Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations

Article excerpt

Tibet is a key factor in India-China relations. It is only after the 1950 Chinese occupation of Tibet that India and China came to share the now disputed common border. In recent years, China's military buildup and infrastructure development in Tibet, as well as reported plans to divert or dam rivers that rise in Tibet and flow into India, have raised India's anxieties. Conversely, China's insecurity about Tibet is an important driver of its approach toward India. India has been unable to assuage China's fears about its possible use of the presence of the Dalai Lama in India and its large Tibetan refugee population of about 120,000 to create trouble for China in Tibet. The presence of the Dalai Lama and a large community of Tibetan refugees in India has kept the "Tibetan question" alive. Given India's open democratic system and long tradition of giving refuge to persecuted peoples, India will find it politically impossible to meet China's expectations on the Tibet question without a significant quid pro quo. The breakdown of talks between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama does not augur well for the future, and a post-Dalai Lama situation could become much more complicated. Of late, China's aggressive territorial claims on India, the deepening of the China-Pakistan alliance and a shift in China's position on Kashmir has led to a hardening of India's position on Tibet. India is now seeking satisfaction on what it considers to be the core issues relating to India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. India-China relations are unlikely to be on an even keel until this tangled knot is unraveled.

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For thousands of years, Tibet was the buffer that kept India and China geographically apart and therefore at peace. It has only been for the last six decades or so, after China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950, that India and China have come to share a common border, and with it the inherent issues of border security, such as the delineation and demarcation of the border and the movement of people and flow of trade across it. However, in the absence of any extensive historical experience of relations with each other, each country has a poor understanding of the psyche and system of the other. This was a critical lacuna when the two countries began to interact after India's independence in 1947 and the Communist Revolution in China in 1949. Both were then governed by proud nationalist leaders who were imbued with an exalted sense of the greatness, destiny and mission of their respective nations, but who also had deeply ingrained grievances arising out of the humiliations they suffered under colonial rule. Given the vanities, egos and different ways of thinking of the leaders of India and China, the likelihood of misperceptions and misunderstandings was built into the situation. (1)

SINO-INDIAN RELATIONS AND TIBET PRE-1950

Before the mid-20th century, India-China relations were minimal. There was some overland and seaborne trade, as well as occasional exchanges of pilgrims and scholars. (2) The experience of the Indians and the Chinese of the outside world was completely different. India did not--indeed could not--keep out foreign influences and ideas. Macedonians, Turks, Afghans, Persians, Mongols and assorted tribes from the Eurasian heartland who invaded India over the centuries made a profound and lasting impact on the country. The old order was not swept away. Rather, a new composite culture and society emerged as, over time, the invaders settled down in the hospitable climes of the plains of India. Here they lived in peace and prospered, eventually becoming indistinguishable from, indeed a part of, the local population. (3) That was not the experience of the Chinese, who remained self-assured that they were the "Middle Kingdom" and all others barbarians. This patronizing approach persisted when India and China became independent in the mid-20th century. …

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