Monday, November 09, 2009

Dalai Lama Challenges China! Chaos in Nepal! Tension at the Border!

Parsing Sino-Indian Tensions

I have an article up at Asia Times Online under the pen name Peter Lee entitled Dalai Lama at apex of Sino-Indian tensions.

It's keyed to a high profile news item--the Dalai Lama's provocative visit to a border town in territory held by India but disputed by China--and a significant but rather underreported development--the escalating political struggle between pro-Chinese and pro-Indian political forces now reaching its climax in Nepal.

The Chinese themselves have said that the biggest irritant to Sino-Indian relations is the unresolved border dispute. To them, it’s more of an issue than economic competition, India’s growing integration into the U.S. South Asian security regime, or Indian unease at Beijing’s cozying up to Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives at New Delhi’s expense and raising the specter of maritime encirclement.

This would seem counterintuitive, since the remote boondocks that have formed the basis of the border dispute—the desolate wasteland of Aksai Chin (China’s share of the Kashmir dispute) in the west and the multi-tribal mélange of Arunachal Pradesh in the east at the Burmese border—are already occupied by the parties that have the strongest claim. A simple swap—the Indians recognize Chinese jurisdiction over Aksai Chin and the Chinese acknowledge Indian control of Arunachal Pradal—has, indeed, been on the table for a half century.

I make the case that perpetual tensions at the border reflect the destabilizing potential of the “Tibet card”—the possibility that India will abandon its “One China” policy once the current Dalai Lama passes on and overtly or covertly support Tibetan independence activities along the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

China wants to secure its borders and also increase its ability to project power into adjoining areas in order to deter potential shenanigans by the Tibetans with Indian connivance. India, on the other hand, wants border conditions favorable to a possible play of the “Tibet Card”.

The slow-motion collapse of Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region and India’s major military antagonist, has deprived Beijing of its most important asset. The idea that, if India messed with Tibet, Pakistan would unleash hell in Kashmir with Chinese support, is a vain hope today.

With this geostrategic deterrent out of the picture, the focus has shifted to securing the physical space at the borders. Both China and India are pouring money and troops into the border region and arguing over the status of a little town in Arunachal Pradesh called Tawang.

The map to the right, provided by Andy Proehl, shows the disputed area of AP. In the political map of AP below, Tawang is the district to the west sticking out between Tibet and Bhutan.

Tawang is in the news because the Dalai Lama is visiting there on November 8 to visit old friends and figuratively stick his thumb in the dragon’s eye. The Dalai Lama already made some serious waves last year when he reportedly departed from his usual apolitical stance and said that Tawang—within the contested territory in Arunachal Pradesh—was part of India.

It might be noted that the Dalai Lama looks slightly out of line here.

In 1947, the Tibetan government (the Dalai Lama was at that time a youth of twelve who had been identified as the reincarnation and resided in Lhasa but had not yet been enthroned) tried to renegotiate its border deal with the British (the famous Simla Accord of 1914 between Great Britain and Tibet that generated the McMahon line but was never accepted by China) to get acknowledgment of its de facto control of the town.

In fact, according to an interesting Wikipedia entry, the status of Tawang has been the key factor in the contested Himalayan border for well over one hundred years:

Early British efforts to create a boundary in this sector were triggered by their discovery in the mid-19th century that Tawang, an important trading town, was Tibetan territory. In 1873, the British-run Government of India drew an "Outer Line," intended as an international boundary … [In 1912-13] the Outer Line was moved north, but Tawang was left as Tibetan territory…. When the British demanded that the Tawang monastery, located south of the McMahon Line, cease paying taxes to Lhasa, Tibet protested. …. In 1944, NEFT [North Eastern Frontier Territory] established direct administrative control for the entire area it was assigned, although Tibet soon regained authority in Tawang. In 1947, the Tibetan government wrote a note presented to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs laying claim to Tibetan districts south of the McMahon Line. In Beijing, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 and declared its intention to "liberate" Tibet. India, which had become independent in 1947, responded by declaring the McMahon Line to be its boundary and by decisively asserting control of the Tawang area (1950-51).

How 'bout that. This backstory makes the Indo-Tibetan posturing over Tawang appear pretty provocative.

