Why India May Never Play Its ‘Tibet Card’ Despite Skyrocketing Tensions With China?

Tensions between India and China continue to escalate despite various rounds of intense negotiations at both military and diplomatic level.  China via its media accuses India of wanting to negotiate only when its army is at an advantageous position and screeching for war when they are on the back-foot.

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As China continues to hold its cards close to the chest and New Delhi consistently accusing Beijing of not implementing the withdrawal of its troops despite assurances, experts have wondered why India is not playing the ‘Tibet Card’ to call China’s bluff?

In 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese occupation, spiritual leader Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa to India where he has been followed by Tibetans ever since.

Lama, who has since then been living in the northern state of Dharamsala, where his supporters run a small government in exile to advocate for Tibet’s autonomy, is considered a dangerous separatist by China, with his activities being a major source of friction between the two countries.

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While India has regarded the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, it also chose to accept Tibet as a part of China through a 2003 agreement which saw a quid pro quo recognition by China of the Himalayan region of Sikkim as Indian territory.

But increasing tensions along the border have poked suggestions from many to New Delhi to re-strategize and use the “Tibet Card” as retaliation against China’s growing belligerence. However, India has refrained from using Tibet as a means to hurt China due to several reasons.

According to Shishir Gupta, writing for the Hindustan Times, history has a huge part to play in Prime Minister Narendra Modi not opting to pick the Tibet Card in a bid to foil Chinese advances.

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Then PM Jawahar Lal Nehru’s forward policy to define the Indian border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the decision to provide shelter to 14th Dalai Lama after he crossed over on March 31, 1959, was one of the key reasons behind the 1962 border war.

China’s supposition was that the presence of high lamas in the nation would offer some leverage to India in the Tibetan plateau and that the high Buddhist lama could induce a rebellion to destabilize an atheist China.” said Gupta

While New Delhi has been forced to play the patience game with Beijing, it knows that finding a peaceful means to diffuse the border situation is a much better option than looking to enter a war-like situation again.

Dalai Lama

Moreover, there is quite a chance that India might not even have a Tibet Card to play in the future with the 14th Dalai Lama, who is now 85-years-old, making it clear that he will neither emanate nor appoint and then tutor his successor.

However, a retired Indian Army veteran, Inspector General Gurdip Singh Uban thinks that Tibet’s strategic importance could have a huge part to play for New Delhi to have an edge over their neighbours.

“The strategic importance of Tibet cannot be overemphasised. It is the roof of the world, with vast mineral and natural resources,” (The restive ethnic groups) resent the taking over of their lands, interference in their culture, and resettling of the Han Chinese population on their homelands,”

The cause of these oppressed people must be taken up at all forums to force China to recoil. The logical step, therefore, is to challenge the very legitimacy of the Chinese claim over Tibet.” said Singh.

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But according to Abhijnan Rej, writing for The Diplomat, India is unlikely to revisit India’s position on Tibet, with the move eventually proving to jeopardise the 2003 agreement with China.

“(It) could pave the way for China de-recognizing Sikkim as Indian territory – or, more alarmingly from New Delhi’s point of view, Beijing asserting that all of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Ladakh, are disputed territories. Note that China already considers Arunachal Pradesh as part of “South Tibet”.” said Rej.

The statements have been supported by writer Suhasini Haidar, who emphasised on how any such move could completely destroy India’s ties with China which have already been deteriorating in recent times.

“To begin with, ties between New Delhi and Beijing have deteriorated over the past few years for a number of reasons unconnected to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan population in India.”

It would be naive to think that these problems would go away if India were to make the Tibetan community and its leaderless visible. Therefore, while it is a mistake to play every visit of the Dalai Lama or official meeting with the leader of the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’, Lobsang Sangay, as a ‘challenge to China’, it is equally absurd to depict strictures on their actions as a ‘peace offering to Beijing, said Haider, while writing for an Indian publication, The Hindu.

Nitin J Ticku an expert with the EurAsian Times stated that if the Indian government questions the very sensitive ‘One China Policy’ over Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Xinjiang, India will not only see massive economical repercussions from China, but Beijing would get a licence to question India’s claims over Kashmir and Sikkim. This would be a disastrous move for the region.