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Could China and India go to war over Tibet?

Could China and India go to war over Tibet?

By Dan Twining

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Lhasa uprising. Much of the associated commentary suggests that Tibet is, at most, an internal human rights issue in China, albeit one that impacts China’s foreign relations with Western democracies who care about the plight of the Tibetan people. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s admission that Tibet is part of China, and that he seeks true autonomy rather than actual independence for his people, reaffirm this view. There is also, however, an external dimension to the Tibetan crisis, one that implicates core national security interests of nuclear-armed great powers.

This is the role Tibet’s dispensation plays in the conflict between China and India. Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan puts it bluntly: "When there is relative tranquility in Tibet, India and China have reasonably good relations. When Sino-Tibetan tensions rise, India’s relationship with China heads south." Although not widely recognized in the West, the nexus of Tibet and the unresolved border conflict between China and India ranks with the Taiwan Strait and Korean peninsula among Asia’s leading flashpoints.

Contrary to Chinese propaganda, Tibet was not traditionally a part of China. Over the centuries, relations between China and Tibet were characterized by varying degrees of association spanning the spectrum from sovereignty to suzerainty to independence. The People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in the middle of the last century precisely because Tibetans did not consent to Beijing’s rule.

For its part, prior to Indian independence, then-British India vigorously supported Tibetan autonomy and sponsored the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh to create an expansive geographic buffer between China and the subcontinent. John Garver’s excellent history of Sino-Indian rivalry contains useful maps depicting a rump China and an expansive Indian subcontinent separated by a vast, autonomous Tibet, demonstrating how far apart were India and China geographically until Chinese unification by the Communist Party several years after Indian independence gave them a common border.

That common border has since been a source of conflict. As is well known, India and China went to war over their territorial dispute in 1962, ending the era of what Indian Prime Minister Nehru called "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai" ("Indians and Chinese are brothers"). What is less well known in the West is that China, while subsequently resolving 17 of its 18 outstanding land border disputes with neighboring countries, has kept the territorial conflict with India alive, at times appearing to inflame the issue as a source of leverage over New Delhi.

Over the past two years, Chinese officials have publicly asserted Chinese claims to the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which some Chinese military advisors and strategists refer to as "Southern Tibet." Chinese forces have periodically engaged in small-scale cross-border encroachments, destroying Indian military bunkers and patrol bases in Ladakh and Sikkim.

At the same time, China has been systematically constructing road and rail networks across the Tibetan plateau in ways that tilt the balance of forces along the contested frontier in China’s favor; India has responded with infrastructure projects of its own, including roads and air fields, to enable military reinforcement of its border regions, but has failed to keep pace with its northern neighbor. China has also positioned large numbers of military and security forces on the Tibetan plateau, mainly with an eye on suppressing popular unrest. But the possibility of using them to "teach India a lesson" (as in 1962) remains.

Indian pundits note that public reminders from Beijing of China’s decisive victory over India in the 1962 war have spiked over the past year, sending what Indians believe is a clear signal to New Delhi at a time of rising tensions. Combined with China’s reported deployment in Tibet of nuclear missiles targeting India, officials in New Delhi feel increasingly alarmed in the face of Chinese provocation.  In striking statements little noted in the West, both Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and respected former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra recently warned China against any attempt to seize Indian-held territory along their contested border.

Surging border tensions may be related to worries in Beijing over the Dalai Lama’s succession. Some of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, including the sacred monastery at Tawang, are in Indian-held territory. The Dalai Lama, who has been in poor health, has said that he would not feel obligated to nominate a successor from, or be reborn in, Tibet proper, raising the possibility that the next Dalai Lama could be named outside China — in the Tibetan cultural belt that stretches across northern India into Bhutan and Nepal.

Some Indian strategists fear that China may act to preempt, or respond to, an announcement of the Dalai Lama’s chosen successor in India – particularly in Tawang — by deploying the People’s Liberation Army to occupy contested territory along the Sino-Indian border, as occurred in 1962, creating a risk of military conflict between the now nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Although China enjoys the dominant military position in the Tibetan plateau, India still has cards to play. It hosts the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile in Dharamsala, enabling Tibet’s representatives to keep their cause alive in the court of world opinion. And unlike Britain — which last October withdrew its recognition of China’s "suzerainty" (in favor of "sovereignty") over Tibet in a failed effort to placate Beijing, leading one scornful Singaporean commentator to note that China was "bringing Europe to its knees" — India continues to recognize only Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, rather than full and consensual sovereignty. This creates the possibility that New Delhi could play a "Tibet card" in its relations with Beijing in the same way that China accuses the United States of playing a "Taiwan card" to keep it off balance.

What do Sino-Indian border tensions linked to the Tibetan cause mean for the United States?

First, the U.S. has a compelling interest in preventing conflict between one of its largest trading partners and its newfound strategic partner.

Second, historic U.S. support for the cause of human rights in Tibet, in addition to Washington’s growing military ties with New Delhi, mean that the United States would find it difficult to be a neutral arbiter in such a conflict.

Third, India’s continuing political and moral support for the Tibetan government-in-exile demonstrates that it shares with America a set of ideals in foreign policy, creating the basis for greater values-based cooperation between Washington and New Delhi – a prospect that has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Fourth, given China’s development of military capabilities designed to threaten U.S. access to the Western Pacific and Southeast Asian waterways, Chinese pressure on U.S. friends including the Philippines and Vietnam to back down on claims to contested islets in the South China Sea, and Chinese harassment of the U.S. Navy in Asian waters, Washington has an important interest in making perfectly clear to Beijing that the use of force to resolve contested territorial claims or limit freedom of the seas is unacceptable — and could upend rather than facilitate China’s peaceful rise.