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Mangesh Sawant asked: Was it not a strategic mistake on India's part to recognise Tibet as an integral part of China?

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  • Prashant Kumar Singh replies: Any answer to this query will always depend on individual reading and perception of the history.

    If one is convinced that the presence of the Dalai Lama has done more harm than good to India, and that India could have bought long-lasting friendship and friction-free relationship with China by unequivocally endorsing Chinese claims over Tibet which in turn would have forestalled the emergence of Sino-Pak axis, one can conclude that it was a strategic mistake on the part of India not to have immediately recognised Tibet as an integral part of China.

    However, if one reasons that the friction-free relationship between these two Asian giants is Utopian thinking and a strategic context is bound to be there in their relationship, with Tibet being just one dimension; and that maintaining Tibet as a buffer, though condemned as an imperial legacy, was a prudent strategy to follow, then one would argue that India did not play its Tibet card well in the 1950s.

    That India pursued an imperial strategy in Tibet in the 1950s has been basically a Chinese insinuation. The criticism that not recognising Tibet as an integral part of China was a strategic mistake on the part of India is academic acceptance of this Chinese position only. However, the strategy of creating buffers moves beyond ideological contexts. The USSR pursued this strategy vis-à-vis the West, and the USSR and the PRC even vis-à-vis each other. And also, China did treat Tibet as a strategic backyard (or buffer) for the core Han China against the countries lying west of Tibet. Otherwise, China's medieval claims on Tibet are irrelevant in the modern times. Therefore, if at all India was pursuing a policy of retaining and maintaining a buffer in Tibet, this policy was not non-kosher for China. China was also doing exactly the same in Tibet. In the final outcome, what made a difference was who played this policy more deftly.

    Furthermore, the semantics apart, India has never challenged Chinese authority over Tibet. In fact, India did a rare favour to China by surrendering its extra-territorial rights on Tibet which it had inherited from the British. Moreover, the Tibet problem is between Tibetans and China, not between India and China. India has not done anything to aggravate this problem in the last 50 years. But unfortunately, China’s insecurity vis-à-vis Tibet is often transmitted on to its relations with India.

    The Maoist China was a revolutionary state having strong ideological motivations. It aligned with the USSR and declared hostility towards the US in ideological fervour, discarding American overtures between the 1949 Communist takeover of China and the Korean War. Even before 1949, America had actually stayed away from becoming a party against the communists in the Chinese Civil War. China made the North Korea attack the South Korea because of ideology. Finally, it broke from the alliance with the Soviet Union in its ideological quest for the leadership of the socialist world. In fact, the Maoist China entered into many confrontations with external powers and many a times descended into domestic chaos because of ideology. In this light, asserting that Tibet was the only reason behind the Sino-Indian confrontation is probably incorrect. China's desire to assert superiority of its political system over democratic India and to project itself as the only leader of Asia were probably far more responsible reasons behind Chinese aggression on India in 1962, though India had its own share of strategic and diplomatic mistakes. Therefore, the suggestion that even more unequivocal support to China on Tibet issue would have made a genuine difference to the Sino-Indian relations does not carry much conviction.

    However, a valid criticism of India's Tibet policy in the 1950s is that it became a hotchpotch of idealism and realism. Neither idealism nor realism got a full play in this policy. The diagnosis about Chinese presence in Tibet was quite realist but the prescriptions followed were somewhat idealist, which could not withstand the heat of the events as they unfolded in the late 1950s and early 1960s.