Chinese Military Base in Tibet: A Threat to India’s Sovereignty

"There is a view that India committed a momentous blunder at the time of independence in voluntarily surrendering all those rights on Tibet which had been inherited from the British."

Chinese Military Base in Tibet: A Threat to India’s Sovereignty

This endeavor from a Veteran is to understand our government’s policy towards Tibet as the goings on of the Lhasa and China’s current and long term strategic ambitions affect India. When China annexed Tibet in 1951, Mao Ze Dong while enunciating his stand on liberation of Tibet had included Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (Five Fingers) as the larger strategy in this orbit and all indications in the last 69 years or so seem to support this doctrine which is being successfully implemented. Today, Lhasa, they say, has been turned into a sex city for China’s military.

That Monks are being expelled on refusal to be politically indoctrinated. There have been continuous group clashes between Hans Chinese and Tibetans. It is difficult to get news from Tibet because of the vice like grip on the people and that, we have been in a fix over Tibet for more than half a century: Whether to dare use Tibet as a trump card against China – an old adversary? Or to go along with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), who think and see Tibet as a liability. Because they think, our decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama led to China attacking us in 1962.

Indian troops during the 1962 war

Besides, for the unrest which erupted in Lhasa on Mar 14, 2008, China blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting Tibetans and confusing public opinion. While on the other hand, in spite of pouring a lot of money into Tibet, China has been unable to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans.

As such, there are a number of questions to which the Government and its advisors and Think Tanks have to find answers. Is Tibet really a liability? Can Shangri La become a breeding ground for future terrorism after Dalai Lama to support secessionist movements in India’s Northeast? What inferences can be drawn from the Mar 2008 uprising in Lhasa - China’s worst intelligence failure? Dalai Lama’s and China’s views and India's options? Is the US in a position to play the Tibetan card? Finally, possible solutions and what India should and must do? But before that, a few facts.


There is a view that we in India committed a momentous blunder at the time of independence in voluntarily surrendering all those rights on Tibet which had been inherited from the British. Then the Chinese representative approached New Delhi in 1948 to esquire whether the Indian Government was contemplating retaining these rights, Nehru’s reply was in the negative.

Accordingly, Tibet was handed over on a plate and the ‘Buffer Zone’ disappeared forever. Today, Tibetans with nearly 1,30,000 settlers, spread over 50 settlements all over India, with 46 educational institutions and a government in exile at Dharamshala, continue to make news intermittently.

The latest one being Karmapa Lama in India-third in line after Dalai Lama and the railway being Karmapa Lama in India-third in line after Dalai Lama, and the railway line which China is contemplating to build up to Sikkim in the Chumbi Valley from Tibet.

The last time, in Sept 1991, prior to the visit of the then Prime Minister Li Peng to Delhi, a big demonstration was staged by Tibetans. It was put down by Indian authorities on a complaint by the Chinese envoy who made it clear that Beijing will not tolerate any encouragement to anti Chinese demonstrations in India. Thus, successfully administering a snub to the democratic tradition.

Besides, a rumour has been doing the rounds in Delhi’s corridors of power that the Chinese might bargain by recognizing the Macmohan Line in the eastern sector while retaining what they already have in Ladakh, provided all Tibetan activities are stopped from the Indian side.


Leaders of Southeast Asia's leading powers

China is quite clear on Tibet while New Delhi’s policy is ambivalently vague and depends on the likely reaction from Beijing. India does not recognize the Tibetan Government in exile and yet has given all necessary facilities to this ‘government’ to function effectively.

We have accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China but according to Chinese view, this applies only to Central Tibet and not to two other regions (Imdo and Kasun). Thus keeping these two regions out. But Dalai Lama does not want a truncated Tibet. We, I think have been afraid to express our views clearly fearing that China would then talk about Kashmir or pay back in the same coin in India’s northeast.

That leads me to this inference that we did not speak up in 1949 when the Chinese invaded Tibet nor did we lift a finger when Beijing set out to consolidate its hold 1954 onwards. As a result, the Tibetan issues stands relegated to the dustbin of history. But today, the nuclear threat from Tibet is real. Besides, 300,000 troops, 17 radar stations, 14 airfields and 8 missile bases, several dozens from Chinese 30 strong nuclear warheads arsenal and medium-range missiles including DF missiles are deployed in Tibet with all seven NE states and nearly all Indian cities within range.

