"Beijing believes unrest in Tibet linked with Tawang", so Tibet settlement must precede border settlement, says Zhang Li - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 13 May 2015

"Beijing believes unrest in Tibet linked with Tawang", so Tibet settlement must precede border settlement, says Zhang Li

Professor Zhang Li, from Sichuan University, is an expert on China-India-Pakistan strategic relations. He is based in Chengdu, which is also headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) army group that is responsible for the Sino-India border. Ajai Shukla spoke to him in Chengdu last week.

Question: Do you see any shift in the way India and China view the boundary question after Mr Modi and Xi Jingping came to power?

Zhang Li: Yes. India has becoming increasingly more important for China in the last 3-4 years especially with the new generation of Chinese leaders under Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang. They have launched a new diplomatic thrust on issues that China and India share, such as infrastructure, investment and energy.

Question: Can strong new leaders like Xi and Modi approach the border issue is new ways?

Zhang Li:  Under these strong leaders, one has reason to expect much more to be done for an early settlement of the border issue. I think China could develop some new thinking, but obstacles remain as we have seen in the 18 rounds of dialogue between the special representatives [of India and China].

Question: It seems the matter is stuck on China’s claim on Tawang?

Zhang Li:  China has never given up its claim to Southern Tibet as we call it, and Arunachal Pradesh as India calls it. Beijing thinks it is the major part of the territorial dispute. The Chinese people basically understand that there is a dispute between China and India only in the eastern sector. In the western sector only the specialists understand that India claims certain parts and believes China has occupied some parts of Aksai Chin. But in the eastern sector the understanding is quite different and so the Chinese leadership continue this territorial claim. 

Question:  Why is Tawang so important for China?

Zhang Li: In the last ten years I think the Chinese government has tried to link the border issue with Tibet, especially Tawang. A core concern for China is to stabilize Tibet, and they realise the strong historical and cultural linkages between Tibet proper and the disputed areas, especially Tawang. There are historical accounts of linkage that were political in nature and issues of jurisdiction for centuries.

Question: So Tawang remains a sticking point, even for an eastern border based on the McMahon Line?

Zhang Li: The Chinese government has never accepted the McMahon Line. Since the 1950s, when Nehru and Zhou Enlai discussed, China said lets swap eastern sector and western, just exchange [Aksai Chin to China for Arunachal to India]. But now China says we have to make a “minor but not insignificant” adjustment [within each sector]. Basically this is a reference to Tawang, which is not just part of the territorial issue but also part of the Tibet issue. When Chinese think of Tawang issue they also have to think about Tibet. Perhaps China associates the stability of Tibet with Tawang. This is something new.

Question: What thinking has driven this change?

In 2005 at the time of signing the “Political Parameters” [Agreement for a border settlement], and maybe soon afterwards, the Chinese government thought they have to change their position, especially on the Tawang issue. There was instability in Tibet and around, especially at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and 2009. That is a partial reason, not the whole reason, that Tawang and other factors play on Chinese thinking for Tibet stability. China believes that instability in Tibet is not just from inside but it also gets lots of influence from the outside. A lot of negative influences come from the west, places like America and Europe but also from within India. So the status of Tawang is a sensitive issue. The very factor that the Dalai Lama stays in India, changes everything radically.

Question:  So China will not settle the Sino-Indian border until it resolves the Tibet situation internally?

Zhang Li:  Like I said, there is some connection between Tibet and the settlement of the border issue. That there is a direct linkage is something new in the last 10 years. Perhaps China has some misgivings about the situation in Tibet. According to Chinese thinking, in 1959 India played a role in the Lhasa uprising.

In 1954 China and India signed an important agreement defining relations with Tibet [Panchasheel Agreement], and five years later we had the Tibetan uprising. This time after the 2005 agreement, we saw the 2008 protests in Tibet. But this time, I personally think there is some misunderstanding, and that there is quite a complicated linkage with India. Naturally, the Chinese government thinks there are outside negative influences in Tibet from two sources, one is from America and Europe and the other from the Tibetan government in exile in India. It is complicated because New Delhi says it does not allow the Tibetan government to do any political activity against China.

Question:  So the border settlement must await the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa?

Zhang Li: I think the settlement is indirectly linked with the Dalai Lama. We can guess that if Tibet is more stable then the Chinese government will be more flexible in discussing the border issue with India. For the Chinese government it is much more important to stabilize Tibet than it is to settle the border issue early as India has expected.

Question:  Does Beijing believe the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is feasible, given the turmoil in Pakistan?

Zhang Li:  Since General Musharraf came to China in 2006, Beijing and Islamabad have proposed to develop this strategic linkage from Gwadar in the Arabian Sea to Xinjiang. Surely China has formidable problems to overcome before making it a success. But Pakistan remains extremely important for China strategically, given the regional situation. Of course I have to recognize that it has something to do with India. In Chinese perception India is strategically getting closer to United States and some Chinese analysts fear perhaps one day it may become a part of American arrangements against China. There seems no assurance for Beijing to judge India’s role choice.

Question:  Is China going to put pressure on Pakistan to stop radicalism spilling over into Xinjiang?

Zhang Li: There have been actual terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, and also through internet propaganda and sharing terrorist techniques and ideology. We discuss terrorism with Pakistan and keep channels open. But we don’t press too hard because the partnership is very important for China. We understand there are limits to what they can do.

