Tibet holds the key to Beijing

M.L. Sondhi

The Telegraph, January 2, 1992

There is clear evidence that India and China failed to narrow their differences on key bilateral issues at the Narasimha Rao-Li Peng summit, and India frittered away its bargaining strength on the Tibet issue by meekly accepting the Chinese formulation. Mr. J.N. Dixit, the foreign secretary, and his team could not match the Chinese mandarins in self-confidence, and in the event provided us with a painful but critically important lesson: diplomacy is conducted best when it is not defensive or parochial but is authentically related to the political ethos of the country.

Mr. Narasimha Rao’s first encounter as Prime Minister with the Chinese has been little short of catastrophic and he is almost inevitably fated to experience a series of diplomatic failures which may bring back the highly bitter memories of Jawaharlal Nehru who complained that he had been stabbed in the back by the communist regime in the 1960s.

Contrary to claims in the official media, India did not have serious options or proposals over Beijing’s deeply-held positions on Pakistan. India did not at any stage ask China to declare a moratorium on the shipment of new weapons to Islamabad or to halt current arms transfers. While the Chinese used the rhetoric of accommodation, on every important issue they retained a maximalist position against Indian interests. The Chinese did not provide any serious points of discussion on the border question and there was no progress towards either a piecemeal or final solution. The Chinese continue to support wholesale the grand over-simplification of the nuclear dilemma in Asia offered by Pakistan’s proposal for South Asia as a nuclear-free zone.

The Chinese insisted on a tough wording on Tibet and India obliged with its own brand of pusillanimity, in the form of an elemental violation of the human rights of Tibetan exiles in India. We have now to ask whether this has been good for Indian diplomacy and for Indian national interest. Observers with an anti-Indian bias like Neville Maxwell have been quick to perceive a reversal of the government’s entire diplomatic approach much in the fashion in which Gorbachev’s Vladivostok speech abdicated deeply held positions. Maxwell, of course, has little to say about the relative merits of political and military aspects of Soviet and Indian national security policies. Nor does he take a look at the Chinese negotiations with the Russians on Mongolia. There, Beijing insisted on several preconditions and one of these was the demilitarisation of Mongolia.

What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. There is simply no way in which India can ignore the strategic location of Tibet as the heart of Asia. As long as it remains the location for missile bases and for bombers and missiles targeted at Indian cities and cantonments, there can be no real agreement between the two biggest states of Asia.

It is also necessary to consider the foreseeable evolution of the international system in which the Chinese regime is finding itself out of step with the emerging world order. The opposition to “hegemony” is of great utility to Beijing in justifying repression at home and in Tibet and for the refurbishment of its own hegemonism in Asia. In this light, the key to grasping what Chinese strategy means is for India to create some more room for manoeuvre over Tibet. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru made the initial mistakes by his particular conception of communist ideology and legitimizing the Chinese presence in Tibet, but before his death he was able to enter several caveats about the Chinese relationship with Tibet. His famous comment that the people of Tibet must have the final say about their future suggests that the traumatic events of 1962 changed his beliefs and attitudes on the enormous military presence of China in Tibet.

The evolution of India’s policy on Tibet and the pattern which served to guide policy makers until Indira Gandhi’s time can be described as a dual track pragmatism a positive predisposition to improve relations with China coupled with agreement on core principles and techniques advocated by the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in Dharamsala. While Nehru’s attitude to Tibet can be described as idiosyncratic, it was balanced by the cognitive set shared by Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalacharya, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya. All of them were distinguished public figures and provided competing assessments of problems besetting Sino-Indian relations. If there was ambivalence towards Tibet on the part of Nehru, all these other participants in the public realm were able to draw upon a consensus regarding the core values of Hindu-Buddhistic reverence for Kailash-Mansarovar and act in defence of the aspirations of the Tibetan people. Mrs. Gandhi’s belief in a range of political values of realpolitik led her to pursue a diplomatic solution of the Sino-Indian dispute with the dispatch of K.R. Narayanan as ambassador, but at the same time she continued to regard the Dalai Lama as the linchpin of Indian policy.