The danger is that as the NE states realize the potential nuclear threats from China, they might be more inclined to deal with Beijing than New Delhi unless of course India comes out with an articulate nuclear policy that it is in a position to hit back when necessary.

The Dalai Lama, now nearing 88 who fled to India in 1959, like a true Buddhist is following a Middle Path. He wants demilitarization of Tibet. But is that possible? He has been sending representatives to Beijing for talks since 2000. After nearly 8 rounds of talks in the last 13 years, nothing has emerged.

In May 2008 while on a visit to UK he said, that he would like to return to Tibet as a Chinese citizen and had set four conditions for his return: That is, open Tibet to foreign media and given them free reign to observe and write; accept medical assistance from outside as many Tibetans were suffering from diseases; release all political prisoners and have fair trials and conduct substantive talks.

He does not want total independence but would be happy with an autonomous Tibet within China. He has been asking for US’s help and wants India to act as a mediator between Tibet and China.

The US, on the other hand, has taken various initiatives, most of which were discussed during Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington in 1993, 1994, 1995 and later on during his visits there. He was always given red carpet treatment. Further though officially it does not recognize the Tibetan government in exile in India, according to a Foreign Relations Act sanctioned for setting up Radio Freedom Asia in May 94, primarily meant for propaganda, Tibet has been listed as a sovereign country under occupation of foreign powers.

The Dalai Lama addressed US Parliamentarians during his visit there in Sep 2003.  The US did condemn that there were major Human Rights Violations in Tibet in the Mar 2008 uprising. But the US has far too many economic and strategic interests in China and at the moment would be foolish to support Tibet in anything except for Human Rights Violations.

But China, the main player, has been accusing the Dalai Lama of trying to drive a wedge between US and China and split China. It has criticized India for discussions concerning Tibet which took place at the world Parliamentarians conference held at New Delhi in May 94.

Further, it has accused the US of trying to play the Taiwan and Tibet cards. Beijing has been conveying to various countries not to receive the Dalai Lama. President Hu Jin Tao scrutinized every address of the Dalai Lama. Because of various changes taking place in Tibet he has been visiting Lhasa quite often.

The 365 year old Potala palace now overlooks glitzy 5 star hotels, night clubs and numerous brothels. China is supposed to be spending more than 3.2 billion dollars a year on modernization of Tibet. All villages are to be connected with roads. Qinghai-Lhasa railway is already a reality with a railway station at 5000 meters in Lhasa.

The train from Beijing-Lhasa is supposedly running in 48 hours, costing 48 US dollars per ticket-at least thrice a week. The same train will be extended to Natu La (Sikkim from Lhasa). Strategy being to force a change with its super economy, money and setting of Hans Chinese dividing cities like Lhasa into two worlds: Chinese and Tibetans.

The Mar 2008 uprising in Lhasa-largest protests in Tibet in the last 25 years, had rattled Beijing. They accused Dalai Lama for it. His reaction was that the violence was staged by Chinese troops dressed as monks and that lies can’t work. While Beijing has become fearful of possible Tibetan suicide attacks.

Tibet is valuable to China for its natural resources like Uranium, Copper, Lithium, Chrome and so on. All major rivers of South and SE Asia originate in Tibet. A point to note and emphasized by the Dalai Lama is, that India has borders with Tibet and not China. It is only in 1951 when China occupied Tibet that India and China became neighbours and then began the Sino-India border dispute.

China is not prepared to allow any political role for the Dalai Lama Nor is it prepared to recognize any successor to him in whose selection the Chinese Government and the Communist administration in Lhasa has not played a leading role. Various rounds of talks which have taken place so far are merely to mark time till Dalai Lama passes away. Concurrently, Beijing always says that Dalai Lama is welcome to return but must reflect on his mistakes and return to a correct patriotic stance.


The brutal crackdown on Tibetan peaceful uprising in Mar 2008 found New Delhi in a bind. India, as mentioned before, recognized Tibet as an Autonomous region of China and has assured no anti Chinese activity from its soil. Yet, India is a democracy and cannot keep quiet as Tibetans follow Gandhian philosophy.

