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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
YaleGlobal, 8 September 2009
Trouble in Tawang? Speculation about the next Dalai Lama’s place of reincarnation has brought focus on Tawang, an Indian controlled Tibetan area where the 6th Dalai Lama was born

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.
Rights:Copyright © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

6 February 2010
The political economy was based on the feudal domination of monasteries over rural serfs. I never knew that - insanity
-Reggie Larsion , Los Angeles
28 September 2009
The fact remains. china used brute force to occupy tibet, even today suppresses tibetians religious and social rights. Has populated hans to change demography like it did to the uigurs.
Why not have free and fair elections to see who the people of tibet vote for ?
Does china has guts to do it ? China govt is a oppressive clique that uses force to beat up its own people and no one in their right mind accept their claim about tibet , mongolia or the so called xingxiang province is part of china. It never was. By having friendly contacts with tibet in the past does not justify the chinese occupation and continuing brutality. Let them remove hans and let the tibetians vote for their representative if china believes in its claim.
Even india had influence in srilanka, nepal, indonesia, cambodia since ancient times does it mean they can takeover these countries ? its only Insane logic of chinese that can justify occupation of
lands beyond chinese wall , which was de facto area of china. All other regions are occupied territories.
As for arunanchal pradesh , its neither tibetian nor chinese territories. Its indian territory.. Tomorow another chinese loony would say entire north east of india, andaman & nicobar islands , burma belongs to them because the people have mongoloid features. There is no end to such cock and bull stories and justifications.
Arunanchal was part of india before chinese occupation of tibet and there were no such claims
even after india's independence. So any claims now is frivilous and non-tenable and an act of aggression against indian territory.
China should know india is not tibet with peace loving religious ding bats who did not have an army to defend against treacherous chinese occupying army, so it was a cake walk (so called peaceful liberation - A big chinese lie which the govt is very good at manufacturing to fool its own ignorant people)
-sujith , Bangalore
15 September 2009
Lee Kuan Yew: Dalai Lama is ‘A thorn in India-China relationship’
‘A thorn in India-China relationship’
P. S. Suryanarayana
SINGAPORE: The continuing presence of the Dalai Lama in India “does not help” in its ties with China, according to Singapore’s elder statesman and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. In a dialogue session, under the auspices of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy, he said: “I do not see the Dalai Lama as a bargaining chip [for India] against China. … As long as the Dalai Lama is there [in India], there will be this thorn in their side. … 1959 [when he reached India] was a different year. And, in 2009, the configuration of world balances has changed. And, it is going to change in their [Chinese] favour over the next 50 years, provided there is no internal collapse.”
Answering questions from S.D. Muni, Professor at the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies, Mr. Lee emphasised that the status of Tibet “is off the table”. On an intervention by dialogue moderator and Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, Mr. Lee said China believed that the Dalai Lama’s reported acceptance of the status of Tibet “is not his true position.” In fact, the Chinese “need no interlocutor” to resolve the Tibetan problem. “They need time to bring up a new generation [of Tibetans]: speaking Chinese, thinking like them and integrating … into China.” Responding to India’s High Commissioner S. Jaishankar on the issue of rebalancing the world order, Mr. Lee said: “My guess is that they [the Chinese] would like to have in the Security Council only five permanent members [as at present].”
-MatthewTan , Singapore
15 September 2009
No country has ever recognised Tibet as an independent nation-state. And Tibet also did not have the political will to assert independence, according to Tsering Shakya in his article "Tibet and the League of Nations". There have been at least 500 border clashes at the border regions in 1917-1920 and 1930-1933 between various parties, including the Tibetan local government and Chinese warlords. China was going through civil wars, and the all Tibetan regions including Tibet was part of the civil war. Tibetans were in alliance with KMT fighting against Tibetans in alliance with the Communists. When the Communists war, the Panchen Lama gave his allegiance to the Communists and called for the "liberation" of Tibet. China sent the peace envoy the Geda Lama, a Tibetan Living Buddha, to Lhasa to talk peace. But he was killed by agents sent by the Lhasa local government. To kill a peace envoy was a declaration of war. Lhasa also failed to send officials to Beijing to negotiate for peace within the given deadline. The U.S.-led forces were invading North Korea. China had no choice but to cross over Upper Yangtse River into the Tibetan town Chamdo to fight a brief 14-day war. China won of course. CHINA SET FREE ALL THE WAR PRISONERS AND GAVE THEM MONEY TO RETURN TO LHASA. THEREAFTER, CHINA PERSUADED THE TIBETANS TO SIGN THE PEACEFUL LIBERATION TREATY. ALL TIBET WAS PEACEFULLY LIBERATED except Chamdo, just like many parts of China was peacefully liberated.
