An expert on China and Tibet affairs, VIJAY KRANTI is an author, traveller, photographer, media educationist, and former staffer of BBC World, Deutsche Welle (German) and Radio Voice of America. Between 2003 and 2010, Kranti travelled incognito on a tourist visa deep into Tibet and China on eight separate occasions.
Equipped with his camera, he captured vivid details of Chinese suppression of Tibetan people, arts, culture, and religion besides their development of military infrastructure along borders with India. While doing so he narrowly survived the scrutiny of suspicious Chinese authorities on many occasions. He has penned about a dozen books.
In an interview with DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, Kranti talks about China and Tibet, his association with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, and the current standoff between India and China in Ladakh and its impact on global strategic equations.
Q. You are among very few Indians who have toured incognito deep into Tibet and in some parts of China. How easy or difficult was it to do so?
A. Since the beginning of this century, China got keen to make billions of dollars through tourism in Tibet. So I planned my tours in a way to cover almost entire Tibet and some parts of China as an ordinary tourist who had the keen eyes of a journalist. In all I have travelled about 5,000 kms within Tibet and China. It was a perfectly legal way every time, but still there was a great risk of meeting similar fate as that of Sarabjit or Jadhav.
Q. Do you find any correlation between what you saw in Tibet then and what is happening today at Galwan or all along the LAC?
A. Sure. All through these eight years of my travels inside Tibet, my one consistent observation was that China was desperately developing roads and military establishments all over Tibet, especially along borders with India. They were also developing new townships and railways. But one could easily make out that it was not for the convenience of the colonised Tibetan subjects.
It was too obvious to miss that the entire exercise was to create facilities for other military purposes and to develop new towns for settling millions of new citizens from China to change the demography of Tibet. On one of my early visits I saw dozens of Tibetan labour groups digging a trench parallel to the 500 km long road from Dram (Nepal) to Shigatse in Tibet. It must have been for optical fibre. Unfortunately India remained sleepy along its Himalayan borders in the past seven decades.
Q. Why has China started this confrontation with India at this juncture? Where is the present standoff between India and China heading to?
A. To me this all appears more related to China’s internal political situation, especially the fresh power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party, rather than any major dispute with India. In his hurry to install himself as lifelong supreme leader of China like late Chairman Mao, Xi Jinping has started a campaign of purging his opponents in the CCP.
In recent months he has dismissed and arrested over 200 senior functionaries of the party as well as military officers. All of them are known supporters of senior and rival leaders like Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Zhu Rongji. Mao achieved the same goal by using youths and school-level ‘Red Guards’ in a decadelong ‘Cultural Revolution’.
This ended up with almost every potential opponent of Mao in CCP either dead, arrested or politically demolished, unable to pose any threat to his leadership. Today, Xi is using the legal machinery under his official control as the General Secretary of CCP, Chairman of Central Military Commission and President of China in the name of ‘fighting corruption’.
Q. If Xi is involved so deeply in an internal power struggle then why do we see PLA’s misadventure on Indian borders,especially in Ladakh?
A. His plans of confronting India in Ladakh and other places along the LAC went haywire as his assessment of India’s military capabilities proved to be wrong. He was hoping to emerge as a victorious ‘national hero’ after ‘winning back’ China’s ‘lost land’ from India.
His fresh aggressive actions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Hong Kong etc. too were aimed at diverting attention of the people of China from his misadventures in the CCP and economic failure due to the Wuhan virus Covid-19.
Q. Many global players like the USA, Australia, Japan and other nations like Taiwan, Vietnam etc. have started challenging the might of China in the wake of Beijing’s aggressive attitude. What international implications do you see for China and India in near and long future?
A. China’s belligerence on the military front against all these countries and the enormous damage caused by the Wuhan virus on the life and economy of these countries has brought them together. Earlier China used to threaten them separately and could get away with it.
Soon you will start seeing the impact of economic, political and military decisions which these and many other countries have already started taking against China independently or in tandem with each other.
Q. How is this going to impact Xi Jinping’s position?
A. First, the resolve of most countries world over to reduce their dependence on business with China and Chinese products has already led to cancellation of business orders in China. Hundreds of thousands of production sites have either stopped production or are working in minimal production mode.
Process of laying off labour has already started. As a result 10 to 30 million migrant workers have already left for their homes in remote areas. This is result of non-coordinated efforts among various countries. You just wait for an orchestrated economic push from some newly forming anti-China blocs of countries and you will see the ‘Red Pie’ crumbling.
The very first victim is going to be Xi Jinping himself whom the CCP and public opinion is going to lynch — at least politically.
Q. Any chances of a public uprising in China in a situation like this?
A. No one should be surprised if a 1989 Tiananmen Square-type uprising happens in a very new form all over China. In 1989, it happened despite the fact that there was no internet and Chinese people relied exclusively on Partycontrolled information.
