Shadow Government

Could China and India go to war over Tibet?

By Dan Twining

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Lhasa uprising. Much of the associated commentary suggests that Tibet is, at most, an internal human rights issue in China, albeit one that impacts China's foreign relations with Western democracies who care about the plight of the Tibetan people. Indeed, the Dalai Lama's admission that Tibet is part of China, and that he seeks true autonomy rather than actual independence for his people, reaffirm this view. There is also, however, an external dimension to the Tibetan crisis, one that implicates core national security interests of nuclear-armed great powers.

This is the role Tibet's dispensation plays in the conflict between China and India. Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan puts it bluntly: "When there is relative tranquility in Tibet, India and China have reasonably good relations. When Sino-Tibetan tensions rise, India's relationship with China heads south." Although not widely recognized in the West, the nexus of Tibet and the unresolved border conflict between China and India ranks with the Taiwan Strait and Korean peninsula among Asia's leading flashpoints.

Contrary to Chinese propaganda, Tibet was not traditionally a part of China. Over the centuries, relations between China and Tibet were characterized by varying degrees of association spanning the spectrum from sovereignty to suzerainty to independence. The People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in the middle of the last century precisely because Tibetans did not consent to Beijing's rule.

For its part, prior to Indian independence, then-British India vigorously supported Tibetan autonomy and sponsored the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh to create an expansive geographic buffer between China and the subcontinent. John Garver's excellent history of Sino-Indian rivalry contains useful maps depicting a rump China and an expansive Indian subcontinent separated by a vast, autonomous Tibet, demonstrating how far apart were India and China geographically until Chinese unification by the Communist Party several years after Indian independence gave them a common border.

That common border has since been a source of conflict. As is well known, India and China went to war over their territorial dispute in 1962, ending the era of what Indian Prime Minister Nehru called "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai" ("Indians and Chinese are brothers"). What is less well known in the West is that China, while subsequently resolving 17 of its 18 outstanding land border disputes with neighboring countries, has kept the territorial conflict with India alive, at times appearing to inflame the issue as a source of leverage over New Delhi.

Over the past two years, Chinese officials have publicly asserted Chinese claims to the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which some Chinese military advisors and strategists refer to as "Southern Tibet." Chinese forces have periodically engaged in small-scale cross-border encroachments, destroying Indian military bunkers and patrol bases in Ladakh and Sikkim.

At the same time, China has been systematically constructing road and rail networks across the Tibetan plateau in ways that tilt the balance of forces along the contested frontier in China's favor; India has responded with infrastructure projects of its own, including roads and air fields, to enable military reinforcement of its border regions, but has failed to keep pace with its northern neighbor. China has also positioned large numbers of military and security forces on the Tibetan plateau, mainly with an eye on suppressing popular unrest. But the possibility of using them to "teach India a lesson" (as in 1962) remains.

Indian pundits note that public reminders from Beijing of China's decisive victory over India in the 1962 war have spiked over the past year, sending what Indians believe is a clear signal to New Delhi at a time of rising tensions. Combined with China's reported deployment in Tibet of nuclear missiles targeting India, officials in New Delhi feel increasingly alarmed in the face of Chinese provocation.  In striking statements little noted in the West, both Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and respected former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra recently warned China against any attempt to seize Indian-held territory along their contested border.

Surging border tensions may be related to worries in Beijing over the Dalai Lama's succession. Some of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, including the sacred monastery at Tawang, are in Indian-held territory. The Dalai Lama, who has been in poor health, has said that he would not feel obligated to nominate a successor from, or be reborn in, Tibet proper, raising the possibility that the next Dalai Lama could be named outside China -- in the Tibetan cultural belt that stretches across northern India into Bhutan and Nepal.

Some Indian strategists fear that China may act to preempt, or respond to, an announcement of the Dalai Lama's chosen successor in India - particularly in Tawang -- by deploying the People's Liberation Army to occupy contested territory along the Sino-Indian border, as occurred in 1962, creating a risk of military conflict between the now nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Although China enjoys the dominant military position in the Tibetan plateau, India still has cards to play. It hosts the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in Dharamsala, enabling Tibet's representatives to keep their cause alive in the court of world opinion. And unlike Britain -- which last October withdrew its recognition of China's "suzerainty" (in favor of "sovereignty") over Tibet in a failed effort to placate Beijing, leading one scornful Singaporean commentator to note that China was "bringing Europe to its knees" -- India continues to recognize only Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, rather than full and consensual sovereignty. This creates the possibility that New Delhi could play a "Tibet card" in its relations with Beijing in the same way that China accuses the United States of playing a "Taiwan card" to keep it off balance.

What do Sino-Indian border tensions linked to the Tibetan cause mean for the United States?

First, the U.S. has a compelling interest in preventing conflict between one of its largest trading partners and its newfound strategic partner.

