South Asia continues to appease the People’s Republic, to its own detriment.
First of all, the bitter facts of history: in the political tumult of post-Second World War Asia, newly independent India found its strategic and security interests dramatically compromised by two equally momentous and unforeseen developments, the creation of an Islamic state in the north-west of the country (1947-48), and the full-fledged occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan by communist China (1949-50). New Delhi’s inability to prevent or reverse either development effectively ceded the initiative to China in both regions. In particular, it allowed China to exploit South Asian rivalries, and draw all of India’s neighbours (except Bhutan and the Maldives) into its diplomatic camp. More than 50 years later, still enduring the tremendous toll of defending thousands of kilometres of hostile land borders, New Delhi has yet to come to terms with this disadvantage and find a way forward.
Many Tibetans who lived through the 1959 uprising will tell you how, during the holocaust of repression which followed, they fully expected mighty India (which Tibetans, like Buddhists in other neighbouring countries, regard as the Arya-bhumi) to come to their aid. They were living in another world, and paid the heaviest price imaginable for their isolation from modern geo-political reality. But so too were the new rulers of India if they thought that Chinese military occupation of the heart of the Asian continent would be compatible with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Panchshila’, and that Tibet would effectively remain a neutral zone separating two friendly giants.
In 1957, when the People’s Liberation Army (and their cohorts of prison labourers) had completed a highway linking Yarkand (in Xinjiang province) with west Tibet across Indian territory in the trans-Karakoram at elevations of above 5000 m, one could barely drive an Ambassador up to Mussoorie. Over the next five years, however, roads were hastily built under impossibly demanding conditions all over the Himalayan valleys (with destitute Tibetan refugees providing much of the labour) that Indian troops had to defend from a position of weakness. Their maintenance still costs the country millions of dollars every day.
In other words, independent India’s failure to address the occupation of Tibet as an issue of national and regional concern at the time turned out to be a staggeringly costly miscalculation, which it is still paying for. There are a number of reasons why this fact is not widely recognised in Indian politics and public life. For one, relations with China are the preserve of a bureaucratic and military elite with no discernible strategy other than appeasement. While Beijing has the very nerve to question Indian sovereignty in Sikkim, New Delhi cannot even secure reasonable terms for its citizens making a pilgrimage to Sri Kailasa-Manasarovar. The foreign policy establishment seems to hope that quiescence will bring improved relations, an inscrutable misperception if so, of which China continues to take advantage. In reality, it is startlingly obvious that Tibet is the substantive issue between the two governments of Beijing and New Delhi, and their relationship can scarcely improve in India’s favour until it takes the yak by the horns.
After militarisation, perhaps the most serious consequences for South Asia of Chinese misrule in Tibet are environmental. It is a truism that most South Asians depend on rivers of ‘trans-Himalayan’ origin, from the Indus to the Mekong. The Tibetan plateau is not only the fountain-head of Asia but the guarantor of the southwest monsoon, and ecological changes there such as deforestation have a discernible effect on regional weather patterns. For decades there have been unconfirmable reports of nuclear waste dumps and long-range missile bases in occupied Tibet. More recently, the economic boom and increasing mobility of migrant labour in China has ignited an explosion of state-funded infrastructure projects in the ‘western regions’, including the exploitation of river waters. The Chinese regime has a penchant for insanely ambitious megaprojects symbolising the supposed ‘mastery over nature’ to which Stalinist socialism aspires, hence the Three Gorges and now the diversion of Yangtse river waters (with or without nuclear assistance) to the parched north. Another such project, the construction of a massive hydroelectric power station on the great bend in the Brahmaputra recently won central government approval.
There is no evidence to suggest that the interests of those living downstream will figure prominently in the Chinese planners’ calculations. After heavy flooding in mainland China in 1998, the central government was prompted to impose a total ban on logging, notably in the ‘Yangtse watershed’, which is made up of the mercilessly deforested mountains of eastern Tibet. This was the first time the state had addressed the environmental fall-out from the over-exploitation of Tibetan timber, and this represented a definitive innovation of policy. In contrast, no such ban was imposed in the Kongpo or Powo regions bordering Arunachal Pradesh, where the downstream consequences of over-exploitation are not China’s but India’s problem.
The events of July 2000 in that region could be a harbinger of things to come: in April that year, there was a massive landslide at the mouth of the Yiwong Tso lake in Powo, an area which has been plundered by Chinese logging since the 1960s. The slide created a natural dam across the outflow of the lake some 60m high. This eventually burst in early July, releasing a giant surge into the Brahmaputra, which caused the worst flood damage ever recorded in Arunachal Pradesh. When the Arunachal state government made representations to New Delhi about the necessity of reaching an agreement with China on the management of Brahmaputra waters following this incident, they were given no reassurances and the issue has not been raised at national level. A similar surge-flood hit the upper Sutlej valley later that year, causing extensive damage in Kinnaur and Rampur areas of Himachal Pradesh.