However, in my piece I argue that the true focus of international attention should be Nepal, which is careening into a political crisis as pro-Indian and pro-Chinese factions slug it out for dominance (with the barely concealed political, diplomatic, and financial support of their respective patrons).

At the same time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal Pradesh, the pro-Chinese Nepalese Maoists are threatening to bring the current, pro-Indian government down through mass action. The Nepalese Maoists, who abandoned their insurgency to participate in the political process, emerged from the 2008 elections as the largest political party in parliament.

This clip of the Maoists' anti-government rally in Kathmandu on November 1, beyond some Triumph-of-the-Will type thrills, gives an idea of the intensity of the current political scene in Nepal.

If the Maoists succeed—which appears very likely—India will face the unwelcome prospect of Nepal edging into the Chinese camp.

Considering that, in the 1970s, India dealt with its other unruly satellite state—Sikkim—by orchestrating the overthrow of the monarchy, dispatching Indian troops to Sikkim at the request of local pro-Indian politicians, and arranging a plebiscite that voted for union with India and the extinction of Sikkimese independence by a vote of 97.5%--there is no guarantee that the Nepalese imbroglio will end quickly or amicably.

Nobody, not even the Nepalese Maoists, seem interested in having this thing boil over into a regional crisis, and perhaps that’s why the whole mess has been almost invisible from the standpoint of the international media.

But Asia Times Online has the story. Hey, go read the thing!

As a lagniappe for China Matters readers, some serious scholarship was done on the origins of the Sino-Indian War of 1962—the mother of all Chinese border conflicts—after the Chinese government declassified documents relating to the origins of the war.

Bottom line: misunderstandings on both sides.

The Chinese misinterpreted Nehru’s expressions of sympathy with the Tibetan people and their aspirations for autonomy as an active Indian policy to challenge the PRC’s control of its Tibetan regions.

Nehru, on the other hand, made a more fatal miscalculation, believing that China lacked the military heft and will to push back when he decided to expel the PLA from Aksai Chin.

Perhaps the key psychological element in the war was the fact that Nikita Khrushchev pissed off Mao Zedong.

In his study China’s Decision for War with India in 1962, John Garver (currently professor of international relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology) describes how Krushchev got into Mao’s face about screwing up Tibet:

The question of responsibility for the crisis in Tibet figured prominently in the
contentious talks between Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Beijing
on 2 October 1959. After a complete disagreement over Taiwan, Khrushchev turned to
India and Tibet, saying: "If you let me, I will tell you what a guest should not say --- the events in Tibet are your fault. You ruled in Tibet, you should have had your intelligence [agencies] there and should have know about the plans and intentions of the Dalai Lama" [to flee to India]. "Nehru also says that the events in Tibet occurred on our fault," Mao replied. After an exchange over the flight of the Dalai Lama, Khrushchev made the point: "If you allow him [the Dalai Lama] an opportunity to flee to India, then what has Nehru to do with it? We believe that the events in Tibet are the fault of the Communist Party of China, not Nehru's fault." "No, this is Nehru's fault," Mao replied. "Then the events in Hungary are not our fault," the Soviet leader responded, "but the fault of the United States of America, if I understand you correctly. Please, look here, we had an army in Hungary, we supported that fool Rakosi --- and this is our mistake, not the mistake of the United States." Mao rejected this: "The Hindus acted in Tibet as if it belonged to them." [emph. added]

Self-reflection and the willingness to admit a mistake were not Mao Zedong’s signature virtues under the best of circumstances.

Having Khrushchev—who had not only presided over de-Stalinization (a process that Mao detested) and the Sino-Soviet split; he was also pursuing a strategic alliance with India!-- rub his nose in the embarrassment of the Dalai Lama debacle and take India’s side undoubtedly infuriated the Chairman.

In this context, it isn’t surprising that Mao would welcome the opportunity to assert China’s position on the Sino-Indian border and humiliate Nehru, who was not only Mao’s rival as leader and role model for the Non-Aligned Movement; he was also Krushchev’s current darling.

When war came in 1962, the Indian Army, acclimated to service in the plains and lacking the logistical wherewithal to push men and supplies up through the Himalayan foothills to the front lines, was resoundingly thumped by the PLA.

China fielded units and commanders battle-hardened in the harsh conditions of the Korean War, and benefited from the more manageable logistics involved in resupply across the Tibetan plateau.

