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Between China and India: is Tibet the wedge or the link?

By George Yeo - posted Thursday, 17 September 2009

The encounter of China and India in this century will change the world. For thousands of years, the two civilisations were separated by the high mountains of Tibet. Except for a brief war in 1962, there were no major conflicts between them.

Together, they make up more than a third of the world's population and will supply much of the talent for global development in this century. The concentration of Chinese and Indian talent in Silicon Valley foreshadows what is coming. How China and India relate to each other in the coming decades will affect everyone.

Tibet is changing from being a barrier to a region linking China and India together. Today, there are good roads connecting Tibet to Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan. Three years ago, an amazing thousand-kilometre railroad from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa in Tibet was opened. Eighty per cent of it is over 4,000 metres in altitude; 50 per cent on permafrost. When first proposed, many foreign engineers said that it could not be built.


Economically, there is much to be gained by improving road and rail links between Tibet and South Asia. Indeed, the Chinese have suggested that Lhasa and Calcutta be linked by rail. The Indian Government is understandably apprehensive about moving too quickly. Scars of the 1962 War are still raw in India. When the Indian Army moved to liberate Bangladesh in December 1971, an important factor it considered was the winter snow preventing the Chinese Army from interfering through the mountain passes. Thus, the reopening of the 4,400 metre-high Nathu La Pass in July 2006 was politically significant. As part of it, China recognised India's ownership of Sikkim. Hundreds of kilometres of fibre optic cables have been laid in the past year from Yadong in Tibet to Siliguri in West Bengal with an initial capacity of 20 gigabytes per second.

Trade between China and India has grown rapidly in the last ten years. China has already become India's biggest trading partner. And this is only the beginning. Common economic interests are driving the two countries into closer political co-operation both bilaterally and internationally.

Tibet is both an opportunity and an issue. The economic opportunity is obvious, but rapid development has brought about great stress to the Tibetan way of life. This complicates bilateral relations between China and India.

Over long years, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism evolved in response to the challenges of extreme physical conditions at high altitudes, developing in the process a deep spirituality. However, old Tibet should not be romanticised. It was not Shangri-La. The political economy was based on the feudal domination of monasteries over rural serfs.

In 1951, Mao Zedong's Government negotiated the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet with the local Tibetan Government, guaranteeing that Beijing would not force changes to the feudal political economy of Tibet. But the Chinese revolution had its own internal dynamic. By the mid-1950s, land reforms had begun in Tibetan-inhabited areas outside Tibet. Monastic lands were seized and redistributed to peasants. These contributed to the Tibetan rebellion of 1959. While the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Panchen Lama remained in China and worked within the system, but not always effectively.

In 1962, he sent a letter to Beijing expressing Tibetan grievances. During the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan youths, following Chinese youths in other parts of the country, engaged in an orgy of destruction. Since then, as in the rest of China, monasteries and temples have been restored or rebuilt, often to a state better than what they were before, although some precious artefacts were lost forever. Without land and serfs, these places can only be sustained with the patronage of the Chinese state.


The marriage of Tang Princess Wencheng to Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century began a complex relationship between Tibet and Imperial China which ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties. Mongol princes during the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty intervened on behalf of the Yellow Hat Gelugpa (the order of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama), making it the dominant sect in Tibet.

Because religious and political leadership was fused from the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, the appointment of high lamas often required the approval of the Emperor. This was certainly so during the Qing Dynasty. It was a practice carried into Republican and Communist China. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Government approved the appointment of the 14th (present) Dalai Lama in 1940 and the 10th Panchen Lama in 1949. At the Forbidden City in Beijing today, the old buildings still carry inscriptions in the four main languages of the Qing Dynasty - Han, Manchu, Mongolian and Tibetan.

In the last 50 years, China devoted huge resources to the development of Tibet because of its strategic importance. Economic growth has been in the double digits in the last 15 years. Social indicators like average life spans have shown remarkable improvement. But, relative to Han Chinese, Tibetans lag behind especially in economic performance. This should not be surprising because an entrenched way of life cannot change quickly within a few decades. As in Singapore, the tensions which naturally arise when different ethnic and religious groups living side by side respond at different speeds to globalisation cannot be wished away; they simply have to be recognised and managed.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

George Yeo is the foreign minister of Singapore. He visited Tibet in August this year, the first foreign minister to do so after the March 14 riots last year.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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