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‘Breaking the Balance of Power Trap’

  • Category
    India & world
  • Published
    10th Nov, 2020

As the ongoing negotiations bet­ween India and China fail to end the impasse in Ladakh, the de­ma­nd for New Delhi to play the


As the ongoing negotiations bet­ween India and China fail to end the impasse in Ladakh, the de­ma­nd for New Delhi to play the “Tibet card” to force Beijing to disengage is gaining salience. India briefly opened the card by deploying the Special Frontier Force (SFF), consisting of Tibetan refugees, to capture crucial heights along the southern bank of the Pangong Lake.


  • Tensions between India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have remained high ever since violent clashes occurred in the Galwan Valley region in mid-June, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian Army soldiers and an undisclosed number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops.
  • A significant new development occurred on the night of August 29-30, when the Indian Army took control of strategic heights at the southern bank of the Pangong Tso, a lake in eastern Ladakh that straddles the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China.
  • The operation was significant: it was the first time since the eruption of tensions along the LAC in May that the Indian Army preempted the Chinese from unilaterally altering the status quo.
  • Participating in this operation alongside regular Indian Army units were soldiers of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), an elite paratrooper unit that draws its personnel mainly from among the Tibetan exile community in India. 
  • Tibet has been a perennial pet cause for the country’s right-wing conservatives and liberals alike since 1950, when the Chinese Communist Party entered to extend its rule over the Tibetan territory.
  • Both have ensu­red that Tibet’s freedom remains entren­ched in the Indian public mind as a nationalist cause.
  • Tibet is more of a political rather than a security problem for India. Tibet was one small element in the British strategy to preserve and expand its empire.


What is the Special Frontier Force (SFF)?

  • The SFF was raised by the Intelligence Bureau in the immediate aftermath of the 1962 China-India war.
  • The covert outfit recruited Tibetan exiles (now it has a mixture of Tibetans and Gorkhas) and was initially named Establishment 22 (Major Gen Sujan Singh Uban, an Artillery officer who raised the group, named it after the 22 Mountain Regiment he commanded).
  • SFF units, also known as Vikas battalions, come under the direct purview of the Cabinet Secretariat.
  • It is operationally involved with the Army.
  • The force and is headed by a Major General rank Army officer, who serves as Inspector General of the SFF. 
  • The SFF has played an important role in multiple military operations — from the 1971 India-Pakistan war to the 1999 Kargil battle — but has largely functioned under the shadows.

India, China, and the Tibetans

  • India and China became neighbors only after the PRC’s annexation of Tibet in 1950.
  • Underlying India and China’s differences on their border are their varying perceptions of the 1913-1914 Simla Convention, which established the McMahon Line—the border demarcation between Tibet and then-British India, and currently the northern border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
  • The PRC maintains that Tibet was not a sovereign state and therefore not a legitimate signatory to the agreement reached on the McMahon Line, which India treats as its legal national border with China.
  • Complicating the border issue and bilateral relations is the status of the Tibetans.
    • In 1959, when the PLA crushed an uprising in Lhasa, the 14th Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of his Tibetan followers fled to India.
      • In the decades since, several waves of Tibetans have crossed into India.
      • There are around 100,000 Tibetans living in India today, and the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile—the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA)—is situated in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala.
  • This puts India squarely in the middle of the China-Tibet conflict.

Quick history of Tibet

  • Until 1949, Tibet was an independent Buddhist nation in the Himalayas which had little contact with the rest of the world.
  • It existed as a rich cultural storehouse of the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings of Buddhism.
  • Religion was a unifying theme among the Tibetans -- as was their own language, literature, art, and world view developed by living at high altitudes, under harsh conditions, in a balance with their environment.
  • The peaceful Buddhist country of Tibet was invaded by Communists China in 1949. Since that time, over 1.2 million out of 6 Tibetans have been killed, over 6000 monastaries have been destroyed, and thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned. 
  • In Tibet today, there is no freedom of speech, religion, or press and arbitrary dissidents continue. 

Assessing India’s foreign policy in the British era

  • The Indian strategic elite (opposed to Jawaharlal Nehru’s China policy from 1950 to 1955) pitched for Tibet to be the lynchpin of India’s foreign policy.
    • The elite did not claim the Tibetan land, but they wanted to deny it to China.
  • The British strategy was never designed to keep China out of Tibet. 
  • The 1904 military invasion of Tibet, led by Francis Younghusband, exposed the fallacy of Tibet’s richness.
  • The British understood the futility of annexing or making financial commitments to manage Tibet.
  • Even the king of Nepal, when asked to provide military support to Lhasa, refused the British request by stating the “game would not be worth the candle”.
  • The British did not want to take direct control of Tibet. Their strategy was to prevent the Russians from moving into Tibet.
  • Since Nepal was not inclined to expend its resources in managing Tibet, therefore, the best option for the British was to allow the Chinese to handle Tibet, but with truncated sovereignty, which was clearly termed as “suzerainty.” 

Independent India’s strategy

  • Independent India’s obsession with Tibet began after the arrival of communism in mainland China, in 1949.
  • The Indian centre-right political class in collaboration with the Americans revived the Tibet issue from where the British had left. 
  • Initially, Nehru, in tune with the British Commonwealth policy of appeasing Mao Zedong’s China, resisted interfering in Tibet and refrain­ed from generating unnecessary animosity against communist China.
  • However, in the mid-1950s, as the United States (US) became directly invol­ved in fomenting rebellion in Lhasa, Nehru capitulated and provided moral and material support to the Americans, thus compromising his external policy of non-alignment, and the China policy based on the Panchsheel principles landed up on the chopping block.  
  • Almost the entire political class in India was gung-ho for giving asylum to the Dalai Lama and quasi-alignment with the US against China.