India’s defeat was a shock to its military planners, and the lessons of the war have guided the Indian Army’s order of battle and the militarized infrastructure development of the border regions to this day.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that the Indian government, as part of its strategy to entrench itself in Afghanistan and irritate and terrify Pakistan has the same outfits building strategic roads in Afghanistan (such as the Zaranj highway connecting Afghanistan to Iran and intended to bypass Pakistan and the Khyber Pass for trade and military resupply) that build them on the Sino-Indian border: the Border Roads Organization engineers guarded by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

China still holds the high ground on the Sino-Indian border, however. This year India announced it was moving a squadron of nuclear-capable Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters to within striking range of the border at Arunachal Pradesh, just to keep things even.

It looks like the Tibetan problem will keep the Sino-Indian border tense for the foreseeable future.

The maps of the contested Himalayan regions were prepared by Andy Proehl, proprietor of the blog Random Axis.

The map of Arunachal Pradesh is from Wikipedia.

Photo of Dalai Lama at Tawang November 8, 2009 flanked by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu AP Photo/Manish Swarup


wo said...

To sum up such an important war (1962)in a psychological explanation is too misleading, and suggests wrong things. India obviously has its own stragetical considerations in supporting Dalai Lama, and playing the Tibet card. China (or Mao) would be extremely stupid if it failed to recognize this. Mao's temper may add some salt on this tension. But it is completely wrong and disingenous to suggest that the war is mostly out of Communist China's intention to punish Nehru over its frustration on the latter's accommodation of Dalai Lama. This kind of explanation runs counter to the solution of the crisis on the Chinese side--the victor lost the disputed territory. It is understandable from this perspective that why you ommitted mentioning it.

China Hand said...

Thanks your comment. In the ATol article I cover the reasons why China withdrew from the territory it had occupied during the war. Certainly the war was strategically important to confirm Chinese control over Aksai Chin. Nevertheless,I find the Khrushchev anecdote both amusing and enlightening in the context of Mao's desire to assert China's leading role in the third world.

Sun Bin said...

you have made a lot of polemic conclusion and statement, but not really any convincing evidence leading to your speculation/theory.

a few notes:

1. the key and overwhelming reason for Mao's strike (back) in 1962 was that Nehru was pushing too much (70-80% of his outposts in East (NEFA) were north of McMahon line -- crossing even what the Indian claim was) as he misjudge the ability of China's military over such a harsh terrain and supply line. Mao decided Indian encroachment would not stop unless he acted.

2. Indian's defeat was simply bad leadership and bad training. PLA was as inexperienced in fighting in such terrain as India was. PLA leadership had the experiences of the civil war and the Korean war. You have simply taken the Indian official excuse for the defeat.

3. Nepal factor is peripheral to the whole Indian-China dispute. If anything, the relationship between the Maoist and current PRC is not amicable, since China effectively denounced Mao for 30 years.

4. Pakistan-China relationship was A RESULT of the 1962 war. You made it seems like a decisive factor for Sino-Indian dispute, which really isn't. Even if Pakistan collapses, kashmir will still be a hot spot, it is geopolitic, and religion, irrespective of who rules Pakistan

5. Aksai Chin was not really part of Kashimir. the West side of the disputed problem include other part of Jammu-Kashmir other than Aksai Chin.

Sun Bin said...

6. I would think India would NOT openly support the independence of Tibet. In particular, the Pakistan factor should not relate to such a decision since India has other thing to worry about, viz. China's counter to such move would be to support Assam separatism Tit-for-Tat.

Kevcham said...

the only thing that matters is what the residents of this "disputed"region want. I'm willing to bet they don't want to be citizens of China.

Frankly, the world is getting tired of China throwing its weight around irresponsibly and interfering in other peoples matters.

China Hand said...

