China’s grand design on Tibet


Analysis by Andy Meier.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama recently said in an interview that he preferred to stay in India, rather than going back to China. He said, “Kangra, Pandit Nehru’s choice, this place is my permanent residence.” He went on to say that there was no point in returning to China and that he preferred India. These comments came very soon after the clash between India and China at a place called Yangste, just north of Tawang, in the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh. The significance of Tawang to both India and China reflect the close link between geopolitics and spirituality and provide one of the several clues to why China wants to have control of the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

For Communist Party of China (CPC), the clash in Yangste has, besides the fact that the Indian Army sits across the McMohan Line, a lot to do with Buddhism and China’s efforts to control it. This attack on Yangste, Tawang was more about Tibetan Buddhism and spirituality than Xi’s geopolitics.

In 1960, China had accepted the McMahon Line. Initially, China only laid claim to the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh. Since the 1980s, however, China has started claiming all of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its ‘South Tibet’ territory. That is why the Yangtse clash is significant. On 9 December 2022, 300 Chinese soldiers crossed over into Indian territory at 3am. Within minutes, Indian troops who were waiting for the Chinese attack responded. Six Indians were grievously injured in the clash. The numbers were much higher for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese media indicated that the attack was an expression of China’s displeasure at joint US-India military exercises in Uttarakhand, near the Indo-China border in October 2022.

However, there is another reason for China’s latest ingress in Arunachal Pradesh and that has to do with control of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Tawang, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, is home to the oldest and second largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhism outside of China’s control. The Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse monastery, sits at 10,000 ft with a commanding view of the Tawang Chu valley near India’s borders with Tibet and Bhutan. It was established in 1681 on the instruction of the 5th Dalai Lama. Tawang is one of the very few areas where thousands of ethnic Tibetan families still live in their traditional homeland outside China. The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was also born here in March 1683.

China claims Tawang along with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of South Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama ageing and reportedly not in the best of health, succession will be a huge question after his passing. China will try and nominate a new Dalai Lama of its choice to control Tibetan Buddhism. How the Tibetan population will conduct the search and acceptance of the next Dalai Lama will largely dictate the amount of force China would employ to retain its absolute control of Tibet.

Having control of the mountains around Tawang will help the Chinese PLA to make further push to eventually capture the monastery. The Tawang monastery could be a part of the mysterious puzzle to the future of Tibet, its spirituality, and its politics, all of which are currently embodied by the 14th Dalai Lama. With the rising discontent in China, Tibet and Xinjiang against the supreme leader Xi Jinping, the CPC is nervous with the current Dalai Lama’s visits to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. However, if the Dalai Lama were to reincarnate in Tawang, then it will be a blessing for Buddhists all over the world and a threat to Xi Jinping and the CPC.

For India, Tibet is sacred as the home of Kailash and Manasarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva. For Tibetans, India is the land of the Buddha and home to the Dalai Lama. Both prefer democracy to autocracies and share a common border and centuries of joint history and religion. Until the current Dalai Lama is there, the status-quo in Tibet will remain, a young dynamic Dalai Lama from Tawang might disturb the equilibrium that Xi Jinping has endeavoured to maintain in Tibet, taking with it other provinces like Xinjiang and strengthening the revolt in Hong Kong as well as Taiwan’s independence. 

The other historical aspect of Tibet, China has recently been fixated on is the ancient Kingdom of Zhangzhung. China has been conducting research and excavation related to Zhangzhung in Western Tibet. Academics say this kingdom comprised parts of what is today Ladakh, West Tibet, Nepal, and Gilgit-Baltistan. The importance of the kingdom is that it is tied to so many cultural and geo-strategic dynamics China wants to manipulate today. China is, therefore, actively creating historical revisionism through the sponsorship of archaeologists and historians to promote a new narrative of Zhangzhung in order to justify its territorial, cultural, and geopolitical control over the region. If Zhangzhung is proven to be the source of Tibet and China lays claims to Zhangzhung, then China will be able to justify its control over Tibet.

By laying a claim on Tibet, China can also rationalize its ownership of Zhangzhung. That is, if Tibet is a part of China and has its roots in Zhangzhung, then Zhangzhung also belongs to China and so does every region the kingdom comprised of including Nepal, India, and Pakistan. There is thus a historical legacy of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism that China is seeking to usurp. The clash in Yangtse could well be set against this backdrop to better understand Chinese intentions today and in the future.

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