Railway to Lhasa
The most significant mega-project of all in this context is of course the Qinghai-Tibet railway, a high priority for the Chinese leadership ever since the invasion, but at that time an unattainable one. Even in this age of over-development, the railway remains an extreme technical challenge. Such are the natural barriers between the two countries that China will have launched astronauts into space before it runs passenger trains to Lhasa, even if the railway is completed on schedule in 2006.
Railways were instrumental in Chinese colonisation of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, slightly more accessible territories whose indigenous populations have been decisively outnumbered by Han migration under communism. There has always been a sense among central planners and the military that Tibet cannot be fully assimilated without one, and their inability to build it has been the main reason for the relatively low numbers of civilian Han migrants in most of Tibet until now. These days there are frequent direct flights to Lhasa from a number of major Chinese cities including Hong Kong, the Qinghai-Tibet highway has been significantly upgraded, and there is a road tunnel under Erlang Shan cutting hours off the drive from Chengdu to Dartse-do (Kangding) and east Tibet, but for sheer logistical capacity, the movement of goods and people, none of this can compete with a railway.
Now that the Beijing government has embarked on a no-holds-barred campaign of economic and demographic assimilation, the long-mooted railway has become – more than just a logistical necessity – a symbol of China’s heroic struggle against the forces of nature and moderation. Since the launch of the current construction phase of the railway in 2000, official statements and propaganda seem to have abandoned rational, technocratic justifications and cost-benefit analysis altogether, reassuring the nation that no expense will be spared, with a missionary zeal reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward. The implications for Tibet itself are thus rather clear, for the railway represents the physical erasure of all the notions of autonomy which have haunted Sino-Tibetan relations since 1951. However, such an acceleration of China’s capacity to ‘develop’ Tibet is also bound to aggravate regional tensions with South Asia, as long as Beijing remains bent on hegemony rather than neighbourly relations. This can already be seen from recent concerns over the infiltration of Chinese goods into north Indian markets.
There is one other fact for the cynical to consider, especially those who tend to disregard the Tibet issue as an over-indulged plaything of the West. Certainly, hybrid versions of Tibetan Buddhism and culture have become fashionable in the industrialised countries, but one has to distinguish between popular socio-religious trends, however colourful, and concrete political support by Western governments, which has stood at zero ever since the US military backed out of large-scale assistance to the eastern Tibetan resistance in the mid-1950s. (Indeed, by granting political asylum to HH Dalai Lama and the exile government, India has given the Tibetans much more valuable support than any Western country.) At that time, the onus was very much on Britain, as the former colonial power, and the US, as the non-communist superpower, as well as free India, to stand up for Tibet, at least in the United Nations. They failed to do so, as is well known, but unlike India these powers had no strategic interests in the region and could shirk their responsibility with impunity. Now, since the mid-1990s, it is precisely the growth of Western economic collaboration in China’s occupation, in the form of investment, bilateral and non-governmental aid that has done most to embolden the regime, and take the sting out of international protest. After the Tibetans themselves, their South Asian neighbours are the main losers in this scenario.
In conclusion, Tibet is inescapably a South Asian issue, but one effectively quashed by Beijing’s paranoid refusal to countenance anything like the free flow of people, goods and information across the Himalayas, and by New Delhi’s policy of appeasement. As strategic construction, resource exploitation and urbanisation intensify in occupied Tibet, however, tensions with neighbouring states are likely to grow and to attract attention beyond elite foreign policy circles, given that we live in a world fast shrinking under the impact of global economic development, overpopulation, increased mobility and dwindling natural resources. During the ‘post-Cold War’ 1990s, China’s regional profile became more aggressive, its leaders showed no willingness for improved relations with India but maintained and enhanced their posture of strategic containment (Pakistan, Burma), one of the main justifications for increased defence expenditure (particularly on the navy) in India during this period. There have been numerous lesser irritants, such as Chinese support for the insurgent United Liberation Front of Assam, its indulgence in chequebook diplomacy elsewhere in South Asia, border incursions and smuggling, and failure to support India at the United Nations. In 1962, the patience of India’s leaders snapped after their policy of generous deference to the new China was taken for all it was worth, and they ended up going to war in outraged sentiment, ill-prepared and for the wrong reasons. To avoid repeating that history, new thinking is required, including re-evaluation of the status of Tibet.