    India-China & the military debacle

    • It is in this period that a road from Aksai Chin, connecting Xinjiang to Tibet, became an all-important security concern for the Indians. 
    • Suddenly, the India–China borders became contentious.
    • Former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, during his visit to India in 1960, offered to recognise the McMahon Line boundary in the east in return for India accepting China’s claim in the west.
    • India rejected the proposals and got sucked into fighting a frivolous war.
    • The military debacle, however, brought a political wind­fall for the floundering Indian right-wing. 
  • The anti-emergency movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) against Indira Gandhi was not the first opening that the RSS and Jana Sangh got to gather legitimacy and enter the mainstream political framework.
    • It is in the early 1950s that JP started forging the liberal–conservative alliance using the pretext of the communist takeover of Tibetan territory. 
    • The right wing with limited involvement in India’s freedom struggle saw the border crisis as an oppor­tunity to prove its nationalist credentials.
  • Ever since then, both Tibet and border issues with China have continued to act as a glue binding the conservatives and liberals into a single political strand. 
  • The defeat in the 1962 war continues to linger in the Indian psyche simply because it serves a political purpose, just as Kashmir continues to be milked by Pakistani military elite to sustain their political power. 
    • 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.

Politics of Balance of Power

  • Tibet has as much traction in India’s strategic discourse as Kashmir receives in Pakistan.
  • Tibet and Kashmir have been the chief reason for the disruption of peace in the region for the last seven decades and for the lingering Anglo–American imperial influence.
  • New Delhi and Islamabad’s obsession with Tibet and Kashmir, respec­tively, is bizarre, especially when both have enough domestic problems—poverty, social strife, and inequality—to tackle.
    • Kashmir provides the raison d’êtrefor Pakistani military elite; however, what motivates the Indian elite’s preoccupation with Tibet is not clear. 
  • Unlike Pakistan that obdurately clings to exploiting the Kashmir card, India has been wiser to understand the explosive potential of the Tibetan issue.
  • A good example of subcontinental balancing was observed in 1998.
  • After the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, George Fernandes, the then defence minister and the poster boy of liberal–conservative bonhomie, declared China as “enemy number one.”
  • His pronouncements were aimed at signalling to Washington that India was ready to balance China.
  • A few days after the Indian tests, Pakistan tested its nuclear capability, but the US, the non-proliferation evangelist, conveniently turned a blind eye, thus restoring the nuclear balance in the region.
  • The paradox is that the Indian government, a victim of BoP, expediently subscribes to the theory and considers it useful against China.
  • Ironically, of late, China has also entered the BoP fray in the region and it is emulating the US in exploiting Pakistan to balance India.
  • India and Pakistan, the second and the 11th biggest arms importers in the world in the period 2014–19, respectively, are incessantly involved in proving the efficacy of BoP theory right, paying scant regard to the fact that contested borders and fractured regional peace are the Anglo–American imperial management tools. 

What is India’s official position on Tibet?

  • Prime Minister Nehru signed the Panchsheel Agreement with China for trade between India in Tibet in 1954, based on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
  • Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognised the Tibetan Autonomous Region as a part of China in 2003. 
    • Vajpayee was a visionary and he did not kowtow to China to have his name engraved in history. He understood how milking the Tibetan issue would curtail strategic autonomy and suck India deeper into the ensuing Sino–US rivalry. 
  • However, despite New Delhi’s official position on Tibet, many in India continue to consider China as an imperial power in the occupation of Tibet.

India & Tibet’s connection

India and Vietnam, with historical roots in the common struggle for liberation from colonial rule and the national struggle for independence, share traditionally close and cordial bilateral relations.

  • Strong cultural integrity: The geographic contiguity of India and Tibet provided strong cultural integrity for extremely long periods of time as Tibet housed India’s most revered Lord Shiva and Mata Parvati.
  • Buddhist heritage: Another strongest bond which binds Tibet and India together is the Buddhist heritage. 
  • Diaspora: India has the largest Tibetan population in exile, the Dalai Lama calls himself a proud son of India.
  • Bilateral relations: There are several bilateral mechanisms at different levels between India and Vietnam. 
  • Investment: India’s investments in Vietnam are estimated at around US$ 1.9 billion including investments routed through third countries. As of 2019, Vietnam has six investment projects in India with total estimated investment of US$ 28.55 million, primarily in the areas of pharmaceuticals, information technology, chemicals and building materials.
  • Cultural cooperation: The Swami Vivekananda Indian Cultural Centre was established in Hanoi in September 2016 to promote a comprehensive understanding of India and to foster closer links between peoples of both countries through cultural exchanges.
  • The strategic importance of Tibet cannot be overemphasised. It is the roof of the world, with vast mineral and natural resource

Concluding thoughts

Given China’s extreme prickliness on the Tibet issue, India’s use of the “Tibet card” is unlikely to prompt or pressure it to vacate territories on the Indian side of the LAC that it occupied in recent months. Rather, Beijing will see it as a provocation—a move aimed not just at embarrassing it, but also weakening its control over Tibet. Unlike earlier Indian attempts at projecting New Delhi’s closeness to the Dalai Lama, the SFF poses a real threat to China, as it could inspire young Tibetans to once again rebel against Beijing. India can expect a strong rejoinder from China in the coming time.


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