New Delhi refrained from criticizing China. Instead, MEA said that it supports the ‘One China’ policy. India does not recognize the Dalai Lama as the head of a government in exile.

I think we have had an ambiguous and confused attitude towards the Dalai Lama. Our original agreement with the Dalai Lama was that he will not be permitted to conduct political activities, yet we allowed him to have a government in exile and a Parliament of deputies in Dharamshala.

When we say Tibet is a part of China we have never asked the Chinese to demarcate Tibet. This is important so long as China shows Arunachal Pradesh as part of South or Lower Tibet, and till that is done we should consider Tibet’s position as unsettled.


His holiness Dalai Lama

Tibetan youth in India took a stand against the Dalai Lama for not speaking up against China. There is a Free Tibet Movement about which the Chinese know, and during the peaceful revolt in Lhasa in Mar 2008 all news from Lhasa was available in Dharamshala due to the technical facilities we have today. There is a view after the Dalai Lama is gone, there will definitely be violent resistance as impatience spreads amongst young Tibetans.

We could perhaps see an equivalent of the IRA or Hamas in Lhasa. The gulf between the Hans Chinese and Tibetans has never been greater than it is today. During a visit to Japan in Nov 2008, Dalai Lama said, the Chinese rule is handing down a death sentence to Tibetans.

That they are totally obliterating an ancient culture. It is of interest to note that Dalai Lama’s original move was for independence. When he realized, it was no longer possible he modified it to Middle Path: an autonomous region on the lines of status given to Hong Kong. At a conclave of 600 community leaders held at Dharamshala in Nov 2008 Dalai Lama directly asked New Delhi to help resolve the crisis between India and China by rescuing Tibet from trouble.

The conclave was discussing Dalai Lama’s Middle Path approach, his succession, negotiations with China and all topics of independence or autonomy. Beijing asked India to stop the Conclave thus putting India in a spot while the Dalai Lama looked to India for help. Concurrently, Tibetan youth is at cross roads. They felt that the Conclave was a waste of time,  they wanted to know as to who should lead the movement for independence? That there has been far too much lip service.

That time was running out and soon, with Hans population in majority, Tibetans will be refugees in their own land. The Conclave decided to break off all relations with China, put Dalai Lama’s Middle Path on notice and voted that total independence will be their option or self determination as per UNO charter.

Though they will watch Middle Path for some more time. While Dalai Lama termed India’s attitude as cautious, rejected Independence option and stuck to Middle Path. Though the Conclave did declare Dalai Lama as their unanimous leader.


Chinese Paratroopers

The Chinese are now capable of transporting troops and ammunition from the hinterland to the Indian borders within 20-25 days as against 3-6 months required earlier. So, India’s security stands threatened. The revolt in Tibet was a big security threat. India’s hands off and timid reaction to it sent wrong signals to Beijing.

There is no reason why New Delhi should not have censored it. There is a view that India has given a lot of foothold in one country after another. In Bangladesh we shied away after facing accusations of hegemonic intentions. In Myanmar, we gave undue importance to pro-democracy sentiments. While in Nepal we let the Maoists have a free run. Now we risk whatever legitimacy we have in the eyes of Tibetan people.

We, meanwhile, have been busy establishing confidence-building measures on the 4,053 km long Sino-India border with China. But the bottom line is that Beijing is most advantageously placed. It does not recognize Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh as parts of India. It has kept its boundary dispute alive with Bhutan and has more or less militarized Myanmar on India’s eastern flank whose border runs along the sensitive states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.

Beijing is now preparing to use the naval ports of Hangyi, Coco Islands and Sittwe in southern Myanmar which will give it unhindered access to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Thus, with Chinese nuclear weapons deployed in Tibet, Lhasa’s status entirely dependent on its discretion, flat refusal to talk to Dalai Lama, no time schedule fixed for settling the border dispute and a militarized Myanmar, various secessionist movements are gaining momentum.

India has high stakes in Tibet, add to this, the appointment of Panchen Lama in Jan 1990 by the Chinese government which has totally usurped Dalai Lama’s position.  The question is,what happens after the Dalai Lama? The US has already appointed a coordinator for Tibetan affairs. Besides, Dalai Lama has opened an office at Taipei in Taiwan in 1997 where nearly 500,000 citizens practice Tibetan Buddhism of different types.

