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Sino-Indian Border Confrontation: Hegemony or Cooperation in South Asia?

By Prabasi Nepali
That there is rivalry between India and China in South Asia is an acute understatement. British India attempted to play the ‘Great Game’ by attempting to keep Russia away from Tibet. This country was in turn independent/autonomous of the Middle Kingdom and a vassal. It must be remembered that modern western concepts of sovereignty and international law only came to be applied to Asia in the 20th Century. The countries on China’s periphery had special relations with it, in many cases of a personal nature between the rulers of these countries and the Son of Heaven. One Chinese emperor was the personal pupil of the supreme Lama (= Teacher) of the Gelugpa (=Yellow Hat) branch (not sect, please) of Tibetan Buddhism, and conferred on his respected guru the title of ‘Dalai Lama’ (=the Great Ocean of Learning). It is inconceivable that the emperor would consider his own guru as a vassal. After the proclamation of the Republic of China, Tibet considered itself autonomous, but this was not anchored by way of treaties or international recognition. It only had ‘relations’ with British India, and three other insignificant countries – Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it claimed Tibet as part of its territory, and troops of the People’s Liberation Army moved in to secure it. Tibet moved very belatedly to attain international recognition and help, but it was very much too late. Both India and the UK opposed the discussion of the ‘Tibet Question’ in the United Nations, and recognized that Tibet was part of China. Many other countries followed.
Nepal withdrew its envoy from Lhasa, but did not recognize the status quo and waited until 1955 to even recognize the People’s Republic of China and establish diplomatic relations. And even as a small land-locked nation, it insisted that its ‘embassy’ in Lhasa be converted into a ‘Royal Nepalese Consulate General’. It is the only country in the world to have such a representation even today! Such was the nature of the ‘special relations’ between Nepal and Tibet! It may also be recalled that in the Himalayan confrontation between Nepal and Tibet, 1774-1792, the spiritual and civilian head of Tibet, the Dalai Lama categorically insisted that Tibet was under the protection of China and requested military help.  A Chinese invading army could not reach the Nepalese capital, but still could still achieve the status quo ante. An exchange of letters – equivalent to a quasi treaty – stated:
* China should henceforth be considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet, who were to  regard each other as brothers.
*If Nepal were ever invaded by a foreign power, China would not fail to help her.
*The two brotherly states would send to China some produce of their country every five years in token of their filial love. [That was the reinstatement of the famous quinquennial ‘tribute missions’ to the court of the Celestial Emperor, which continued without fail until 1905].
India became independent in 1947, but its bureaucrats and politicians had no experience in communicating or dealing with the Chinese. It had no ‘collective memory’ to fall back on, and the British had already left. British India left only vague conceptions of the Indo-Tibetan border, but no mutual valid agreements or treaties in modern international law. Instead of agreeing to bilaterally negotiate the common border (as all other China’s neighbours agreed to), India under PM Jawaharlal Nehru and his defence minister Krishna Menon obstinately insisted that the vaguely and unilaterally dileanated international borders – in the north-western sector (Kashmir/Ladakh), middle sector (Himachal Pradesh) and eastern sector (NEFA/North Eastern Frontier Agency, which later was re-named ‘Arunachal Pradesh’) – were all valid under international law! In addition, both Nehru and Menon had a vague conception of so-called ‘Asian solidarity’ and the common experience against ‘imperialism’, and expected China to toe the Indian line. At that time, the status of Sikkim’s border with Tibet/China was not acute as it was then nominally independent, although vaguely dependent on India in defence and foreign affairs.  At the same time, India wanted ‘to have its cake, and eat it too’. It had long accepted Tibet as an integral part of China, but at the same time it hosted its supreme leader, the Dalai Lama (who was accorded political asylum) and who was a symbol of its cultural and political independence. This was bound to anger a newly resurgent China. Even today, there is a functioning ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ in Dharamshala of India, also supported by Western countries.
Bhutan’s autocratic rulers also missed the bus in regulating the country’s common border with Tibet/China. It is so dependent on India for its overland trade, that under pressure from India, it neither maintains diplomatic relations with China, nor can it negotiate a border settlement in the present confrontation. Unlike Nepal, it cannot play the ‘China Card’! It is now caught in between – between the devil and the deep blue sea! The present confrontation is primarily between India and China because of the latter’s perceived encroachment of the Doklam plateau, nominally in Bhutan, but disputed between it and China. India has encroached into Chinese territory in the Chumbi Valley abutting Sikkim (which it had annexed by force in the 1970s), in order to hinder the construction of a high mountain strategic road right up to the tri-junction Sikkim/India – Tibet/China – Bhutan.
India sees in the construction of this mountain highway a major strategic threat to its extremely narrow ‘Siliguri Corridor’ or the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ (a narrow strip of 35 km. separating Nepal and Bangladesh) connecting the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal to the North-Eastern states bordering Tibet and Myanmar.
It does seem that both India and China are both on shaky ground – India for encroaching into Chinese territory, and China for doing so on disputed Bhutanese territory. India is attempting to speak for Bhutan, while actually representing its own strategic interests. A war of words has erupted now in the media of India and China. Surprisingly, the echo in the international media has been extremely muted till date. Should a border war break out as in October 1962, this would indeed be a grave danger to international peace and security, not only in South Asia, but the world at large. The Security Council of the United Nations should meet immediately to diffuse the critical situation.

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