Dialogue  April-June 2009 , Volume 10 No. 4

Chinese Occupation of Tibet and its Impact on Indian Security

Vijay Kranti

China ’s geographic interface with Himalayas and South Asia is only as old as its occupation of Tibet . Before Comrade Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forced the Dalai Lama’s theocratic government of Tibet to merge Tibet into People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1951, China never had even an inch of common borders with India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sikkim or Bhutan. Since times immemorial, no section of Tibet bordering with these countries was ever governed or even remotely controlled by writ or men from Beijing. Before Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibetan currency, Tibetan Post and Tibetan check posts on the Tibetan side of Himalayas defined an exclusively Tibetan and non-Chinese character of Tibet ’s borders with its South Asian neighbors. It was only after China occupied Tibet , ‘India-Tibet’ border, suddenly had to be renamed as ‘India-China’ border.

    Soon after Chairman Mao’s ‘People’s Republic of China’ (PRC) came into being in 1949, the new communist government announced its intentions of liberating Tibet, Sinkiang (viz. East Turkistan), Hainan and Taiwan in order to give shape to Chairman Mao’s dream of a larger China. In his dream of a ‘New China’ Mao had a special place for Tibet . Even before his communist revolution succeeded in China, Mao had his designs on Tibet ready. He is on record announcing, “ Tibet is China ’s palm and Ladakh , Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and NEFA (now ‘Arunachal Pradesh’) are its fingers.” Tibet, with its original population of about 6 million (1959 estimates) contributes less than 0.5 percent of population but accounts for over 25 percent land mass of today’s PRC.


A Study in Contrast 

    What followed is a history of clear focus and smart action on the Chinese part in occupied Tibet and persistent suicidal indifference and foggy vision on the part of India. Today China is far more entrenched inside occupied Tibet Than India is in its own territory along 4000 km long border between India and Tibet. Today China ’s defence machinery enjoys support of a massive network of logistic facilities like roads, military establishments, even nuclear facilities and communications network in occupied Tibet. For example, China ’s Army along the Indian Himalayas is served by a set of end to end all-weather roads along this border. These roads are well integrated with the main network of Chinese highways in Tibet . In sharp contrast, with the exception of Nathu-la in Sikkim , not a single Indian Army post along this 4000 km long border is supported by a pucca road. Parallel road links along the border line  on Indian side don’t even exist as a concept. It was only after a barrage of Chinese claims and threats on Arunachal Pradesh that Indian government has suddenly woken up and has decided recently to connect some border points with roads.


Demography: as a Colonial Tool

    On the demographic front too, China has been consistently busy in changing the Tibetan character of occupied Tibet through massive population transfer. The first step in this direction was taken when the Amdo and Kham provinces of Tibet were chopped off from Tibet in 1960s and their parts were distributed among the surrounding Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Quinghai. The remaining Tibet, comprising mainly of the third province of U-Tsang and some other left over parts of the two eastern provinces, which was baptized as ‘Tibet Autonomous Region of China’ (TAR). Today a major point of contention between Beijing and Dalai Lama that is holding up progress in their talks on future status of Tibet is about the definition of ‘ Tibet’. While Beijing insists on presenting only ‘TAR’ as the real Tibet, Dalai Lama’s concept of Tibet is ‘Cholka Sum’ viz. ‘Three Provinces’ comprising of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo.

    A comparative study of population figures of Tibet vis-à-vis other occupied regions in the western China would show how Beijing government has already inundated the Amdo and Kham regions of Tibet with Han population during past five decades. These figures come from China Statistical Year Book-2002, China Statistics Press


Tibet (Truncated) i.e. TAR                     2,616,329

Sichuan                                                82,348,296

Yunnan                                                42,360,089

Qinghai                                                  4,822,963

Gansu                                                  25,124,282   

* Tibet (Original)                                   6,000,000

According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, headed by Dalai Lama, the population of  Tibet (Cholka-Sum) was 6 million before China invaded and occupied Tibet.

Although the transfer of Han population from mainland China to Tibetan areas has gained a big momentum after 2002 in past five years, yet these seven years old figures show that Tibetans accounted for only 3.5 million in the four Chinese provinces as compared to 154.7 million Chinese population. No wonder the Tibetans in Kham and Amdo have been already reduced to an insignificant minority – like the Manchurians in Manchuria and the Mongols in Inner Mongolia. A majority of these Tibetans live in ethnic pockets, termed as ‘Provincial Autonomous Regions’ (PAR) in these four Chinese provinces.