However, Rajiv Gandhi and V.P.Singh adopted a model of theorizing on Sino-Indian relations which was inchoate. Both of them lost the understanding of Tibet as an issue linked to the political ethos of India. In a polemical tract written at the time, I had pointed out the disruptive effects of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. Narasimha Rao has neither the means nor the ambition to challenge China’s encroachments on Indian territory, but he could have at least avoided simplistic and inadequate conceptions of a so-called “Third World perspective” in world affairs if he had avoided the use of Chinese communist vocabulary which is clearly inimical to Indian interests.

There has been much controversy about the linkage between Kashmir and Tibet. The Dalai Lama has sent a very clear message from Dharamsala and has referred to the general feeling of solidarity of Tibetans with India which Chinese political pathology cannot tolerate. Ever since Mr. Li Peng spoke to Indian correspondents in Beijing and tried to indulge in semantic gobbledygook to cover up the enormous military presence of China in Tibet, Mr. Narashimha Rao should have resisted being drawn into China’s strategic plans to overcome its own latent instability in Tibet at India’s cost. The answers on the Tibetan question are complex and both India and the Dalai Lama share an interest in common in demonstrating the efficacy of non-militaristic approaches. Mr. Rao would have enhanced his credibility by arranging for the Dalai Lama to be present in New Delhi and affirmed the spirit of Indo-Tibetan solidarity, to which both Nehru and Indira Gandhi at least paid lip service. In his dialogue with Mr. Li Peng, Mr. Rao loaded the dice against himself by giving a carte balance to the Chinese leader to dictate the political configuration of the diplomatic encounter. By sending the Dalai Lama for hibernation to Dharamsala during the talks, India failed to highlight the moral dilemmas presented by China’s ongoing military occupation of Tibet.

Mr. Narasimha Rao lost influence where he could have won new prestige for three reasons:

First, he has made the increasing militarization of Tibet legitimate, although both he and his policy advisers know that Chinese imperialism in Tibet cannot be maintained in the context of the new world order. His talk about the autonomous region of China is unrealistic and counterproductive as far as the goal of real disarmament and confidence-building between India and China is concerned. Mr. Rao has not offered any viable alternative policy to the pleas of the Dalai Lama for demilitarization of Tibet. The missiles and bombs in Tibet are no respecter of either the McMahon Line or of the Line of Actual Control. If the ensuring dialogue through the Joint Working Group is to have any real meaning Mr. Narasimha Rao will have to go back to the basic issue which is the military conversion of Tibet into an armed border which has changed the whole strategic balance against India.

Second, on the question of Pakistan abetted insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab, Mr. Rao’s pretensions of representing a higher form of Panchsheel politics has led the country into the very opposite direction from the one that we hoped he was taking us. He has frittered away the bargaining power which Indira Gandhi secured after the Bangladesh war and has done something fearfully dangerous.

Introduce a certain rigidity in the situation in which it would hardly be surprising if there were an accretion of hegemonic power to the Chinese. By appealing to the Chinese to prevent the escalation of Pakistan’s anti-Indian activities Indian diplomacy is hardly going to develop a momentum which will stabilize the dangerous situation in Punjab and Kashmir. The Chinese see little sense in giving up their natural ally, Pakistan, especially when New Delhi suggests a stance of political appeasement.

Finally, Mr. Narasimha Rao’s weltanschauung as reflected in his first major summit makes him fearful of a flexible international structure. What needs to be asked in the context of his mute acceptance of Mr. Li Peng’s sophistry on external political pressures, is whether his image of India’s role in an interdependent world is related to the core content of the political ethos of our nation, and whether his decision-making will be bureaucratically determined to bear a strong family resemblance to Chamberlain at Munich.

Despite Doordarshan’s propaganda blitz and the reportage of the political and journalist pilgrims to Beijing, the Li Peng-Rao summit has detracted generally from the credibility of Indian diplomacy as an effective force in the new era. The communiqué issued at the end of the talks is a bizarre document which is too divorced from reality to be productive. If the situation is to be salvaged both India and China must learn that the principal problem they face is the Tibet problem. The irrelevance of the provision for checking the Tibetan exile community’s activities is self-evident. This community is a living reproach to the genocidal imperiousness of the Chinese rulers in Tibet. There is no way in which either Li Peng or Narasimha Rao can forestall reaching a point in which Chinese rule will be demolished and a free Tibet rejoin the comity of nations.

The advantages of attempting a genuine compromise with the Dalai Lama are that China can get out of the straitjacket of outmoded ideological assumptions and India can creatively shape the realities of regional and world politics in accordance with its political and civilisational ethos.
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