By Liu Zongyi Source: Global Times Published: 2019-3-27
This year marks the 60th anniversary of democratic reforms in Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. It is also the 60th anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama fleeing from China into India. As an old issue between Beijing and New Delhi, the dispute over the 14th Dalai Lama has lasted for six decades. It was caused by a series of mistakes made by Indian politicians and strategists, including first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in cultural, political, historical and defense contexts.
First, Nehru and Indian strategists intentionally confused sphere of cultural influence with sphere of influence. Under two centuries of British colonial rule, India formed its own sphere of cultural influence because of its own unique culture. After it broke away from colonial rule, Nehru and other politicians attempted to inherit the British empire's influence by using South Asian countries' shared identification with Indian culture.
Many Indians believe Tibet belongs to India's sphere of cultural influence because Tibetan Buddhism originated in India, the two are geographically close, and the UK and India have special interests in Tibet. A lot of Indians, including Nehru, felt they are emotionally close to Tibetan Buddhism and the 14th Dalai Lama.
Second, Indians inherited the concepts of suzerainty and vassal state propounded by British colonizers. They believe Tibet is an independent country and a vassal state of China. They thought the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) entry into Tibet was an invasion and Tibet was occupied by China.
Such misconception is one of the reasons why India is uncompromising on the border issue. India believes it suffered losses by way of China occupying the whole of Tibet while India occupied only a small part of South Tibet. Thus New Delhi believes that it is China, not India, that should make concessions.
Last but not least, Indians inherited the British empire's idea of "scientific frontier." Nehru envisioned setting Kashmir, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Assam as India's "wall" on internal affairs, turning China's Tibet into a so-called buffer state between the two countries, and setting the McMahon Line as India's ideal border in its northeastern region.
The Nehru administration's original plan was to place Tibet under India's protection. After the PLA entered the region, Nehru and Indian elite obstructed reforms in Tibet. Their aim was to maintain Tibet's special status - a "buffer state" between China and India.
These misconceptions have made Nehru and high-ranking Indian officials differ with China on the Tibet question. India admitted the 14th Dalai Lama after the 1959 rebellion in Tibet, and supported him in establishing the "Tibetan government-in-exile" in India's Dharamsala. This was one of the most important reasons that led to the China-India border war in 1962.
In the next few decades, India used the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibet question to coerce or even split China. India instigates the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans to foment trouble when necessary, but reins them in when they may affect New Delhi's interests.
India plays an important role in the 14th Dalai Lama's negotiations with the Chinese government. In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Lobsang Sangay, the so-called president of the "Tibetan government-in-exile," to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Some Indian politicians never give up the illusion of turning Tibet into a "buffer state."
The 14th Dalai Lama, who is in his 80s, is the longest living Dalai Lama. As his health deteriorates and political forces differentiate among exiled Tibetans, the Indian government and strategists are mulling the future after the 14th Dalai Lama passes away.
There are three opinions. First, some say India and China can coordinate over the reincarnation issue. Exiled Tibetans can be repatriated to China, be naturalized into India, or migrate to Western countries, according to their wish. Thus the Tibet question will be resolved between China and India. However, only few agree with this solution.
Second, some believe India should intervene in the reincarnation issue together with the West. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama recently claimed that he could be reincarnated in India. This shows that India may continue to use the Tibet question as a bargaining chip to contain China. Third, some support Tibetan separatist forces to trouble China.
If New Delhi chooses the second or third solution, or even agrees to turn India into a base that threatens China's territorial integrity and political security, bilateral relations will be in deep crisis.
As China-US strategic competition intensifies and the international order is facing a change, some Western forces are trying to make an issue of the 60th anniversary of Tibet's democratic reforms and the Dalai Lama's fleeing China. India should not make mistakes on the issue again. China and India should respect each other's core concerns. The Indian government should make a complete break with the issue of the 14th Dalai Lama.
The author is a senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.