Prayer for a policy: India is being strategically out-thought by China - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 2 March 2023

Prayer for a policy: India is being strategically out-thought by China

The advantages India enjoys over the Chinese along the border are heavily dependent on one factor, which appears increasingly fragile: The 14th Dalai Lama and his inspirational leadership


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 3rd March 23


Since India’s independence in 1947, it has been described as short sighted in its strategic outlook. George Tanham of the RAND Corporation famously postulated in 1992 that the country lacked a strategic culture, ostensibly because it had never faced an “existential threat”. Clearly, Tanham was unimpressed by six centuries of repeated invasions from Central Asia, or by Timur’s bloody sacking of Delhi in 1398, or by two hundred years of British colonial rule that reduced India from opulence to penury. Even so, it is true that, without a long-term, national security strategy drawn up by India’s political leadership, the country deals with even its most pressing security challenges, such as its China policy, with a cavalier disregard of their implications. 


In the 15 years following independence, New Delhi’s repeated rejection of Chinese suggestions to draw the Sino--Indian border through mutual consultations triggered a war in 1962 between the two Asian giants. Another major reason was Beijing’s sensitivity to India’s influence in Tibet, especially given the youthful Dalai Lama’s admiration of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman, Mao Zedong, already suspicious of Nehru’s intentions in Tibet, was infuriated when China’s military crackdown in Lhasa in 1959 led to the Dalai Lama seeking and getting refuge in India, followed by tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees. The refuge given by New Delhi to the Dalai Lama and his fellow-Tibetans was a major factor in leading to the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict and to India’s humiliating defeat. To this day, the aggressive behaviour of the Chinese military – now called the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – stems from Beijing’s internalised belief that India’s intentions towards Tibet are mala fide and must be countered robustly in order to deter New Delhi.


In the 65-odd years that have elapsed since then, China has grown into a formidable industrial, scientific, technological and military power that manages to bully most countries into acting as if Tibet is not an issue at all. At the same time, His Holiness The Dalai Lama has grown into a revered world figure and an exemplar of resistance to religious and political repression. While most of the global community toes the Chinese line on the Dalai Lama, and kings, presidents and prime ministers avoid public meetings with him for fear of incurring China’s wrath, India – practically alone in the world – allows Tibet’s refugee community to make India their home. The Tibetans have been allowed to set up a Parliament-in-exile, calling it the Central Tibetan Administration as a fig leaf to cover its overtly political nature. A network of Buddhist monasteries set up in India mirror the three great monasteries in Tibet – Sera, Drebung and Ganden – diluting the effects of Chinese control over them.


From the 65,000-odd Tibetan refugees living in India, volunteers for military service against China offer themselves for recruitment into seven battalions of the secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF), which is manned mainly by descendants of the Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese repression in the 1950s. These hardy mountain soldiers proved their worth against the PLA in Eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020, capturing key heights south of the Pangong Lake This force amounts to almost an infantry division worth of motivated and trained Tibetan paratroopers, equipped with light American weaponry, who can be air-dropped far behind the PLA’s frontlines to carry out fifth columnist tasks – including mobilisation of the Tibetan populace and cutting off the PLA’s logistic lifelines. Separately, the Indian Army has converted a mechanised strike corps into a mountain strike corps; and now Indian planners have the option of vertical envelopment of forward PLA troops; with Tibetan-speaking troops of the SFF grouped in small numbers with regular Indian Army units. This would provide Indian units an invaluable edge while operating in an unknown, foreign environment.


However, as Indian strategic planners might have noted, all these potential advantages over the Chinese are heavily dependent on one factor that appears increasingly fragile: The 14thDalai Lama and his inspirational leadership. Currently aged 87, he has optimistically predicted that he would live till the age of 113. While much of the world would welcome an exceptionally long life for the venerated monk, the Tibetan refugee community and Indian policymakers should both have prepared in detail for a change of guard. Chinese security czars in Beijing and Lhasa have already indicated the line that they are likely to take, which is to ensure a favourable successor. Going by traditional practice, the death of a Dalai Lama is followed by a search for a reincarnation. This search relies on signs, such as the direction the deceased Dalai Lama was looking at the time he died; the direction the smoke was blowing during his cremation, and pronouncements by oracles from Lhamo La-tso, a vision lake in Tibet.


The 14thDalai Lama, throwing tradition to the winds, has made it clear that he would ensure that his successor would be favourable towards India and the Tibetan refugee community in India. He has put forward three options, each of them a departure from traditional practice. The first is that he would be reincarnated outside Tibet; so far, two Dalai Lamas have been born outside Tibet. Secondly, the Dalai Lama has said that he might, in his own lifetime, appoint a living successor. Finally, he has speculated that his successor would be a woman – the first female Dalai Lama.


However, the Chinese are working to ensure their control over the selection of the 15thDalai Lama. Beijing has done this before. After the death of the 10thPanchen Lama, the head of the Tazhilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, the Dalai Lama declared that a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima would be the next Panchen Lama – the second-most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days after his announcement, the little boy disappeared and has not been seen since. Within Tibet, the Chinese government has passed a law that says all senior lamas have to be approved by Beijing.


In India, the Tibet Study Group simply watches, doing little to shape this contest in its own favour. Numerous options exist to ensure that the next Dalai Lama is a favourable choice, but none of those choices have been exercised. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is re-settling Tibetan border villagers in “model villages” along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh, consolidating China’s hold over the frontier. New Delhi makes half-hearted approaches towards the setting up of a Quadrilateral – a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US – but our failure to convince Washington has led to the setting up of the AUKUS: a combat-oriented grouping of Australia, UK and the US. Finally, China retains its tight control over anything up to 1,000 square kilometres of territory it occupied in Eastern Ladakh, while India appears to pray and wait.


  1. In what might've been his central thesis of his article, Ajai says, with absolutely no supporting evidence, context or elaboration:

    "New Delhi makes half-hearted approaches towards the setting up of a Quadrilateral – a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US – but our failure to convince Washington has led to the setting up of the AUKUS: a combat-oriented grouping of Australia, UK and the US"

    What are we, the readers, to make of this? Why does he consider New Delhi's approach to the Quad "half-hearted"? What should be different? Why does he say that India's efforts "to convince Washington" led to the establishment of AUKUS? AUKUS was set up specifically to provide Australia with nuclear powered submarines! If India was/is the problem with the Quad, why was Japan not included in AUKUS?

    The reader can only be forced to conclude that the closing statements are mere political posturing, an attempt to criticize and diminish the Indian government in some manner, and a rather pathetic attempt at that.

  2. Indian Military is in dire need of shoulder fired missiles.


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