It is interesting to note that during recent Tibetan uprising in March 2008 against Chinese rule over Tibet, more that two thirds of troubled areas belonged to these Tibetan ‘PAR’s of Kham and Amdo.                                        

Rail to Lhasa: China's New Weapon 

Establishment of a direct railway link between China and TAR through the newly constructed Gormo-Lhasa railway line has finally removed the last logistic and psycho-social barrier which has so far been holding the Chinese citizens from permanently migrating to Tibet. The new frantic economic development of this region and systematic pumping of large investments into Tibet by the Beijing regime has paved way for the last push towards turning the already small population of Tibet into a meaningless minority in its own country. During my two recent photo expeditions to Tibet, I was surprised to observe that a Tibetan visiting Lhasa finds it impossible to do shopping in the new malls or conduct any business if he can not speak Chinese language. Almost all malls, offices and taxis in Lhasa are today manned overwhelmingly by migrant Han Chinese and cater mostly to the new Chinese settlers and tourists.    

Fast emergence of new Chinese settlements in recent years in regions across Arunachal and India-Tibet-Nepal tri-junction have already changed the demographic character of these strategic border areas from Tibetan to Chinese. No wonder the Chinese leaders have been terming this strategy as the ‘last solution’ to Tibetan problem. During my recent travels in Tibet along Tibet-Nepal border I discovered that villages like Dram, Nyelam and Lhatse have been already converted to overwhelming Han townships. This process of ‘Han-nizing’ of Tibet has gain tremendous momentum since the Chinese railway arrived in Lhasa in 2006. A dear project of Chinese leader Hu Jin Tao, Han population transfer to Tibet is termed as the new Great Wall of Defence towards South Asia.

Besides starting a process of irreversible demographic change in Tibet, China’s success in extending its railway network right up to Lhasa has also multiplied Beijing’s strategic logistic capabilities in Tibet many folds. Latest developments in Beijing and Kathmandu indicate that the Chinese railway network may be soon extended right up to Nepal.                                                                                                                                                            

Impact on South Asia 

It would be too naïve, to believe that the impact of Chinese occupation of Tibet has been limited only to Tibet and the Tibetan people. Subsequent events in past five decades have proved beyond doubt that no other development in Asia during 20th century had more impact on the geo-political character of South Asia than the fall of Tibet into China ’s hands. Perhaps the best possible description of this development was expressed in the telegraphic message which the Indian Consulate General in Lhasa had sent to New Delhi following PLA’s attack on Tibet . It read, “Chinese have entered Tibet. Himalayas have ceased to exist”. Before Chinese occupation of Tibet it has been a common belief in India that Himalayas were the protectors of India . But events after the fall of Tibet have shown that it was actually a free Tibet, which stood as a security buffer between China and India.

When China fell to PLA, many political observers feared that Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim would be next on Beijing’s list. But with their characteristic style of handling diplomacy, the Chinese have proved such fears wrong. One reason was that the situation of these Himalayan countries was too different from that of Tibet to undertake a military adventure. Unlike Tibet, whose leaders had kept Tibet fatally insulated from the world community, other Himalayan countries were reasonably well interlinked with the rest of world. Any direct attempt at occupying these countries would have invited an international resistance which China could hardly afford.                                        

Diplomatic Agression 

Instead a military offensive the Chinese leadership adopted a more practical policy of developing relations with countries along Tibetan borders to contain India’s influence. Out of Pakistan, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Myanmar, this policy has paid good dividends to Beijing in Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar so far. India’s utter failure in handling its relations effectively with these countries has made things much easier for Beijing than China could have hoped for.    
    In the case of Nepal it may look strange to an observer of international relations that despite strong cultural and ethnic links, consistent and substantial financial aid from India, favorable treaties and an open border policy between the two countries, India diplomacy has proved a near total disaster in Nepal. Recent emergence of Maoists in Nepal has converted Nepal into a virtual Chinese satellite.
    While India has been heaping money on Nepal ’s development, Beijing has been cleverly investing in winning over Nepalese political leadership, bureaucracy, army, police, intellectuals and media. China’s overwhelming influence in Nepal has resulted into many serious problems for India. One such problem of Chinese origin is that Nepal has emerged as a safe heaven for all kinds of anti-Indian terrorist and separatist groups.
    It is not just a coincidence that Chinese government has been liberally helping Nepal to develop its road networks. A reliable network of highways has been developed in Nepal which is capable of taking the Chinese army with all ease to the Indian states of Uttarakhand, Bihar and West Bengal in the event of a direct clash with India. On 3
rd December 2008 Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi announced financial and technical aid for a 16 km road linking Syaprubensi in Nepal to Rasuwamadi on the border with Tibet. This will be an additional road link between Tibet and Nepal after the all weather Kodari highway which links Tibet’s Dram area to Indian borders.