Thanks v/much your comments, Mr. Sun.They gave me considerable food for thought. I agree some kind of conflict over India's move into the Aksai Chin was inevitable. However, the way China responded turned into a foreign relations debacle for China. I think linking the nature of China's response to Mao's psychology is not out of line. Re military preparedness, India's main problem was the utter fecklessness and inexperience of Nehru and his Minister of Defense. Certainly the Indians would have put up a better fight if their leadership had planned for a real battle. However, I'd like to point out that recent actual battle experience is very important, especially in a short war--as the PLA found out when it tried to "teach Vietnam a lesson" in that border war. Re Nepal, the evidence for the linkup between the Maoists and the PRC is indisputable. At the risk of peddling my own dog food, I recommend my article in Asia Times for more details. Re Pakistan, I wasn't trying to link the Pakistan situation to the runup to the 1962 war. Pakistan's current lack of value to China as a strategic asset has been pointed out by Indian commentators. On the Indian right wing, there seems to be some desire to make hay while the sun shines i.e. confront China while Pakistan is flat on its back. Re Kashmir, the whole situation inc. the land Pakistan ceded to China is pretty complicated. I didn't want to go into it in too much detail. Thanks for reading.

wo said...

Speaking of "turning into a foreign relations debacle", you may want to read the interview of Taylor Fravel on the Indo-China conflict issue at the India website Rediff News:

There Fravel, recognized as "the premier expert on China's border problems", gives a completely diffeent view. And in that view, the psychological explanation would seem rather irrelevant, to say the least. Also, Fravel's article published in "International Security": "Power Shift and Escalation: China's use of force in territorial disputes."

Sun Bin said...

CH, thanks for your note.

I read your article in ATonline, it is very informative, esp regarding the recent development in Nepal (which I haven't been following). I don't think we have much in disagreement, esp Re: your note above.

and my previous comments were not meant to argue against what you have wrote (e.g. pakistan pre-1962), i was just trying to highlight the related historical background, which are useful to be kept in mind (and serve as the context) while reading your post. e.g. In my view, Nepal is one of the issue re Sin-Indian conflicts, but the fundamental driver is still the border negotiation.

rosy marshal said...

Reading this post was very much informative.But at the same time I got a bit worried and annoyed by reading the news of tension at Nepal China border.Hope all things get sorted out in coming time.
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denk said...

Facts Behind China-India Border Dispute

denk said...

Kevcham said...
**Frankly, the world is getting tired of China throwing its weight around irresponsibly and interfering in other peoples matters.**

oh yeah ?
if u want to know who have been muddling the water here, look no further than the u.s. [the usual suspects]

coming to your neigbourhood cinema soon.....
terai terai terai. !!

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Kirti Vashee said...

In The Sun Behind the Clouds, Sarin and Sonam take a uniquely Tibetan per­spec­tive on the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of the Dalai Lama and his peo­ple as they con­tinue their strug­gle for free­dom in the face of deter­mined sup­pres­sion by one of the world’s biggest and most pow­er­ful nations. The film­mak­ers had inti­mate access to the Dalai Lama and fol­lowed him over the course of an event­ful year, which included the 2008 protests in Tibet, the inter­na­tional response to it, the Bei­jing Olympics, and the break­down in talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. Set against this back­drop, the film explores the inter­play between the per­sonal and the his­toric, spir­i­tu­al­ity and pol­i­tics, and the ten­sion between the Dalai Lama’s efforts to find a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion to the Tibet sit­u­a­tion based on com­pro­mise and dia­logue, and the impa­tience of a younger gen­er­a­tion of Tibetans who are ready to take a more con­fronta­tional course.

The film had its North Amer­i­can pre­miere at the recently con­cluded Palm Springs Inter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Cal­i­for­nia where it became the focus of much media atten­tion when the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment tried to get the fes­ti­val to remove the film, osten­si­bly for its anti-China stand. When the fes­ti­val refused, two Chi­nese films were with­drawn in retal­i­a­tion. The film had three sold-out screen­ings and a fourth was added when it was voted one of the Best of the Fest films.

“In a wel­come depar­ture from many pre­vi­ous films about the decades-long fric­tion between Tibet and China, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Strug­gle for Free­dom” pro­vides a two-sided view of the com­plex polit­i­cal and social dynam­ics within and out­side Tibet. For the “strug­gle” in the film’s title is not merely against China but also between com­pet­ing Tibetan views regard­ing the best strat­egy: co-existence or inde­pen­dence. The film is essen­tial view­ing for any­one who cares about the fate of the moun­tain region and the legacy of the Dalai Lama.” (Vari­ety, a lead­ing US film trade journal)

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