Second, historic U.S. support for the cause of human rights in Tibet, in addition to Washington's growing military ties with New Delhi, mean that the United States would find it difficult to be a neutral arbiter in such a conflict.

Third, India's continuing political and moral support for the Tibetan government-in-exile demonstrates that it shares with America a set of ideals in foreign policy, creating the basis for greater values-based cooperation between Washington and New Delhi - a prospect that has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Fourth, given China's development of military capabilities designed to threaten U.S. access to the Western Pacific and Southeast Asian waterways, Chinese pressure on U.S. friends including the Philippines and Vietnam to back down on claims to contested islets in the South China Sea, and Chinese harassment of the U.S. Navy in Asian waters, Washington has an important interest in making perfectly clear to Beijing that the use of force to resolve contested territorial claims or limit freedom of the seas is unacceptable -- and could upend rather than facilitate China's peaceful rise.

Shadow Government

That's not change, it's more of the same

By Christian Brose

There's a couple of good pieces recently about how Obama isn't delivering his much-promised change, but rather "more of the same." Jackson Diehl had one take this weekend on styles of leadership. And Bob Kagan has a similar take today when it comes to foreign policy. I'm happy to see that commentators are coming around to this argument, which I published three months ago. Heck, Diehl even swiped the title of my article: "George W. Obama." I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

I recount this not to claim credit (well, maybe a little...), but rather as a way in to talk about this interesting reported piece by Spencer Ackerman on the state of conservative foreign policy debate. It's not spoiling anything to say that the article's conclusion is that the right is adrift. As you'll see, I offered Spencer my two cents on the record, but even despite that, his article is worth pondering.

Here's the lede:

During his first 45 days in office, President Obama has made several sharp departures from the foreign policies of the Bush administration that were shaped in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama has announced a timetable for staggered withdrawal from Iraq. He has ordered 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and engaged in a wide-ranging review of U.S. war aims. And he has begun exploring direct negotiations with the Iranian government.

And the response from the conservative movement and the Republican Party -- which turned or sought to turn every election after 9/11 into a referendum on foreign policy and national security -- has largely been either silence or agreement.

Now, if this is evidence of a "sharp departure", then I think Democrats have more to answer for than Republicans. As I see it, Obama is simply taking the next logical step on Iraq that was made possible by the surge and the Status of Forces Agreement. It remains to be seen where he'll end up on Afghanistan, but it'll likely be a better-resourced version of the strategy the Bush administration pursued at one time (2003-05) and realized it had to recapture by 2008. And on Iran, Obama seems to have adopted Bush's sticks-and-carrots approach, just with the possibility of more carrots. For that to work, though, Obama will need more sticks, and as Kristen Silverberg has argued, he's missing his window to get them.

If this is change, then conservatives should be feeling pretty good. Of course there are things to disagree with, and readers of this blog will know them well. But those disagreements look pretty tactical to me. Should we make a deal with Russia on Iran and missile defense? Should we continue to support representative government for Afghanistan? How might we have cast our Iraq withdrawal differently? All important questions, but not exactly differences of grand strategy. At this point at least, it's hard to escape the conclusion that, on foreign policy, the Obama administration is shaping up to look a whole lot like the third term of George W. Bush.

Spencer's article suggests that the "Republican consensus" on foreign policy has collapsed, and that the most energetic debates are now occurring on the left. I think this gets it almost backwards. There never was anything remotely like a foreign policy consensus on the right. The debates between neo-cons and realists, unilateralists and multilateralists, retrenchers and interveners, or myriad others are old and unresolved. This was true throughout the Bush administration, and it's still true today.

As for debates on the left, they're certainly vibrant, but do they actually change anything? I don't see much evidence that Democrats are not still following the lead of Republicans on foreign policy and national security, just as they largely have for eight years now. For better or for worse, Democrats did not put forward some appealing, realistic alternative to Bush's first term foreign policies. And then, when many of those first-term policies began proving untenable or just plain counterproductive, it was largely the Bush administration that corrected itself during its second term. And now, after much talk of alternative worldviews and strategies over the past four years, the Democrats are finally back in power, and what are they doing? Basically continuing with the shifted course that Bush charted in his second term -- with a few changes here and there that are neither broadly strategic nor utterly disagreeable (for now, that is).

Indeed, it might even be asked whether U.S. foreign policy as it is now conceived and practiced is almost entirely the product of the lessons the Bush administration learned from its own successes and screw-ups.

As for what comes next, I hope this blog can help figure that out. Because even if I am correct, and Bush's foreign policy circa 2008 was right for that time and the present one, it won't always be that way. And as I see it, the biggest challenge for thinking about foreign policy when you're not actually making it is that you become unhinged from reality and live only in the past. You assume the world and its challenges are the same as they were the last time you were in power. (See Clinton 1993 and Bush 2001.) That's a mistake Republicans must avoid, even as they point out, rightly, how little Obama is actually changing the foreign policy he inherited.