Arunachal Pradesh was historically part of Tibet. This position has always been held by the Chinese and Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama himself. It was only in 2008 that the Dalai Lama began to give away Arunachal Pradesh to India.
As to why China did not occupy Arunachal Pradesh after the 1962 war. The reason is very simple. China was undergoing a great famine and did not want to overstretch itself. The area is also probably undefensible due to logistical reason.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
14 September 2009
By Dr. Subhash Kapila
Introductory Observations
The Yale Global Online ( carries a feature by Foreign Minister of Singapore, Mr. George Yeo dated 8 September 2009 entitled “Between China and India: Is Tibet The Wedge or Link”.
The Singapore Foreign Minister became the first Foreign Minister to visit Tibet in August 2009 since the March 14 riots in Tibet against China’s brutal suppression of the Tibetan people. The feature that has been published by Singapore Foreign Minister seems to be the outcome of his Chinese-conducted visit to Lhasa and Tibet.
While one has no objections to the line of reasoning of the Singapore Foreign Minister and the contents of his observations on Tibet, there are two assertions that find mention in this feature which are distorted and not borne out by historical truth.
Singapore Foreign Minister’s Feature on Tibet: The Distorted Assertions
Two assertions which seem to be distorted and not borne out by historical truth incorporated in this feature are reproduced below:
* “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”.
* Referring to Dalai Lama’s statement that the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama may be found outside Tibet, the feature by Singapore Foreign Minister states: “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”.
The historical facts in relation to the above are as follows:
* China did not undertake a ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet. The use of single inverted comma if intended to allude that it was not peaceful liberation does not contextually show it up as such.
* China indulged in military aggression against the spiritual and peaceful kingdom of Tibet. The historical truth the world recognizes is that China embarked on a “military occupation” of Tibet by use of brutal force.
* It was therefore wrong to assert in the feature in that a ‘peaceful liberation’ was “negotiated” by Mao Zedong’s government with “the local authorities”.
* Coming to the assertions on Tawang, by the Singapore Foreign Minister, it is wrong to assert that it is a Tibetan area (implying that it is part of Tibet) and “controlled by India”.
* Tawang is part of Arunachal Pradesh which is a constituent state of the Indian Republic, notwithstanding any Chinese claims on it.
* Tawang is not therefore an area “controlled by India”. It is a part of India.
Since Tawang is hot news these days, it needs to be asserted that:
* After the ceasefire following 1962 Chinese military aggression against India, China did not vacate the Aksai-Chin area in the Western Sector, even though the area patently is legally a part of the Indian Republic.
* However after the ceasefire,, in the Eastern Sector, China withdraw from Tawang and other areas occupied in Arunachal Pradesh to area beyond Bumla, a good 40-50 km North of Tawang.
* If Chinese claims to Tawang were all that legally and historically correct and tenable, then how come China condescended to vacate Tawang after the ceasefire.Tawang is an indisputable part of India beyond any doubt.
Concluding Observations
Singapore and India currently enjoy good relations including strategic and military cooperation. India holds Singapore in good respect and high regards.
It is therefore intriguing as to how such distorted assertions crept in the feature on Tibet by Singapore Foreign Minister.
In an environment where China is ratcheting up military tensions on Tibet and Tawang, friends of India need to be sensitive when commenting on China-Tibet-India issues, especially on their historical veracity.
Further, the Singapore Foreign Minister stresses alongside his title of the feature that “Reconciling faith with the forces of globalization remains the challenge” for Tibet.