Bangladesh : anti-India Ally of China 
    Similarly, Bangladesh has emerged as yet another reliable ally of China in the latter’s plans to encircle and contain India. A paradox of the story is that not only that Bangladesh got its freedom from ‘West Pakistan’ with the help of  India but it was China who did its best to stop Bangladesh from getting international recognition after her birth in 1971. Today a China and Bangladesh are bound by a defence treaty that ensures direct support from each other in the event of an attack from a ‘third country’. Links between anti-India forces in Bangladesh and Nepal too present serious threat to Indian security. Indian security agencies fear that Chinese government can use the links between such forces and Nepali Maoists in South-eastern Nepal to choke the 25 km wide corridor, popularly termed as ‘Chicken Neck’ which offers the only land link between the seven North-Eastern Indian states and the rest of country. Emergence of a relatively pro-India government in Bangladesh recently has come as a big relief to India.

Bhutan: Worries from China 
    Although Bhutan has close relations with India , the Chinese presence in neighboring Tibet has been keeping Thimpu rulers on tenterhooks. There have been many incidents of Chinese aggressive postures along Tibet-Bhutan border which keep
Bhutan’s options limited in its relations with two giant neighbors. Presence of some anti-India terror groups from Assam in Bhutan with support from Beijing has been giving sleepless nights to Indian security agencies in past.

Myanmar: China's Pessage to Indian Ocean 
    Thanks to Beijing’s material and political support to the Myanmar junta, China has emerged as the best and most reliable ally of the military dictators. China has cleverly used this advantage to liver its position in Asia, especially against India . No wonder, Myanmar has turned out to be a perfect operation ground for China supported anti-India militant outfits during past few decades. Indian security agencies have expressed concern over China supported anti-Indian terror camps and  China sponsored air strips in such Mayanmar areas near Indian border where the Yangoon government had no visible reasons to undertake such construction.
    But worse has happened for India in the Southern Myanmar where it has allowed Chinese Navy to establish its Naval post in Coco islands of Myanmar that is just 40 km away from Indian naval bases at Andman and Nicobar islands . Yangoon has, in addition, given road access to the Chinese Navy to link to this post.

Pakistan: Common Interests with China   
    One of the most serious fall outs of Chinese occupation of Tibet against India has come in the shape of a direct geo-link and military and political alliance between China and Pakistan. History of past six decades shows that this alliance has proved mutually suitable and profitable to both in their dealings with India.
    Pakistan has emerged as China’s most favoured ally, rather a proxy, in its attempts to contain India. China’s obvious and significant role in the nuclear arming of Pakistan; handing over of some strategic chunks of Aksai-Chin in Jammu and Kashmir territory by Pakistan to China; Pakistan’s permission to China to build Karakoram Road through Pakistani territory; and development of Gwadar naval base for Pakistan in the Arabian Sea by China have underline the serious dimensions of Beijing-Islamabad strategic axis against India. All these developments have made it possible for China to move its army and Naval troops right up to Arabian Sea
through Pakistan. Establishment of Gwadar naval base for China and presence of Chinese Navy there has, practically, wiped of Indian Navy’s traditional superiority in the Arabian Sea. Recent reports (May 2008) indicate that the
Islamabad and Beijing are now seriously contemplating extension of Chinese railway network to Pakistan via Kashgar in Sinkiang.
    On the nuclear front too, any nuclear flare up between India and Pakistan is going to prove fruitful to China in every possible eventuality. While any serious damage or incapacitation of India by Pakistani nuclear strikes is bound to make India more vulnerable to China, a lethal nuclear response from India to Pakistan is bound to isolate India among world community —  once again a major political advantage to China.

Tibetan Occupation is the Real Issue 
    This way we see that the occupation of a free Tibet by China has not only hurt the national interests of Tibetan people but has also created many serious repercussions for other countries in South Asia too. In the case of India the the impact has been worse. Arrival of China’s army right up to the Indian borders for the first time in history has proved to be a highly expensive development for the Indian economy too. This single development across the Himalayas has forced a total change in the Indian priorities in spending the national income. The Indo-Tibetan border, which used to be one of the most peaceful borders on earth prior to Chinese occupation of Tibet, is now one of the most vulnerable borders in today’s world. Going by most moderate estimates, it costs India almost as much money every five years for maintaining peace along this newly designated ‘India-China’ borders as would be enough to provide clean drinking water, good educational institutions and dependable health services to every single village which stands deprived even six decades after Indian independence.  


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati