Reimagining Tibet in Sino-Indian Relations

The Tibetan government-in-exile has a new political leader. Lobsang Sangay took over not only as the new Kalon Tripa or Prime Minister but also stepped into the Dalai Lama’s shoes as political leader of the Tibetan exile movement. This handover of power to a younger generation of Tibetan leaders – democratically elected by the Tibetan community in exile – is an important milestone in the Tibetan struggle and has significant implications for China.

One, when the Chinese call the Dalai Lama, a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, they can no longer easily tar the whole Tibetan movement with the same brush nor will personal attacks on Lobsang Sangay be as effective within China as those directed against the Dalai Lama have been in the past. Two, the use of violence could gradually receive greater sanction in the Tibetan movement.

Third and more interestingly, as Buddhism grows in China, despite the Communist Party’s efforts to keep a lid on religious expression, it is quite possible that the role and place of Buddhist religious leaders in Chinese society might grow more important over time. The Dalai Lama’s stepping away from his political role allows him or his successor to take on a wider role as a leader of Buddhists everywhere, including of Chinese Buddhists.

For India, meanwhile, the Tibetan leadership transition is probably a good time as any, to reevaluate its Tibet policy. If nothing else, India must start planning for consequences arising from a post-Dalai Lama scenario for both Sino-Indian relations and its own Buddhist communities and regions.

Chinese infrastructure construction and population movement in Tibet are already matters of concern for India from a military perspective. Add issues of climate change and the likelihood of water shortages in South Asia and Indian concerns in Tibet can only grow, even if the Chinese did not talk of any plans for water diversion from rivers originating in the plateau.

Besides these issues with a potential for creating conflict, there are also economic issues involving Tibet that should bring about a reevaluation of India’s Tibet policy and its relations with China, more generally. Beijing’s Western Development Strategy was developed in the 1990s to quicken economic development in Tibet. While the policy appears to be successful with the region witnessing double-digit growth over several years, the Tibetan protests of March 2008 and subsequent events have shown that Tibetans remain dissatisfied. They do not seem to think economic prosperity alone is sufficient or even that it has benefited them to the full extent possible.

Against such a background, it is important to draw some lessons from the cultural and economic history of the region. In the past, Tibet was connected to the rest of the world and even to the rest of China through India. Tibetans will need the cushion of renewed cultural and religious contact with India to feel at ease under a Chinese administration. And while Chinese authorities have made great efforts to improve Tibet’s linkages with the rest of the country, the Tibetan economy will need more than just the distant markets of China’s eastern coast to grow and develop. Indian markets to its south provide Tibet and indeed other western Chinese provinces, with additional options. Southwards too, lie the region’s shortest access routes to warm waters and the outside world.

The large Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the several Indian states bordering Tibet would also have additional opportunities for economic growth if they are linked to the larger Chinese economy overland through Nepal and the Tibet region.

Developing greater cross-border economic linkages, allowing for greater freedom of movement for Indian and Chinese tourists and pilgrims into each other’s countries via Tibet, better communications and transport linkages and the reopening of consular and commercial offices along the Sino-Indian border are essential steps in such a process.

In this context, another leadership transition – this time, in the Tibet Autonomous Region – with the economist Chen Guoquan succeeding the hardliner Zhang Qingli as Party Secretary might be relevant as also indeed the handover of power from Hu Jintao to a new generation of leaders at the Communist Party Congress next year.

With the boundary dispute ongoing, India needs to adopt a dual policy of continuing to close the military gap with China while creating incentives for cooperation. Tibet needs to be converted from a frontier separating India and China into a meeting place where mutual interests are fulfilled. This is an essential step in the creation of any lasting Sino-Indian partnership.

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “India’s Road to China must pass through Tibet,” DNA, 9 September 2011.

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