Sunday, September 13, 2009

Between China and India: Is Tibet the Wedge or Link?

The encounter of China and India in this century will change the world. For thousands of years, the two civilizations were separated by the high mountains of Tibet. Except for a brief war in 1962, there were no major conflicts between them.

Together, they make up more than a third of the world’s population and will supply much of the talent for global development in this century. The concentration of Chinese and Indian talent in Silicon Valley foreshadows what is coming. How China and India relate to each other in the coming decades will affect everyone.

Tibet is changing from being a barrier to a region linking China and India together. Today, there are good roads connecting Tibet to Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. Three years ago, an amazing thousand-kilometer railroad from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet was opened. Eighty percent of it is over 4000 meters in altitude; 50 percent on permafrost. When first proposed, many foreign engineers said that it could not be built.

Economically, there is much to be gained by improving road and rail links between Tibet and South Asia. Indeed, the Chinese have suggested that Lhasa and Calcutta be linked by rail. The Indian Government is understandably apprehensive about moving too quickly. Scars of the 1962 War are still raw in India. When the Indian Army moved to liberate Bangladesh in December 1971, an important factor it considered was the winter snow preventing the Chinese Army from interfering through the mountain passes. Thus, the reopening of the 4400 meter-high Nathu La Pass in July 2006 was politically significant. As part of it, China recognized India’s ownership of Sikkim. Hundreds of kilometers of fiber optic cables have been laid in the past year from Yadong in Tibet to Siliguri in West Bengal with an initial capacity of 20 gigabytes per second.

Trade between China and India has grown rapidly in the last ten years. China has already become India’s biggest trading partner. And this is only the beginning. Common economic interests are driving the two countries into closer political cooperation both bilaterally and internationally.

Tibet is both an opportunity and an issue. The economic opportunity is obvious, but rapid development has brought about great stress to the Tibetan way of life. This complicates bilateral relations between China and India.

Over long years, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism evolved in response to the challenges of extreme physical conditions at high altitudes, developing in the process a deep spirituality. However, old Tibet should not be romanticized. It was not Shangri-La.

The political economy was based on the feudal domination of monasteries over rural serfs. In 1951, Mao Zedong’s Government negotiated the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet with the local Tibetan Government, guaranteeing that Beijing would not force changes to the feudal political economy of Tibet. But the Chinese revolution had its own internal dynamic.

By the mid-1950s, land reforms had begun in Tibetan-inhabited areas outside Tibet. Monastic lands were seized and redistributed to peasants. These contributed to the Tibetan rebellion of 1959. While the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Panchen Lama remained in China and worked within the system, but not always effectively. In 1962, he sent a letter to Beijing expressing Tibetan grievances.

During the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan youths, following Chinese youths in other parts of the country, engaged in an orgy of destruction. Since then, as in the rest of China, monasteries and temples have been restored or rebuilt, often to a state better than what they were before, although some precious artifacts were lost forever. Without land and serfs, these places can only be sustained with the patronage of the Chinese state.


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