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India’s Tibet ambiguity

One of the iron laws of Sino-Indian relations is beginning to assert itself again.

Written by C. Rajamohan |
November 27, 2008 3:03:32 am

One of the iron laws of Sino-Indian relations is beginning to assert itself again. 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. The current restiveness in Tibet and the collapse of the talks between the exiled Tibetan leadership and Beijing are likely to squeeze New Delhi harder in the coming months.

At a recent conclave of Tibetans from around the world in Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama has once again characterised India’s policy as “excessively cautious”. Normally not the one to point a finger at his hosts, the Dalai Lama, is imploring a more engaged policy from India on Tibet.Meanwhile the Chinese officials continually remind New Delhi about its promise not to allow Tibetans to conduct anti-China activities in India.  New Delhi, of course, says the Dalai Lama is a revered spiritual leader who does not indulge in political activities on Indian soil.

The South Block could walk this fine line over the last two decades, because the Dalai Lama adopted the “Middle Path” and called for “autonomy” rather than independence. Although it should be relieved that the Dalai Lama reaffirmed his commitment to the “Middle Path” at the recent conclave of Tibetan activists in Dharamshala, New Delhi is aware that Tibetan moderation might have run its course. As Tibetans get frustrated at the lack of progress in the talks with Beijing, they might soon have no choice but embark on more vigorous forms of protest against China.

As India gets caught in this crossfire, its domestic political divisions on Tibet are also likely to get sharper. “Doing nothing” on Tibet may no longer be a policy option for New Delhi.

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Britain’s suzerainty

Among the few external players linked to Tibet, other than India, Nepal and Bhutan which share a border with it, are Britain and the US. The former because of the Raj legacy and the latter because it is the sole superpower.

Although Britain’s role in the region has steadily declined, it has had something to say about the historical relationship between China and Tibet. After all it was the Raj that opened up Lhasa in the first decade of the twentieth century and negotiated various agreements between British India and Tibet.

Since then London had insisted that China’s relationship with Tibet was one of “suzerainty” rather than full ‘sovereignty’. This distinction between the two concepts offered some legal basis for the Tibetan claims for a special relationship with Beijing and unique political dispensation within modern China.

Discarding Britain’s traditional position late last month, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said London’s “outdated concept of suzerainty” was “based on the geo-politics of the time” and regretted that “some have used this to claim that we are denying Chinese sovereignty over a large part of its own territory.” Predictably, the Chinese are exulting and Tibetans angry at the British policy reversal.

Official India too has stopped using the term suzerainty with reference to Beijing and Lhasa, but remains committed to its contemporary political essence — the Tibetan right for ‘autonomy’ within China.

Disputed history

As the successor of the Raj, India inevitably gets drawn into the dispute between the Dalai Lama and China not just on the future of Tibet but also on its past.

In dropping the demand for independence, the Dalai Lama has been willing to accept Tibet’s autonomous future within China. Beijing, however, wants him to say Tibet has “always” been part of China. The Dalai Lama says he can’t be party to the falsification of Tibetan history. This has been one of the most contentious issues in the stalled talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing.

The last time India formally spoke about the subject was when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee traveled to Beijing in June 2003. The joint statement issued at the end of that visit said, “The Indian side recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”.

Indian officials explained in 2003 that Vajpayee’s words were a bow to the current reality. The Vajpayee formulation, however, is silent on the history of the relationship between Beijing and Lhasa.

The writer is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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