China’s great game: Tibet occupation means strategic depth and control over Asia river waters.


18 Jul, 2017


Illustration by Tanmoy Chakraborty.

Thubten Samphel, India Today, 14 July 2017. Read the original story here

The Chinese occupation of Tibet gives Beijing great strategic depth and control over river waters in Asia.

The stand-off between India and Bhutan on one side and China on the other at Doklam, a tri-junction once between India, Tibet and Bhutan, and the larger border dispute between the two Asian giants, have their origins in the British invasion of Tibet in 1904.

At the turn of the 20th century, the geopolitical balance between a crumbling Manchu empire and India was massively in favour of British India. Those were the days of the Great Game, a contest to gain influence from Iran to Tibet, played out between British India and an expanding Tsarist Russia. It was to ward off any perceived Russian influence in Tibet that Lord Curzon dispatched Colonel Younghusband on what the British called their Tibet ‘expedition’.

However, the greatest impact of the British invasion of Tibet was on Manchu China. The Qing dynasty and all previous successive dynasties saw the marauding Mongol nomads as the enduring threat to the security of the empire. In the 19th century, a new threat for the empire sailed from across the seas. Western powers subjected China to what the Chinese call ‘a century of humiliation’.

While grappling with this new danger posed by the western powers, Manchu China considered Tibet its secure backyard, or as one Manchu official put it, “the hand that protects the face”. The Tibetan plateau, shooting up almost three miles in the air, covering a total landmass of 2.5 million square kilometres and ringed by the mightiest mountain range in the world, was considered impregnable. However, the British breach of this buffer in 1904, which had kept the peace between India and China for centuries, alerted a dying Manchu China to the absolute necessity of securing Tibet. Manchu general Zhou Erfeng invaded Tibet in 1908. The 13th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and sought refuge in India.

The People’s Republic of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949-1950 was a continuation of the strategy to fend off hostile powers from the fringes of the empire. China’s occupation of Tibet gives Beijing immense strategic depth and control over most of the river waters of Asia.

The ongoing stand-off at Doklam, or as the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya puts it, Droglam (the nomads’ path), China’s One Belt One Road project, the militarisation of the plateau and its massive infrastructure building in Tibet are all part of China re-starting the Great Game: expanding Chinese influence across the Himalayas and Central Asia, all the way to Europe.

Mao Zedong, a keener student of The Art of War than of Das Kapital, saw Tibet in strategic terms. He said the Tibetan plateau, which the celebrated Swedish explorer Sven Hedin described as the ‘most stupendous upheaval on the face of the earth’, was the palm, with Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as the ‘five fingers’. With China gaining influence in Nepal, now threatening to recognise Sikkim as independent and obliquely hinting at stoking a democratic revolution in the kingdom of Bhutan when it says the “Bhutanese are not a happy lot”, Beijing may have plans to join the ‘fingers’ to the ‘palm’.

With Beijing exerting pressure on India on these points, it is time for India to pressure China on Tibet. In the 17-Point agreement signed between Lhasa and Beijing in 1951, China promised to respect the autonomy of Tibet. What Dharamsala wants from China is the implementation of the promised autonomy for all Tibetan people. It is not beyond India’s capacity to persuade China to give the Tibetan people the autonomy they want.

Once this is done, Tibet will not serve as a buffer, but as a bridge between two ancient civilisations and now dynamic economies. Tibet will also be restored to its traditional role as a centre of learning for the whole of the Buddhist Himalayan belt, which once thrived on Tibet’s Buddhist civilisation and which is firmly oriented to India because of this umbilical cultural and spiritual cord.

Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute and the author of Falling through the Roof.

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