One would have expected him to stress in parallel that the greater challenge remains for China to emerge as a responsible stake-holder in a globalized world without resorting to brutal suppression of the Tibetan nation “controlled” by Chinese armed might.
(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.
-Shaan , London
14 September 2009
George Yeo argues China's position on Tibet persuasively. On India clarity is much needed.
The fact remains that India has very generously created a Capital, Dharamsala, for the exiled Tibetan state and its head of state Dalai Lama. There is also the matter of Chinese claim on Indian territory of Arunachal Pradesh.
The trade between India and her largest trading partner China is mostly one way, with China supplying finished goods and India supplying mostly raw materials. India is no match for China's might whether economic, techological or economic. India is crushed by poverty and a divided polity. And her much admired democracy is both a strength and a weakness.
This could change in India's favour should European Union and USA decide to put economic and military aid through a Marshal Aid type of senario. Such an action could be seen as provocative, potentially dangerous to regional stability, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. On the other hand a strengthened democratic India could inspire China in the same direction. Since democracies tend not to go for conflict if other means are available it may end is a happy stalemate or cold-peace at least.
Sadly, Tibet is a non-issue whatever happens to relations between China and India. In many ways, increasingly, Tibet resembles many parts of China today. The communications links and prosperity, if they endure, will see Tibetans adopt Han ways, if for no other reason than that of economic necessity.
-Bahauddeen Latif , London, Great Britain
10 September 2009
The outlook for U.S.-China relations following the 1997-1998 summits
pp. 192-195
Chapter 10
Year of the Yak: The Tibet Question In Contemporary U.S.-China Relations
By Barry Sautman
…After officially abandoning the Strasbourg Proposal in 1990, the Dalai Lama refused to say whether he was reverting to support for independence.76 The exile parliament, however, endorsed “complete independence” as the official goal in 1992.77
Many of the Dalai Lama’s subsequent statements indicate that he has not wholly abandoned a pro-independence stance. In the mid-1990s, the Dalai Lama stated that “Our stand is still for independence”; “Tibet is not part of China”; “Tibet is independent in cultural, geographical, linguistic and racial terms”; “experience shows that independence is the only real answer”; and “independence remains our goal.”78 He also remarked that “Tibet is not part of China”: “[T]he entire international community should speak out in support of Tibet independence”; and “Of course we have the right to regain our independence.” 79
In the late 1990s, the Dalai Lama, while speaking often of attaining “genuine autonomy,” has shown a continued identification with the cause of independence. He has, for example, stated that “we Tibetans have every right to independence”80 and “independence is our historic right.”81 These statements might be interpreted as mere assertions that, although Tibetan independence has been usurped, the exiles are willing under the proper conditions to waive their right to re-establish it. Other actions, however, belie this interpretation.
The Dalai Lama has been quoted as telling a Barcelonia audience that “he would be willing to renounce in the short term the cause of Tibetan independence, if Beijing would guarantee the establishment of an autonomous Tibetan government.”82 This approach recalls the frank statement made by the Dalai Lama’s younger brother (and longtime exile leader) Tenzin Chogyal to a French reporter “Let us first of all achieve autonomy. Then we can throw out the Chinese!”83 Not surprisingly, P.R.C. spokesmen concluded that “the high degree of autonomy advocated by the Dalai Lama is in essence a two-step strategy for Tibet independence.84
The Dalai Lama, moreover, expresses solidarity with pro-independence exile activists and their supporters. In May 1997, he received particiapants on a “March for Tibet’s Independence” in Fishkill, New York. The March from Toronto to New York City was sponsored by the International Tibet Independence Movement (ITIM), an organization led by two Indiana University professors, one of whom is Thubten Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother. 85 An internationally publicized ITIM report quotes the Dalai Lama as telling the marchers:
“People must talk about independence. That is good. We have the right to ask for independence, but we need to think of our methods to struggle for independence, and only slogans will not get independence. “
The marchers’ report added that “His Holiness stressed that Tibetans must carefully and systematically construct and implement a method to pursue independence.”86 No objection to this report was offered by the exile administration.
