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India should take a firm stand against China and recognize Tibet as an occupied territory

Historically, China never shared even an inch of the border area with India until the 1950s when China brutally occupied Tibet.

At the height of border conflict between India and China, on August 29, 2020, a group of Tibetan commandos from the little-known Special Frontier Force (SFF) undertook a pre-emptive mission against the Chinese army. SFF commandos reclaimed India’s strategic position in the Southern Pangong lake. This military achievement is unprecedented since the Sino-Indo war of 1962.

In the process of this operation, a Tibetan refugee and commando of the Special Frontier Force sacrificed his life. Amid thundering, rhythmic, and unifying chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Tibet Desh Ki Jai,” martyr Nyima Tenzin was laid to rest at Leh with full military honours. Nyima Tenzin was from the Sonamling Tibetan refugee settlement of Leh, Ladakh.

The little known SFF, a force that is most feared by the Chinese PLA soldiers, suddenly became a prime time taking points of all the major news outlets in India. While this may be the first time Indian media took an interest in this elite covert Tibetan paramilitary mountain-guerrilla warfare unit, their achievements, however, go beyond several decades.

Established by India’s Intelligence Bureau with CIA-trained Tibetan warriors, this force had played a vital role in the 1971 Bangladesh war at the request of the Indian government. East Pakistani soldiers guarding their post believed they saw a “ghost” when SFF commandos were covertly surrounding them. Their unrivalled guerrilla warfare tactic in that war earned them the name “Phantoms of Chittagong.” While their mission was a great success, about 56 Tibetan SFF commandos sacrificed their life for India. SFF also played a vital role in the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999. To know more about SFF, watch this documentary.

Tibet is at the core of India-China border conflict

The current border conflict between India and China has risen to a dangerous level. Two days ahead of his trip to Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting of foreign ministers, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar acknowledged that the current border tension between India and China as “very serious,” and said that it called for “very, very deep conversations” between the two sides at a “political level.”

The two-hour meeting between S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the SCO meeting of foreign ministers, resulted in two countries issuing a joint statement over an ongoing border dispute in the Himalayas, calling for dialogue and disengagement. From any perspective, it is obvious that two foreign ministers were not able to have a “very, very deep conversation.” Such a conversation is not possible without taking Tibet into consideration.

It is essential to understand that at the core of the Indo-China border conflict is the issue of Tibet. No matter how ‘deep’ the conservation at the political level or how many rounds of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination for India-China Border Affair (WMCC) meeting takes place, there can never be a constructive border solution between India and China without talking on the issue of Tibet. Historically, China never shared even an inch of the border area with India until the 1950s when China brutally occupied Tibet.

In one of my previous empirical articles, I have shown that the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet cost the Indian tax-payer, on average, US$ 7.16 billion annually in military expenditures. The total sum of an annual additional US$ 7.16 billion military expense from 1954-2019 (without any adjustment to inflation and exchange rate fluctuation) is US$ 462.8 billion, which amounts to 93.9% of India’s total trade deficit to China between 2000-2018 (US$ 492.4 billion). Hence the cumulative (without any adjustment) additional military expense could almost net out the total trade deficit that India had accumulated with China from 2000 onward.

China has been constantly trying to prevent India’s rise

China’s consistent and sinister attempt to prevent the rise of India has been taking place at the international level for decades now. Over the years, China has been using her VETO power at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in blocking India’s bid for a permanent seat UNSC. We must not forget that India was offered a permanent seat in UNSC two times (first by the U.S. in 1950 and second by USSR 1955) but didn’t accept the offer as Nehru was lobbying for the inclusion of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) back to UNSC.

When PRC was weak, India helped them in all the possible ways they can. India under Nehru was the first non-communist/socialist nation in Asia to officially recognize the PRC and was supportive of its stand that it was the only state that could be recognized as “China” and that the island of Taiwan was a part of Chinese territory. Similarly, despite the strong push from Sardar Patel and other Indian leaders, Nehru sacrificed Tibet to appease China.

Despite all the right things India has done for China, the Chinese government has always always been hostile to India. One example in this regard is China’s continued support to Pakistan. China played a vital role in Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons. Gary Milhollin, a leading expert on nuclear weapons, said that without China’s help, Pakistan’s bomb would not exist. Furthermore, looking at Beijing’s increasing interest in Nepal and Nepal’s accelerated embrace of China, I fear time is not too far when Nepal, a country with strong civilizational ties with India, turns into a complete launching ground for China.

The most recent example, in this case, is the unveiling of a new political map by Nepal’s government in May 2020 which includes part of Indian territory in Pithoragarh District of Uttrakhand state. Many analysts believe that Nepal may very well request China’s involvement in this potential bilateral dispute between India and Nepal.

It is a high time that India should take a firm stand to deal with China by changing India’s stand on Tibet by affirming the illegal nature of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and should recognize Tibet as an occupied territory. Ultimately, Tibet’s freedom is India’s best long-term security.

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Tsewang Rigzin
Tsewang Rigzin is a Fellow at Columbia Population Research Center and Social Policy analysis doctoral student at Columbia University, USA. He is the author of the book "Exile Tibetan Community: Problems and Prospects" (LTWA, 2016)

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