In Gwadar, China has no plans for a military base, only for civilian and commercial purposes. The security situation is not good and the project itself, so far, hasn’t proven attractive and lucrative . Both China and Pakistan think highly of the prospects of Gwadar in the long run and Pakistan, understandably, is trying to overplay this for effect.


  1. please... please... please... all markets... rejected chinkeese... only hope... capitulation of GoI... 1962... surrender indian market... complete...

  2. With all due respect, Tell this idiot Zhang Li to go and F*** himself. If any Chinese soul became visible at south of Thag-La Ridge, he would be detached from his earthly body. Only soul will float.

    For China, Tawang will remain as the bullock's ball, always hanging but never falling.

  3. I Think its too early for border talks.

    The general Public of both nations have seen a rise of overt nationalism due to economic progress in last decade.

    Both nations are still very ambitious and belligerent as for them the world is a stage and national pride is associated with land.

    I think first both nations must develop extremely friendly relations. Then when conditions of friendliness are akin to Scandinavian countries, then we can go in for border settlement. We dont mind border settlements with Bangladesh or Nepal or Butan Do we ? But its different with China.

    For now, in my opinion there should be a demarkation of a De-Militarized Zone of 40 KM 20 KM on either side of LAC width where nobody governs and nobody marches into and no body goes to settle in. But it is jointly surveillanced electronically, via Drones and camera Towers.

    Next, we must have more people to people contact through tourism and Joint space missions.

    Then 10 years later once the nations are more integrated and friendlier, we can have border settlement of the DMZ.

    This is a broad principle, which I think we can follow.

    An India-China alliance is some thing that the world is conspiring to prevent by couring India and China in separate camps and pitting them against each other.

    If Such an alliance were to fructify it would be simply be the most dominant alliance on earth, economically and politically and militarily and would threaten all the existing powers European, American even Russian.

    Putin realises this and hence wisely wants to facilitate this with BRICS,SCO etc.

    Which is why Both nations media houses tend to up the ante of belligerence during any event as they are financed by vested interest to do so. Its Divide and Rule for Asia and like pawns India and China are following suit, while europe and North america and the middle east get richer.

    China must become more democratized, India must become more organized.

    Mao and Nehru are dead and gone and so must their legacy of mutual animosity.

  4. China is not serious in settling the border issues. Even after capture of Tibet illegally their appetite for land grabbing never diminishes.Chinese exports of nuclear technology to Pakistan not under the NSG guidelines. Does the western countries care. Ultimately chinese want to dominate Asia and IOR. China or US never respects a weakling. India needs to be a economic power house. Only industrialisation can change its destiny. Vishveshwariah said in 1950's industrialise or perish.

  5. @Jean Luc Picard

    The more I read you posts the more I tend to think that it is all but angreji of a speculative fertile mind and absence of knowledge of ground realities..

    For now, in my opinion there should be a demarkation of a De-Militarized Zone of 40 KM 20 KM on either side of LAC width where nobody governs and nobody marches into and no body goes to settle in. But it is jointly surveillanced electronically, via Drones and camera Towers.

    Given the road and communication infrastructure on the Chinese side right up to their last post on border and lack of the same on Indian side, is such an arrangement thinkable? This simply is a Chinese proposal who one day will come and sit in Tawang (do you know how far is Tawang from Bum La). No sane Indian can think of it. How far do you think is the Chinese strategic road passing through Aksai Chin from the nearest Indian Border post of Demchok ?

    All other things you suggested are Indian sentimentality of Nehruvian type and not like hard nose Chinese strategic thinking.

    Think over it ...

  6. @Anonymous 00:10 :

    Yes, you are correct I am most certainly no expert nor do I have a strong sense of Ground realities having not served there. Yes, in this matter my information and understanding comes from public information like media, news, Google maps and my memories of being there as a child.

    I am as curious and also have opinions which is why I should have stated " For now, In my unqualified opinion...." As a member of the educated general public, i feel it is best to leave the tactical and practicalities to the experts in our armed forces and heed their advice (never blindly, one must ask questions but also "not try and teach grandma how to fornicate" ) and so I kept my opinion (not an assertion) limited to a larger strategic/political view.

    My opinion was that now is not the time for Border settlement as no concessions will be tolerated by two nations public and oppositions due to belligerence. So as a temporary fix to prevent transgressions and for better border management some form of boundary lines need to be demarcated with out having a definitive settlement of border. Currently as I understand the various Border guarding agencies would like most since McMahon Line / LAC is only on paper and can vary 10+ Kms on ground. This is their prime requirement. To Give them a precise Line to defend and patrol.

    Hence a DMZ was suggested(by me) as a large No Mans land and as a Buffer zone.

    Once this is contained it will give way to Trade and P2P contact till our relations have normalized (Say 40 years). Thats when we can settle actual border negotiations as we recently have done with Bangladesh, a successful settlement done in a peaceful, conducive environment.

    If we were to have border settlements with Nepal or Bhutan will they not be peaceful ? The idea is to prevent conflict.

    The blunder of Nehru was not that he aimed to prevent conflict but that he did so without preparing for it.

    We can follow his aim, but we should learn from his folly as well.


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