Reviving Tibet debate & impact on border talks

In the past, China appeared concerned about the involvement of India in the choice of a future Dalai Lama or not recognising the one it imposed. Not anymore, it seems

Published: 22nd January 2022 12:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd January 2022 12:39 AM   |  A+A-

India China Border

Representational Image (Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)

Some recent publications, including books, have focused on India’s China relations centred on Tibet.

One such book was authored by former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao (The Fractured Himalaya) and another by A S Bhasin (Nehru, Tibet and China), formerly with the Ministry of External Affairs, who has compiled the nation’s different bilateral ties from archival material.

Products of painstaking research and also the respective author’s experience, expertise and consequent perspective, they are unique retellings of India-China relations through the fifties and sixties, taking it as far back as the 1914 Simla Agreement.

Beijing has steadfastly claimed that it had not ratified that accord and hence the McMahon Line, which demarcates the international border between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, was not acceptable to it. At the same time, Beijing accepted the McMahon Line as the basis for renegotiating the Tibetan/Chinese border with Myanmar, thus legitimising the original map to the extent it had denied in India’s case.

The 14th Dalai Lama, the present one, too added to the confusion. As recently as 2003, His Holiness referred to Arunachal Pradesh as being a part of Tibet. A year later, he modified the stand to acknowledge the trilateral agreement of 1914, initialled by the British-India government, Tibet and China.

It took the Dalai Lama another four years to acknowledge that Arunachal Pradesh was a part of the Indian Union. In 2017, when he visited the region, he did so with the understanding and conviction that Arunachal was very much a part of India.

The multiple revivals and recreating of Tibet-centric bilateral history leading up to the disastrous China War of 1962 can have two consequences. They reaffirm the historic blame for the cause and effect of the Chinese aggression on Jawaharlal Nehru’s naivete as prime minister, which until then used to be passed off as great statesmanship.
Such retelling also has the potential to bring Tibet back to the negotiating table, after successive governments in New Delhi have rightly denied the Chinese version that also lays claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.

There are those who argue how Nehru might have used ‘Panchsheel’ as India’s tool to buy truce, if not permanent peace, with China, when the nation was totally unprepared for war. The post-Independence, post-Partition economy and also national psyche just could not afford it.

They also cite the then Army chief Gen K M Cariappa, later elevated as Field Marshal, to argue that India could not have afforded a two-front war, the Army having been engaged with Pakistan almost right after Independence, which has left the western border at a boiling point since.

Since then, military experts the world over have been debating if India could afford a two-front war, after providing for the possibility of a coordinated attack. Through the seventies till the early part of this decade, Pakistan, and not China, was on the Indian radar.

But even around the time of the Kargil War with Pakistan, in the year 1999, the then defence minister George Fernandes was quoted as claiming that China, and not Pakistan, was India’s major threat of the future. Prophetic!

Future Dalai Lama

Evaluating Nehru’s failures on the China front is for domestic consumption—however genuine those evaluations are and true the conclusions. Such criticism also abounds on his handling of the Pakistan situation, especially in taking the ‘Kashmir issue’ to the UN, where it is still languishing, technically. Again, the same arguments in his defence, too, apply.

It is a different situation when one discusses the Tibet issue as if it is central to the bilateral border dispute. In the past, Beijing seemed more concerned about New Delhi’s involvement in the choice of a future Dalai Lama, or not recognising the one Beijing imposes. In comparison, even China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh used to sound secondary, as if it were only a bargaining chip. Not anymore, it now seems.

‘Longest border’ dispute

Independent of the Indian leadership’s inexplicable reluctance to name China as the aggressor at Doklam and Galwan, the question arises if Beijing’s two military escapades, especially the latter directly targeting India, had more to do with New Delhi toughening its stand on supporting the present Dalai Lama. India’s current position comes closer to that of the US, the nation’s post-Cold War politico-military partner.

The US and China share the Pacific Ocean but are separated by thousands of miles. In the post-Pearl Harbour era, including the ‘Cuban missile crisis’ in Cold War times, Washington has deftly avoided military altercations closer to the American homeland. Taiwan, South and East China disputes are all far away. Against this, India has a live dispute against China, involving possibly the longest border under contestation.

Under these circumstances, Chinese media and possibly Chinese negotiators could well quote Indian authors to argue their case on Arunachal Pradesh, even if only in a twisted fashion. And under the changed circumstances, the question also remains if Xi’s China is bothered anymore about Indian or world opinion on the nomination of a future Dalai Lama either.

N Sathiya Moorthy (
Distinguished Fellow & Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation


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