Moreover that youth generation was made up of poetic- revolutionaries who would paste hand written poems on walls to express their anger. But the new Chinese generation is internet-savvy and has tasted blood of prosperity, luxury and personal comfort. Their aspirations come from Deng’s dictum ‘Being Rich is a Virtue’. Their uprising will crush anyone – even Xi Jinping or the CCP – who comes in the way of their personal and collective interests.
Q. Today Chinese think tanks are warning India of ‘repeating 1962’ and the Indian establishment is repeatedly saying that ‘today’s India is different from India of 1962’.What does it mean?
A. We must understand that when China attacked India in 1962, not only was India militarily unprepared and weak, it also had no friends who could stand by her in the war.
Even USA that could have helped India in a big way due to its strong allergy to Communism, could not do much because of the Cuban nuclear crisis at its own door step. Today not only is India well prepared militarily, it has a slew of friends across the globe who will join hands with India to settle their own scores with China.
Q. Do you think the stalemate at Galwan and the subsequent occupation of vantage positions by Indian forces on top of the hills overlooking Chinese deployments can be the game-changer?
A. Yes, sudden drop in China’s arrogance vis-à-vis India in Ladakh following occupation of vantage heights in Ladakh by Indian Army gives that impression. By occupying these heights, the Indian Army has practically undone most of advantages that PLA had acquired by quietly advancing in Galwan and most other areas.
These occupations have practically brought almost entire fortifications of PLA on the front as well as backup positions under direct scrutiny and hitting capability of Indian Army. This practically means freezing PLA in current positions at least until a fullblown war takes place. Actually Xi’s PLA was so overconfident about their military superiority over India that they were hoping to conquer Galwan and adjoining Ladakhi areas in a jiffy.
They had plans to further secure their grip on already occupied Aksai Chin and to make fresh advances towards Siachen to make it difficult for Indian forces to maintain their hold on it. But they are stunned by the Indian Army’s resolute response.
This has turned the tables on PLA and Xi, who were hoping to use their Ladakh victory to score points visa- vis Xi’s political rivals inside China. Now Xi will surely have to face music on this and many other accounts in the forthcoming 20th Congress this October.
Q. Why is there not much discussion on a nuclear-China and a nuclear-India? Are there chances of a nuclear faceoff between the two in the light of present conflict?
A. Let us not forget that in present world situation, nuclear weapons have become too prolific to be an asset. They are useful only till they are not used.
No sensible leader, who cares even an iota for the future of his country, will make the first strike. India has already graduated its nuclear policy from ‘no use’ to ‘no first use’. And China cannot afford to make a first strike on India, or for that matter, on any other country like Japan or Taiwan.
Doing so will be like issuing an open license to all those nuclear powers who just can’t afford to live in a world where China comes victorious over another country after a nuclear attack. If China fires one, it will get back a shower from India and many others who are not even directly provoked.
Q. You have closely worked with the Dalai Lama for almost five decades. What future do you see for him and the Tibetan people in the changing India- China relations?
A. Dalai Lama has been making all possible efforts to establish peace and understanding between China and Tibet while no government of the world stood by him.
But the havoc created by the Chinese Wuhan virus on people’s safety and the world economy and the Beijing leader’s decision to pick up a fight with so many countries across the world has changed the world in a big way.
You may soon see a host of countries standing up for the freedom of China’s colonies like Tibet, East Turkistan (Xinjiang), South Mongolia and Hong Kong only to ensure an utterly weak China. Dalai Lama can now hope for a free Tibet sooner than he could anticipate.
Q. If you were to advise the Indian government on China affairs, what major points would you suggest to ensure that the border dispute is settled once and for all?
A. One basic suggestion is that GOI and people of India should stop remaining focused only on the border dispute and confrontation. At best, India can only defend its current positions by remaining vigilant, tense and paying ever increasing costs.
In the new emerging world scenario, India must identify China’s vulnerable points and hit where it hurts China most and costs India less. One area is raising cases of human rights of people of Tibet, East Turkistan, South Mongolia and Hong Kong on world forums.
Second, India should stand up and join hands with countries like Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and all others who feel threatened by China and are willing to have India as a leading partner in challenging China on all possible fronts.
Third, join hands with other countries to stop China from usurping most UN and other international forums. Fourth, take QUAD seriously and develop Andaman & Nicobar Islands as a joint military hub to tame China in the Malacca Strait and high seas.
Fifth, challenge China on the diplomatic table by demanding parity and reciprocity on issues like opening Indian Consulate office in Lhasa, equal freedom for Indian media within China, Tibet, Xinjiang etc. and in the field of importexport. India only needs to shed its inertia and change its gears. Doors of a new, assertive, self-confident and self-respecting India will open up.