The 1,956-km long Qinghai-Tibet railway already links the rest of China with the Tibetan capital Lhasa and beyond. Two factors make Tibet important for India. First is the religious and cultural factor; Tibet has an important place in Indian imagination. The Kailash Mansarovar is in Tibet. It has religious connectivity with Tibet. The second factor is ecological. If the Tibetan community refuses to accept the roadmap drawn up by the Communist Chinese regime during the period of the 14th Dalai Lama, it would be much more difficult after he is no more.
Tibet has unfortunately been part of the larger set up of world politics for American interests. But the Indian case is completely different. It bore the direct consequences. Had Nehru accepted the American design in 1950s when China was much weaker, Tibet would have been an independent country, but an ideological prejudice of Nehru did not allow it to happen. The US was prepared to provide nuclear arsenals to India. An independent Tibet would have created altogether much different India. The major threats which India is facing from North and Northwest would not have been challenging for Indian security. The China-Pakistan nexus was possible to the extent of a threat. The Indian first neighbourhood policy would have been smoother and better integrated.