Between China and India: Is Tibet the Wedge or Link?

Ever since the March 14 riots in Tibet, the Autonomous Region has enjoyed increased global scrutiny, though access for foreign observers has been limited. Recently, Singapore’s George Yeo became the first foreign minister to visit Tibet since the riots. A long-time student of Asian history, Minister Yeo explores Tibet’s role in the relations between Asia’s two rising giants China and India in its historical context. As Yeo notes, the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet, the outbreak of rebellion followed by the flight of the Dalai Lama, and the orgy of destruction of Tibetan monasteries and artifacts during the Cultural Revolution provide the background to the current turmoil. In the years since, China has devoted enormous resources to develop Tibet, but, as is often the case, “different ethnic and religious groups living side by side respond at different speeds to globalization.” Today, he notes, Tibetans lag behind Han Chinese especially in economic performance and this discrepancy needs to be recognized and managed. Another issue that could complicate the situation in Tibet is if the next Dalai Lama is found to have been reincarnated outside China, as the present Dalai Lama suggested. Many believe the reincarnation will occur in Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh – a Tibetan inhabited region controlled by India but claimed by China – from whence the 6th Dalai Lama hailed. – YaleGlobal

Between China and India: Is Tibet the Wedge or Link?

Reconciling faith with the forces of globalization remains the challenge
George Yeo
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SINGAPORE: The encounter of China and India in this century will change the world. For thousands of years, the two civilizations were separated by the high mountains of Tibet. Except for a brief war in 1962, there were no major conflicts between them. 

Together, they make up more than a third of the world's population and will supply much of the talent for global development in this century. The concentration of Chinese and Indian talent in Silicon Valley foreshadows what is coming. How China and India relate to each other in the coming decades will affect everyone.

Tibet is changing from being a barrier to a region linking China and India together. Today, there are good roads connecting Tibet to Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. Three years ago, an amazing thousand-kilometer railroad from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet was opened. Eighty percent of it is over 4000 meters in altitude; 50 percent on permafrost.   When first proposed, many foreign engineers said that it could not be built.

Economically, there is much to be gained by improving road and rail links between Tibet and South Asia. Indeed, the Chinese have suggested that Lhasa and Calcutta be linked by rail. The Indian Government is understandably apprehensive about moving too quickly. Scars of the 1962 War are still raw in India. When the Indian Army moved to liberate Bangladesh in December 1971, an important factor it considered was the winter snow preventing the Chinese Army from interfering through the mountain passes. Thus, the reopening of the 4400 meter-high Nathu La Pass in July 2006 was politically significant. As part of it, China recognized India's ownership of Sikkim. Hundreds of kilometers of fiber optic cables have been laid in the past year from Yadong in Tibet to Siliguri in West Bengal with an initial capacity of 20 gigabytes per second.   

Trade between China and India has grown rapidly in the last ten years. China has already become India's biggest trading partner. And this is only the beginning. Common economic interests are driving the two countries into closer political cooperation both bilaterally and internationally.

Tibet is both an opportunity and an issue. The economic opportunity is obvious, but rapid development has brought about great stress to the Tibetan way of life. This complicates bilateral relations between China and India.

Over long years, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism evolved in response to the challenges of extreme physical conditions at high altitudes, developing in the process a deep spirituality. However, old Tibet should not be romanticized. It was not Shangri-La.   The political economy was based on the feudal domination of monasteries over rural serfs. In 1951, Mao Zedong's Government negotiated the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet with the local Tibetan Government, guaranteeing that Beijing would not force changes to the feudal political economy of Tibet. But the Chinese revolution had its own internal dynamic. By the mid-1950s, land reforms had begun in Tibetan-inhabited areas outside Tibet. Monastic lands were seized and redistributed to peasants. These contributed to the Tibetan rebellion of 1959. While the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Panchen Lama remained in China and worked within the system, but not always effectively. In 1962, he sent a letter to Beijing expressing Tibetan grievances. During the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan youths, following Chinese youths in other parts of the country, engaged in an orgy of destruction. Since then, as in the rest of China, monasteries and temples have been restored or rebuilt, often to a state better than what they were before, although some precious artifacts were lost forever. Without land and serfs, these places can only be sustained with the patronage of the Chinese state. 

The marriage of Tang Princess Wencheng to Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century began a complex relationship between Tibet and Imperial China which ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties. Mongol princes during the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty intervened on behalf of the Yellow Hat Gelugpa (the order of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama), making it the dominant sect in Tibet. 

Because religious and political leadership was fused from the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, the appointment of high lamas often required the approval of the Emperor. This was certainly so during the Qing Dynasty. It was a practice carried into Republican and Communist China. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Government approved the appointment of the 14th (present) Dalai Lama in 1940 and the 10th Panchen Lama in 1949. At the Forbidden City in Beijing today, the old buildings still carry inscriptions in the four main languages of the Qing Dynasty - Han, Manchu, Mongolian and Tibetan.

In the last 50 years, China devoted huge resources to the development of Tibet because of its strategic importance. Economic growth has been in the double digits in the last fifteen years. Social indicators like average life spans have shown remarkable improvement. But, relative to Han Chinese, Tibetans lag behind especially in economic performance. This should not be surprising because an entrenched way of life cannot change quickly within a few decades. As in Singapore, the tensions which naturally arise when different ethnic and religious groups living side by side respond at different speeds to globalization cannot be wished away; they simply have to be recognized and managed. 

Education is clearly the key to the future. Pole-vaulting a medieval society to the 21st century is however never easy. At the Norbulinka Palace, the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, devotees still prostrate themselves before objects once used by him like his bed and sofa.

The 14th Dalai Lama is now 74 years old. In a recent TV interview, he said that he was born to accomplish certain tasks, and as those tasks were not completed, it was 'logical’ that he would be reincarnated outside China. Many believe that 'outside China' means Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh where the 6th Dalai Lama came from, a Tibetan area controlled by India but claimed by China. This would greatly complicate the border demarcation between China and India. Beijing, of course, insists on the old rule that the appointment of high lamas must have its approval.

The 11th Panchen Lama is coming of age. When chosen as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, Beijing gave its approval but not the Dalai Lama. Six months ago, at the Second World Buddhist Forum in Wuxi, he surprised many people by giving his speech in English. 

It may seem strange that the reincarnation of high lamas should be a subject of such intense interest today. That perhaps is a reflection of the past in the present and the importance of the China-India relationship. Looking ahead, however, Buddhism in Tibet will have to adjust to change as it has in other parts of Asia where it is enjoying a huge revival in many countries. Tibet is part of a much larger Asian drama that is changing the world.

George Yeo is the foreign minister of Singapore. He visited Tibet in August this year, the first foreign minister to do so after the March 14 riots last year.
Copyright © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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