In April 1998, the Dalai Lama visited six Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) hunger strikers in New Delhi. The TYC seeks “complete independence”.
[page 194 is not accessible on Google Books at the time of typing this passage]
…Thus, they have no incentive to discourage pro-independence activism among their American supporters by pointing out the nonviability of that option. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s representatives are convinced that international support would diminish were the Dalai Lama explicity to renounce independence. 94 They often praise and encourage members of Congress who are plus royaliste que le roi in insisting that China grant Tibet independence. Moreover, there is some evidence that the Dalai Lama’s representatives themselves are pro-independence. 95
Thus, the idea of “complete independence,” rather than an autonomous Tibet within China, has carried the day within organizations that make up the Tibet Lobby. Correlatively, most U.S. politicians who are concerned with the issue are influenced to cling to the notion of establishing a “Free Tibet,” a scenario for which a “peace process” between the exiles and P.R.C. government would seem otiose.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
10 September 2009
Chinese peoples all over the world - Note what the Dalai Lama said in 1997 below, and do not be fooled by his sweet (and bitter and soul) talks.
Dalai Lama said: “People must talk about independence…we need to think of our methods to struggle for independence.”
(Blog writer) Buxi: “If many Chinese are still skeptical about cooperating with the Dalai Lama, it’s not because we’re unaware he claims to have rejected independence; it’s because we question whether he really means what he says.”
(This is a pro-Dalai Lama website. Year was 1997, ten years after his “Five-Point Proposal” and “Middle-Way Approach” were solemnly declared in U.S. Congress).
Marchers’ Private Audience with His Holiness The Dalai
…[The Dalai Lama] added that many people, Tibetans and friends of Tibet, think that the middle path is not
right. Instead, Tibetans need to struggle for independence and talk about
independence. For this reason, His Holiness explained the need for Tibetans
to discuss what they want and to make a decision. “People must talk about
independence,” He said. “That is good. We have the right to ask for
independence, but we need to think of our methods to struggle for
independence. Only prayers will not get independence, and only slogans will
not get independence.” His Holiness stressed that Tibetans must carefully
and systematically construct and implement a method to pursue independence.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
10 September 2009
What "both countries"? From the very beginning, Indian first PM Nehru had recognized Tibet as part of China. The UN has discussed Tibet many times. But not a single time was China's sovereignty over Tibet challenged - not even by the enemy countries of China, esp. the US.
Tibetans on Indian soil will become a problem for India in future, after the Dalai Lama leave the scene. Sooner or later, they will be asking for "genuine autonomy" for Tibetans in India.
"let the people of Tibet be involved in a valued-added scenario for discussion" -- how do you come to the conclusion that the people in Tibet are not involved in decision making? Separatists will always say the worse things of China, whether it is on autonomy or human rights. You need to listen to both sides. Tibetans are well represented not only in local governance and People's Congresses, they are also well represented at the higher level National People's Congress. Outstanding Tibetans are involved in governance at the NATIONAL level.
Dalai Lama should give up his dream of independence. Don't you believe he is only going for autonomy. Every year on 10 March, he commemorates and glorifies the 1959 violent Uprising that when his monk officials demanded independence. In his office during this year 10 March commemoration, there was a big poster with the BIG letterings "TIBET ONE PEOPLE ONE NATION".
That tells you something!
And his TIBET ONE NATION is MUCH BIGGER than Tibet. His Tibet has always included the Arunachal Pradesh, until last year.
China and Tibet should move just move on without the Dalai Lama. He is quite IRRELEVANT for the past 50 years, and will soon be TOTALLY IRRELEVANT. The new 15th Dalai Lama will definitely be MADE IN CHINA.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
9 September 2009
This is geo-politics at its best. The "wedge" is trategic to both countries. China's human rights record in Tibet leaves much to be desired. Howevere, if both countries could back-off a little and let the people of Tibet be involved in a valued-added scenario for discussion, there may be room for better things to come - to make Tibet a great world link to be desired. The ball, I believe, without bias, is in China's court !
This was also posted on Facebook - 09.09.09 - in response to a post by Brig-Gen George Yeo.
-Zubin Kabraji , Indian