Beijing considers it a threat. It had warned the Dalai Lama at one time against his intended visits to Taiwan.  The US has been thinking of more initiatives which provide a leverage to India to take some positive action concerning Lhasa, where the Chinese population outnumbers Tibetans in their own homeland, and it is only a matter of time before the Chinese give Tibet a new Chinese name and it disappears as Tibet from the maps.


What inferences can be drawn from the above scenario? China will not loosen its grip on Tibet come what may. Because, it is from Tibet that Beijing’s larger strategy to create proxy satellites and to use their markets while keeping their competitor India engaged can be implemented most effectively. Accordingly, it has been and is developing connectivity with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh whose markets can or will be at its disposal in the future.

Further, there is no reason as to why China would not sign fresh treaties for defence cooperation, development and even to train their armies with these satellites. And to do that, Beijing has to keep India unsettled, delay resolution of the Sino-India border dispute and claim Arunachal Pradesh.

Most importantly, support secessionist movements which could, ultimately even take the space of a second Proxy War in India’s Northeast, and once the Dalai Lama passes away, dispose of the Tibetan issue to the dustbin of history.


Parliament of India

New Delhi must decide once for all, whether Tibet is a liability or an opportunity? If it is a liability, then we might as well carry on at the existing slow pace and leave the resolution of various disputes and issues in the Northeast to future generations. However, if we want to look at Tibet as an opportunity, then India will have to stand up and get out of the present attitude and tendency of ‘Reactive Policies’.

The parliament will have to find time to debate the goings-on in Tibet and the arming of Pakistan by China. New Delhi must speak up against human rights violations and must question deployment of such a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons in Tibet which target most Indian cities.

Besides, India must outline the framework of a second strike nuclear capability and take out Agni and Prithvi missiles from hibernation. New Delhi will have to refashion a new bold foreign policy to deal with China and Tibet which has to be supported by a strong military. It will have to dilute Chinese influence on our neighbours and support Tibetans.

We have already lost 25-30 years in the Northeast and are far behind in creating the necessary logistic infrastructure to support our armed forces, without whom, no foreign policy will succeed. Further, we should consider the following for a change to tell Beijing that Indian means business -

(a) Recognize the Dalai Lama as the head of a government in exile.

(b) Be aware of the Human Rights violations in Lhasa and censor these.

(c) Do not stop peaceful protests by Tibetans against Chinese atrocities in Lhasa, in keeping with the democratic tradition.

(d) Redraw treaties with the neighbouring countries to suit India’s permanent interests. But first define these interests.

(e) We must find solutions to the separatist problems in the Northeast in accordance with a time bound schedule.  We have been dilly-dallying on these for far too long.

(f) Involve the citizens of Northeast by raising more TA battalions, Ecological and Infrastructure development task forces.

(g) The entire security structure in the Northeast needs to be reviewed keeping in view the emerging threats. Start with consolidation of Para Military Forces into a BSF or ASSAM Rifles instead of the 10-12 Para Military Forces that we have there. We can and must ensure that the Maoists do not have a free run in Nepal.

(h) Improve connectivity with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh on a priority basis.


Tibet will be in the news in future because of Chinese actions, US’s initiatives and resurgence of interest in that region. We still have some time to redraw our policies concerning China and Tibet, and therefore, in the light of emerging scenarios, the NSA, NSAB, NSC, R&AW and our service headquarters should examine, analyze the contingencies arising in the Northeast as a result of Chinese intentions and let the Government know the options open to India.


“The goings on in Tibet, China’s Military base across the LAC, seem to have been totally sidelined. Obviously, Beijing is not resting and has a lot of plans up in its sleeve.  Its interests and possibilities can be articulated with precision, and that is the task of our NSA, NIA, NSAB, NSC, DIA, Signal and intelligence agencies and Service and PMF headquarters.  Our army corps and divisions deployed at the LAC must have updated maps across the LAC.

Their headquarters and down to Brigade Commanders must have regular intelligence briefings. They must be prepared to act Proactively along with the IAF whenever sensitive situations arise.

They must not forget that they have an adversary across the LAC, who are the Chinese commanders, the morale of their troops, their intentions and capabilities, their tactics and strategy and so on. While the NDA govt. concentrates on developing the administrative infrastructure and connectivity to support our formations.”


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