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    IndiaIs India playing the ‘Tibet Card’ — again?

    Is India playing the ‘Tibet Card’ — again?


    The commentary on Tibet ranges from it being a non-issue to it being one of the central issues in the -China relationship. Kewalrami says it's is a knob for New Delhi that it can turn up or down as per the situation.

    “The real question is not if India is playing the Tibet card or not. The question is what's the endgame from turning up the knob now. Does New Delhi feel the Tibet issue gives it enough leverage? That does not seem likely. But turning up the knob now can definitely lead to annoyance and friction for China and undermining the Chinese narrative. That way, the moves regarding the Tibetans can be meaningful,” says Kewalramani, a Chinese Studies Fellow and the Chairperson of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution.

    This time, India is not playing the card alone. It is joined by the United States. Even though the American interest in Tibet may look sudden and sceptics of the US foreign policy may flinch at the India-US convergence, neither of them is new.

    Since the 1950s, the United States and India have been engaged on the issue of Tibet. Initially, the United States tried to rope in India to mount a united response to the Tibet question. The United States also supported Tibetan guerillas against the Communist regime of Beijing and, following the India-China War of 1962, helped India enlist Tibetans in the SFF and supported India militarily.

    In her book Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations During the Cold War, Tanvi Madan noted that while the United States was willing to address the Tibet issue in early 1950s, it was not willing to do it without India and was wary of spillovers.

    “But, while Washington was willing to encourage Tibet's leaders and its autonomy in spirit, it was unwilling to act alone to provide military or financial assistance or appoint official representatives to Tibet. Acheson [US Secretary of State] maintained that India had the primary responsibility to help Tibet…Furthermore, like Britain and India, the US was concerned about any spillover impact on the Korean situation — the reason why it would not promise a specific response to a potential Tibetan appeal to the UN,” noted Madan, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Asia Policy Studies of the Brookings Institution.

    The Dalai Lama is photographed here arriving in India in 1959 (Photo: The Dalai Lama's website)

    The book also quoted the US Department of State saying at the time: “Tibet as a weapon for alerting GOI [Government of India] to the danger of attempting to appease any Communist Govt and, specifically, for manoeuvring GOI into a position where it will voluntarily adopt a policy of firmly resisting Chinese Communist pressure in south and east Asia.”

    As was the case in 1950-60s, the US outreach to India over Tibet is part of a broader geopolitical contest. While the contest was with the global Communism in the Cold War, the United States is now in competition with China — some see it as one of democracy versus autocracies.

    “For the past few years, the United States has witnessed an increased focus on Tibet about real autonomy for the region. There is also a sense in the United States of an existential clash with China. This is what's leading to the increased India-US convergence on China and the moves regarding Tibet are part of the bigger response to rising and aggressive China,” says Kewalramani.

    Even as India and the United States appear to be playing the Tibet Card jointly, some critics question the utility and even the existence of such a card. Former Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan has argued that there has never been a Tibet card as India and the United States both accept the One China Policy, Tibet itself has accepted Chinese sovereignty, and the Dalai Lama's establishment is also eager to make a deal with China than waging an overt conflict.

    In his book The Great Game in Buddhist Himalayas: India and China's Quest for Strategic Dominance, Stobdan further flagged that the US involvement brings harm instead of benefits. He wrote, “The Dalai Lama and the ‘Tibet Card' are Cold War-era relics. The issue has been kept alive for almost six decades, mainly due to the games being played, some at the behest of Western powers. The Dalai Lama and Tibet ‘cards' have not served any deterrent purposes for India; rather, they have prolonged mutual suspicion and hostility with China.”

    While the extent of the leverage the Tibet Card gives India is up for debate, Kewalramani tells Firstpost that the idea is to keep the wound open.

    “If you keep the wound open, the Tibet question in this case, then who knows where it leads someday? Maybe, nothing may happen today, but who knows what the card might yield in the future? So, you don't put a lid on the issue,” says Kewalramani.

    The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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