A Revisit of the India China Tibet Issue By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Tibet was never a part of China, says US report: A revisit of the India China Tibet issue @

The report concludes that Tibet was never a part of China before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded it in 1950. 

india china tibet issue
From a Chinese perspective, the outer frontiers of Imperial China were defined by the ‘Great Wall’. (Representational image)

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Pre -1949 official historical records completely discredit the Chinese claim to Tibet from ancient times as per a project report whose findings were presented on 23 Jun 22 at the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The report concludes that Tibet was never a part of China before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded it in 1950. Maps from the Ming and Qing dynasties were presented to prove that Tibet was never part of a Chinese empire. The PRC’s claims to unify China by annexing Tibet are baseless. Its version of ‘Chinese history’ is very different from the actual ‘Chinese history’. 

This brings the India -Tibetan-China triangle into focus. If the historical records indicate that Tibet is occupied territory and taking into consideration the Sino-Indian border issues at play, there is reason for India to review its stand for further negotiations. In this connection it is necessary to step back into history and relook at issues involved from different perspectives. 

From a Chinese perspective, the outer frontiers of Imperial China were defined by the ‘Great Wall’. It was built to keep outsiders at bay. Historically, The Great Wall defines the outer limits of China’s boundaries.  However there is no ‘Single’ Great Wall of China. There were a series of Walls raised by different dynasties depending on the extent of their empire and what they considered China. Taking into consideration all the Walls, the areas outside these are definitely outside China. That includes Tibet, which was never part of China till the PRC usurped it based on manufactured ‘history’.

From a Tibetan perspective, Songtsen Gampo (627-649) ruled Tibet as an  independent kingdom  in the 7th  century. He married a Chinese princess to establish relations with China. Buddhism entered Tibet from India around that time. Tibet remained independent till Mongols conquered and ruled China and Tibet in the 13th Century. When Mongols waned, the succeeding Ming dynasty (1368-1644) did not take over Tibet. The next (and last) imperial Qing dynasty (1644-1911), were Manchus. In 1720, political turmoil in Tibet enabled   Manchus    to intervene and restore order in Tibet. Thereafter, their   Resident in Lhasa exercised control, till their own dynasty collapsed. Tibet always retained its own official and legal system in this period. The Qing’s did not attempt to formalise Tibet as a Chinese province. This nebulous relationship was termed as ‘Chinese Suzerainty ’ by the Britishers. In 1904, when Col Younghusband’s expedition entered Lhasa, Chinese influence started waning. In 1912, Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Government declared Tibet as part of China. In February 1913, the 13th  Dalai Lama declared the independence of Tibet and expelled all Chinese. This created a de-facto independent Tibet with its own flag, army, government, language, currency and border control. The British presence forced the Chinese out of the area. As the British power waned after India’s independence, the Communist Party, in 1949,  instigated the Panchen Lama to appeal to them to liberate Tibet. In 1950, the PLA invaded Tibet through this ruse and the rest is History. The long and short of it is that Tibet was forced to amalgamate into China. It was never an integral or sovereign part of China as often claimed by the PRC. The relationship between Tibet and China was of only suzerainty periodically. All this is now buttressed by the Report to the US Congressional committee.

Another important legal angle is that   after invading Tibet in 1950, China forced Tibet to sign a 17 The Point Agreement illegally on 23  May, 1951. The Agreement   gave complete control of Tibet to the PRC. It was signed on behalf of Tibet by a person devoid of authority. However  it is reported  that the very opening paragraph of the main statement admits Tibet’s status as a separate entity where words to the effect that “China did not enjoy any effective control for  over the last hundred years and more” have been mentioned in that Agreement.If this is correct,   it is an unexploited legal loophole. It proves by self-admission that Tibet was not part of China. It needs greater investigation.  

From an Indian perspective, Tibet was not recognized as part of China till the 2003 agreement was reached. The 2003 agreement  reads “The Indian side agrees to designate Changgu of Sikkim state as the venue for border trade market; the Chinese side agrees to designate Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region as the venue for border trade market”. It is only this paraphrasing which establishes recognition of Tibet as part of China and Sikkim as part of India. Nathu La pass is mentioned as an entry and exit point and hence is treated as the border by common understanding. In 2003, it was never contended by China that the Tibet Autonomous Region extended South of the Mac Mahon Line. The common understanding was that Tibet was generally North of the Mac Mahon Line even if the line was itself in dispute at some places.    Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet started after 2003. In claiming so, the Chinese have actually violated their commitments of 2003. Further, China has violated all Sino-Indian agreements in their 2020 aggression in Eastern Ladakh. In view of just these facts, it is perfectly legal that India does not recognise Tibet as part of China.

When the Chinese, Tibetan and Indian historical perspectives are viewed along with the latest Report, it emerges that Tibet is legally not part of China. Further, the Tibet, India recognised in 2003 is also now in dispute due to additional claims into Arunachal Pradesh and their violation of all agreements during their 2020 aggression. Is there a case for India to change its position and negotiating stance with the Chinese?

(The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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7 responses to “A Revisit of the India China Tibet Issue By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. There are many secession movements China could support in India as a response. From the various groups in Northeast India to Khalistan. India is fragmented and would lose in the exchange.

    1. India is lot more united than you think it is and Chinese are lots more fragmented than you assume they are. India is an open society not vulnerable to a coup m. Chinese communist party on the other hand is constantly worried about a revolution from their own people.

  2. What does China gain by holding on to Tibet by force ? if China is truly a non-expansionist, non-belligerent state, as they claim to be, they should come to an understanding with India to make Tibet a Switzerland like independent country and withdraw to the east of Tibet.

  3. China has ruled Tibet for centuries. No sovereign wishes to cede territory. If Punjabis want their own country, you bet India will fight against it. Same logic.

  4. Incorrect and an odious comparison to say the least. The Bharatiya heartland very much included Punjab and Sindh. Absolutely no comparison to Tibet/China where the Tibetans are very different from the Han culturally and ethnically. The relation, whenever the Chinese established dominance over them has been of a colonial power and even in that it has mostly been common Mongol -Manchu- dominance over both Tibet & China. The real boundaries of China has been clearly delineated by the Great Wall, which marks the ancient borders.

  5. I think you are missing the point. We are talking about geostrategy and the tools available to advance strategy. We are not undertaking an ethnological survey.The deal works like this. This discussion is about India contemplating using Tibet secession as leverage against China. If that happens, you can bet China will give its support for Khalistan secession. The much more interesting and practical question is who will come out worse in the exchange.

  6. The point is they already are interfering -through ISI- and haven't succeeded. Plus they have been more directly involved with the various NE insurgencies and the naxals right from the 50s and we have dealt with all of that. Short of a direct invasion, it can't get much worse than what we have faced and handled.

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