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Tue 20 October 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on the rivalry of the two superpowers over strategic resources and how autonomy for the Himalayan Kingdom could defuse it

In the dead of night a squad of Chinese soldiers armed themselves with crudely made weapons ranging from iron rods wrapped in barbed wire to nail studded clubs and began hunting down Indian soldiers.

A brutal hand-to-hand clash erupted against the backdrop of one of the most remote parts of the Himalayas, more than 14,000 feet above sea level. By morning, at least 20 Indian soldiers were dead – some killed during the brawl, others from a fall into a deep ravine below. The number of casualties on the Chinese side is unknown but some have speculated the death toll could be as high as 100.

In the eyes of China, the attack in June was an act of revenge on Indian troops who had crossed a highly-disputed border in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. From India’s point of view, it was a shocking and unjustified attack on soldiers who were on land that belonged to them.

In the wider context for Asia, Tibet gives Beijing control over the most vital resource on the planet – water

Tensions on the border have been simmering for so long that in 1996 an agreement was struck between the two sides that said guns and explosives would be prohibited to deter escalation so neither side was able to defend themselves using firearms.

The violence between the soldiers has left the two nuclear-armed powers into a tense standoff which the political party Shiv Sena said in an editorial for the Hindustan Times is comparable to the 1962 Indo-China war. The party wrote: “Chinese infiltration and land-grabbing activities have not reduced. The Indian Army will not allow the repeat of the history of 1962. The situation in Ladakh currently is as severe as that of 1962. We cannot deny that.”

De-escalation is now top of the agenda for military commanders and senior diplomats on both sides, yet their armies are amassing in border regions and digging in for the winter making it clear the tense negotiations could collapse at any point. A survey carried out by Global Times – widely regarded to be a mouthpiece for the Chinese Government – said 70% of Chinese participants believed India is “being too hostile against China” and nearly 90% support their government “retaliating strongly”.


Tibet – the Hinge of Asia

Caught in the middle of it all is Tibet. The reality of the dispute is that it is over land that is supposed to be part of Tibet, a nation that China has occupied since 1950. As Tibet’s President in exile, Lobsang Sangay, explained to Indian news channel NewsX, it was this occupation that caused “the border of Tibet and India to transform into the Indo-China border” of today. For this reason, Sangay believes “the escalations, incursions and now the violence and killings” will “go on” unless the issue of Tibet and its independence is solved, “70 years ago the border was demilitarised and there was no need for the army,” he said.

John Jones, Campaigns and advocacy manager at the UK-based Free Tibet, told Byline Times the media around the world is ignoring the importance of Tibet in the confrontation. He said: “Tensions between the two sides have flared along the Tibetan-Indian border, but discussion in the media have often ignored Tibet, instead it has been reported that the confrontation is along an India-China boundary. Omitting this key detail effectively erases an occupied people who are witnessing their homeland being disfigured as it is plundered and militarised.”

Jones further explained that the border confrontation highlights some of the primary reasons behind Beijing’s determination to continue occupying Tibet and why the fate of much of Asia hinges on who controls it. In the context of the recent border clashes, control of Tibet means China’s territory is significantly expanded to the west and border clashes with India are happening far from inside China but comparatively close to New Delhi.

But in the wider context for Asia, Tibet gives Beijing control over the most vital resource on the planet – water. “Control over Tibet and the Himalayan glaciers gives Beijing control over vital water sources which flow through the country and across south and southeast Asia, including into India,” Jones said. “The control of this water supply gives China considerable leverage over its neighbours.”

To understand just how important this kind of leverage could be, the world needs only to look at what is currently taking place in countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Southeast Asia is going through its worst drought in decades, destroying the livelihood of millions.

Experts claim that China is contributing to this by choking the water supply for the Mekong river which originates in Tibet and is being transformed with huge hydroelectric dams that are providing electricity for Chinese cities. 

The accusation was dismissed by China as “groundless”. It is planning to construct more dams on the Brahmaputra river – like the Mekong this river originates in Tibet but it stretches almost 2,000 miles and is a lifeline for north-eastern India and Bangladesh.

Jones said it is for these reasons, as well as for the well-being of the Tibetan people, that giving back Tibet’s freedom would be “key” to de-escalating “a potentially disastrous conflict” that could turn the country into China’s battlefield. However, the chances of Tibet regaining any form of independence in the near future seems extremely optimistic. 


Clampdown or Release?

Despite, already being one of the most severely oppressed regions on the planet, Beijing has indicated it has plans for a further clampdown. In a speech made at the end of August, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China “must adhere to the strategic thinking that to govern the nation, we must govern our borders; to govern our borders, we must first stabilise Tibet”. This, he said, means creating an “impregnable fortress” where education includes “combating separatist activities”, where Tibetan Buddhism is guided with the “Chinese context”, and where national unity is guided by “ethnic solidarity”. 

Hu Ping, a US-based Chinese scholar, said Beijing’s fresh concern about Tibet is likely to be motivated by the confrontation with India. With “the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations, it has become more difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to suppress Tibetans than before,” he claimed. 

Matteo Mecacci, President of the US-based International Campaign for Tibet added: “The occupation of Tibet has cost the Chinese government a fortune in military and police expenses to control a region as vast as Western Europe while putting India and other countries’ security in the region at risk.

“If China truly wants long-term stability in Tibet, its only option is to negotiate a direct settlement with the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people before the situation in Tibet grows even worse”.

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