The Tibetan Roots of the China-India Border Dispute

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The border standoff between China and India is in its second month. In June, Peoples Liberation Army troops were found building a road in disputed territory at the junction of Chinese-occupied Tibet, Bhutan, and India. India’s national security advisor is visiting Beijing in an effort to resolve the matter.

While the Sino-Indian border tensions reflect the rivalry between two enormous, nuclear powers competing for influence in the region, to a degree underappreciated in the West, China’s pressure on India’s border also stems from the Party’s inability to pacify Tibet and its expansive definition of its interests there.

Over a period of decades, the PRC settled all but one of the major land borders it acquired through the conquest of Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang), often making territorial concessions in exchange for other kinds of influence. In Nepal, for example, the PRC received permission to destroy Tibetan rebel bases in the early 1960s, and since then it has coopted Kathmandu in the effort to stop the flow of Tibetan refugees. With the Central Asian countries, Beijing sought cooperation in clamping down on Uighur refugees from Xinjiang, which the PLA occupied in 1949. These relationships laid the foundation for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which serves among other things as a platform for Beijing’s challenge to democracy as a universal norm.

The border with India is the only one of China’s major land boundaries that remains unsettled. For decades, China promoted a settlement based on an exchange of two large areas of disputed territory. China would keep Aksai Chin, a high-altitude desert in the west that is important to Beijing’s control of Tibet. Delhi would keep Arunachal Pradesh, a large state in India’s northeast. In this way, Beijing implicitly respected a border negotiated by Tibet and British-ruled India in 1914.

Several years ago, the Party shifted its position. Now Beijing demands not only Aksai Chin but also almost all of the state of Arunachal, which officials have taken to calling “South Tibet.” Beijing is particularly concerned with the district of Tawang, home to an important monastery associated with the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhist religious order and where the Dalai Lama stopped as he entered exile in India in 1959. When the Dalai Lama made a return visit to Tawang in April, China promised “blows for blows.” The area of current tensions is near a stretch of land vital to India’s defense of its northeast.

When widespread protests on the Tibetan plateau in 2008 revealed China’s failure to assimilate Tibet, Beijing elevated Tibet’s importance in its international relations. Deference to a “correct understanding” on Tibet became a condition for the PRC’s cooperation on issues ranging form North Korea to the global economy. Under pressure, a number of European countries adopted the “one China” phrase for Tibet and stopped high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama. This helps Beijing cast the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” and support for him as “anti-China.” However, as Lodi Gyari, a former envoy to Sino-Tibetan talks explained, unlike the government of Taiwan “no Tibetan government has ever claimed to be the government of China so the application of the ‘one china policy’ to Tibet…simply does not arise.” If Tibet is reduced to the status of just another region of China, then it need not come up in bilateral relations any more than other provinces do. For its part, Beijing had no reason to take seriously the Sino-Tibetan Dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, which collapsed in 2010.

While Beijing has forced concessions from foreign capitals, a new challenge emerged at home. Chinese democrats began to see the issue as one of democratic legitimacy, a view that obviates the Party’s historical revisionism on sovereignty. “The roots of the crisis in Tibet are the same as the roots of the crisis in all of China,” Liu Xiaobo wrote shortly before he was arrested for subversion in 2008. “A confrontation between freedom and dictatorship has been made to look like a clash between ethnicities.” Liu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died in custody on July 13. In 2008, Liu and other intellectuals signed an open letter criticizing Party propaganda on Tibet. A think tank, later shuttered, traced the origins of the Tibetan protests to Party policies and Chinese lawyers volunteered to defend Tibetans arrested in the crackdown. Some were arrested or disbarred.

For Chinese democrats the addition of a democratic polity (albeit one with limited sovereignty) to China’s periphery is, like the democratization of Taiwan, a welcome development. In 2011, the Dalai Lama completed the democratization of the exile government by transferring his temporal powers to a parliament and prime minister elected by the Tibetan diaspora.

China’s first priority in building up force at the border and dramatically increasing incursions may be to interfere with the Dalai Lama’s succession, perhaps by unleashing, or just threatening, war along the border when he dies, and diminishing international recognition of a Tibetan-chosen successor. Beijing has already promulgated bureaucratic regulations on reincarnation through which it intends to designate an impostor. The next step might be to use military pressure to threaten India over Tibet’s democratic exile government.

The U.S. government has already quietly indicated its support for the Tibetans’ control of the Dalai Lama’s succession process. It needs to make that point more clearly and enlist other democracies in taking the same position as a first step toward ending the dynamic of demand-and-concession on Tibet. Likewise, Washington should help India improve its infrastructure and defenses along the border.

In the West, Tibet is usually seen as a settled matter of limited strategic interest. In fact, China’s expansive approach to Tibet now threatens India and the model of a free Tibet it hosts within its borders. Both are of the utmost importance to the United States as it confronts China’s rise in the region and around the world.

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