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Refusing to learn from the past

The question arises that if no nation, or a combination of nations, are in a position to threaten China in Tibet is the buildup for aggression against a neighbour?

Vinod Saighal | New Delhi |

The Dalai Lama is a religious leader revered by Indians who believe that a rishi resides in their midst. Tibetan Buddhism spread like wildfire in many parts of the Western world after their people and leaders came in contact with the simple monk, as he describes himself. The adulation that he received and continues to receive has benefited India enormously. Sadly, while governments of several countries spread out the red carpet Indian embassies were told to ignore him altogether. The Dalai Lama’s prestige outside India would not have been so rapid had not the Chinese leaders poured scorn on him in very demeaning terms year in and year out. They continue to do so.

As opposed to the above the Chinese have perfected the art of charming Indian leaders and playing to their egos. Mr. Narendra Modi started on a different note during his inauguration at Rashtrapati Bhavan. He surprised India and the world by inviting Lobsang Sangay the Sikyong to it. The latter was given a seat well up in the front rows. The Chinese conveyed their displeasure in no uncertain terms. The government’s attitude towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans changed overnight.

What is more, the manner in which the celebrations planned in Delhi on the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India to thank India for the hospitality shown to the Tibetans was cancelled shocked most Indians and lowered India’s prestige. Sincere appreciation by the Chinese must have been conveyed to the Prime Minister. In all probability it led to Wuhan. Mr. Xi Jinping might have taken a leaf out of the book on Mr. Chou En Lai in the halcyon days of Hindi-Chini Bhai- Bhai under Mr. Nehru. It is said history keeps repeating itself.

Mr. Modi is cast in a different mould from Mr. Nehru. May be there were compulsions that obliged him to yield to the Chinese in the hope that India needs time to build up its military and economic power. The difference is that in spite of assurances the Chinese continue to build up their military strength at a very rapid pace. It should ring alarm bells in India. It is understandable that China is strengthening its naval might to take on or deter the Americans in the South China Sea and further into the Pacific beyond the second island chain. However, there is no such urgency or compulsion on the land frontiers. China’s build up in Tibet and opposite Taiwan that it threatens to amalgamate by force should the need arise is being augmented at a very rapid pace. To the extent that new air bases, underground facilities and rapid deployment of strike forces are moving apace.

The alarm bells in New Delhi should have become shriller by the day. The deployment of Chinese forces in Tibet is so formidable that no nation or combination of nations can even remotely contemplate military action against Chinese territory anywhere on its mainland. The strength of forces deployed in Tibet and the back-up military regions is so unbelievably formidable that no nation in the world can dream of countering China militarily in Tibet. The question arises that if no nation, or a combination of nations, are in a position to threaten China in Tibet is the buildup for aggression against a neighbor? That neighbor can only be India. The writing on the wall is as clear as it can be. Mr. Xi has been constantly exhorting the PLA to strike at short notice and strike hard against adversaries.

Yet our leaders choose to underplay it. They might feel that they have no credible capability to counter it. True some efforts are being made to beef up assets in the North-east and Ladakh. They are nowhere near commensurate with the formidable nature of the threat. Years ago, the governments should have raised the military budget to 2.5 per cent of the GDP rather than the insufficient 1.6 to 1.7 per cent. China feels strong enough to tell India not to undertake any activities – commercial or otherwise – in the South China Sea. Lately it has also told India to desist from selling technology to Taiwan. There have been other injunctions a well.

As opposed to it, the Chinese have been going to great lengths to build up the military capability of its close friend Pakistan. There can be no doubt that China considers the Pakistan military as a force multiplier for China if not on land certainly in the Indian Ocean. Chinese inroads that are well- documented have taken place in all countries of the sub-continent other than tiny Bhutan. It would be extremely short-sighted of India’s leaders to believe that China will not try its hand to settle the border question on its terms at the time and place of its choosing. As of now India may not come through unscathed. At no time has China or for that matter its ally slowed their pace of military buildup.

India has not kept pace. In fact they have privately assured the Chiefs that there will be no war; disastrous advice. Because of it one of the most potent capability that was sanctioned under Defence Minister A K Antony after nearly thirty years of dithering, the Strike Corps for the mountains, has been put on the back burner. The Chinese have won a major victory off the battlefield; confident that without a riposte capability India will always remain vulnerable.

In the ongoing interaction with the Chinese, it has to be made clear to them in no uncertain terms that any attack on India, regardless of the outcome, would automatically render the accord on Tibet null and void. Today India is the only country in the world that has a locus standi on Tibet. It has gone along with the Chinese occupation without ever questioning it in spite of provocations from the Chinese side from time to time. Were India to revoke that agreement many countries in the world would follow suit. The settled question would become unsettled with far-reaching consequences all around. Therefore in the interest of both nations and the region China has to seriously negotiate with India to drawdown on the military buildup in Tibet and to not allow the border dispute to fester indefinitely. Going a step further both old civilizations could sign a Treaty of Perpetual Amity. It would usher in an era of peace and prosperity for the region and perhaps the world.

(The author, a retired Major-General of the Indian Army, is the author of Restructuring South Asian Security, 1980)