Revising its Tibet Policy: Does India Have the Political Will?

9 September 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

China has seized every opportunity to test the leaders of other countries, especially the US. If India were to enter into a security alliance with the other Quad countries, it would gain a major advantage that would allow it to test China, just as Beijing has tested others. It would also allow India to revisit its Tibet policy and, by extension, its one-China policy. The question is, does Prime Minister Modi have the political will to enter into such an alliance?


Key Points

  • China has seized every opportunity to test the leaders of other countries, especially the US.
  • When it thinks they are weak, it also enacts measures to make itself look strong.
  • If India were to enter into a security alliance with the Quad countries, it would gain a major advantage that would allow it to test China, just as Beijing has tested others.
  • It would also allow India to re-visit its Tibet policy and, by extension, its one-China policy.
  • The question is, does Prime Minister Narendra Modi have the political will to enter into such an alliance?



A recent report in the Indian media noted New Delhi’s concern with China’s infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka, which will enhance its presence and, likely, its influence, there. Compounding those concerns is Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Beijing to develop its projects in northern Sri Lanka, whereas previous Chinese projects had been confined to the country’s south, away from India. As an unnamed Indian source said in the report:

[The] Proliferation of Chinese economic activity and proposed infrastructure development projects in the Northern province of Sri Lanka, which could be later exploited for strategic reasons, is certainly a matter of concern for India. … [The] Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is now facilitating several Chinese ventures in northern Sri Lanka as well, often ignoring sentiments of Tamil residents there. We are closely monitoring the developments.

One of the projects, worth around US$12 million ($16.2 million), is a hybrid wind and solar energy generation facility that is to be located on three islets that are located off the Jaffna Peninsula. The location of those islets would see Chinese activity occur barely fifty kilometres off India’s coast. A second project, for which land has already been allotted in a coastal village, would see a Chinese firm harvest sea cucumber. That project was allowed to go ahead despite the protests of local farmers.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, never a friend of India, appears determined to encourage Chinese activity close to India’s borders in order to keep New Delhi off-balance. If that is indeed the case, New Delhi has every reason to be concerned with a Chinese presence to its north, to its west in Pakistan, to its east with Beijing’s activities in Burma, Cambodia and Thailand, and now with its activities in northern Sri Lanka. The latter would also be in keeping with China’s salami-slicing strategy: having established a growing presence in Sri Lanka over time, Beijing has moved gradually towards India on several fronts. New Delhi would be correct if it were to assess those Chinese efforts as potential threats or coercion.

Given that situation, it is necessary for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to, first, recognise the threat and, second, enact measures that either mitigate them or counter China’s moves. Mitigating the China threat to India would provide, however, a temporary solution at best. On the other hand, given India’s diplomatic and military strengths and resources, Mr Modi would be better advised to take action of a kind that would demonstrate to China that India is not inferior to it in either of those areas. New Delhi, unlike Beijing, can call upon allies and general international sentiment to strengthen its hand. Mr Modi could demonstrate to China India’s resolve not to be cowed by Beijing’s coercive methods by, for instance, re-visiting its Tibet policy, which would have strong implications for India’s one-China policy. Doing so now would have the added benefit of timeliness: India’s efforts would be synchronous with the European Union’s, the US’s and Japan’s push-back against China and with the growing negative views of China that is creating an anti-China platform across the Western world.

An effort of that nature by New Delhi deserves closer examination.



A notable characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) foreign policy from the late 1980s is its penchant for testing the resolve of countries and new leaders. That characteristic is most perceptible in its testing of US presidents to gauge the manner and strength of their reactions to provocation. It could be argued that Beijing gained a great deal of confidence in itself because of the actions of US President George H.W. Bush, who took office in January 1989. When, on 4 June of that year, Deng Xiaoping and the CCP ordered the massacre of students and workers in Tiananmen Square and other places across China, Mr Bush reacted by cutting off arms sales to China and threatening to block its accession to the World Trade Organisation. Just days later, at a press conference, he virtually condoned the CCP’s actions, saying, ‘And now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this relationship, vital to the United States.’ He then sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing, barely a month after the massacre, to reassure the CCP that the bilateral relationship would suffer absolutely no medium- or long-term damage.

President Bill Clinton, recognising the importance of the China-US relationship, persuaded the Democratic Party leaders in Congress to allow him to manage it personally. He then announced that if China improved its human rights, he would renew its “Most Favoured Nation” standing with the US. In the event, he renewed China’s “Most Favoured Nation” status, no matter that the CCP took no steps, whatsoever, to improve the rights of its citizens. Hardly surprising then, that barely two months into his second term in office, China launched three M-9 ballistic missiles toward Taiwan. The first splashed down in the shipping lanes off Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan, the second off Chilung in the north and the third again off Kaohsiung. Kaohsiung and Chilung are Taiwan’s principal ports. It took the combined efforts of Congress and his own national security advisors to convince Mr Clinton to send a task force comprising two aircraft carriers, the USS Independence and the USS Nimitz, together with their escorting vessels through the Taiwan Strait.

Soon after that show of strength, however, Mr Clinton permitted China to launch US satellites into orbit, thereby transferring critical technology to Beijing and enabling the CCP to enhance its ballistic missile targeting capability. Not only was it business as usual, as it was with President George H.W. Bush, President Clinton also rewarded the CCP for standing up to the US. The CCP’s self-confidence was by now overflowing.

Consequently, when a US signals intelligence-gathering aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter aircraft in April 2001, soon after George W. Bush took office in January that year, and made an emergency landing at an air base on China’s Hainan Island, China detained and interrogated its crew and closely examined the electronic equipment on the US aircraft. At least one article highlighted the vast amount of classified information that the Chinese were able to obtain by examining the aircraft. In the event, President Bush acquiesced to China’s demands by providing it with a “Letter of the two sorries”, an apology, no matter its ambiguity and despite the fact that the collision was caused by the Chinese pilot, and the crew members were released. China had disassembled the aircraft by now in the course of examining it to derive all information they could and refused to allow it to be re-assembled in order to fly it off the island. The US was forced to employ Russian aircraft to transport the disassembled aircraft. China further humiliated the US by forcing it to pay for the detained crew’s food and accommodation. President George W. Bush failed to stand up to China, thereby further enhancing its confidence in its ability to stand up to the US.

President Obama, ever aware of how he was perceived by the US electorate, sought to obtain a promise from the Chinese leadership not to militarise the artificial islands that China had constructed in the South China Sea. General Secretary Xi Jinping readily gave him that promise at the White House in September 2015. Mr Xi lost no time in breaking that promise, however. Furthermore, Mr Obama’s promised “pivot to Asia” to balance China was barely short of a failure. As a consequence of those failures, China now saw itself as the successor to the US in the international system. In China’s view, the US was a spent force that had run its course. China would dominate the twenty-first century.

Those aspirations and hubris were soon curtailed by President Trump, who enacted several political, diplomatic, economic and military measures to curtail China’s influence. Indeed, so deeply were those measures ingrained within the US government that President Biden has chosen to continue with the course of action that Mr Trump initiated. The US has withdrawn from Afghanistan in order to be able to focus its energy on China, it has, under President Biden, re-claimed its relationships with its traditional allies and re-started other initiatives, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known more commonly as the “Quad”, with treaty allies Australia and Japan and new partner, India.

The Quad recently commenced the first phase of India’s Malabar 21 naval exercise in the Philippines Sea. Ships from the four navies gathered to conduct joint maritime operations, anti-submarine warfare operations, air warfare operations, replenishments-at-sea, cross-deck flight operations and maritime interdiction operations. Having encountered China’s aggression on several occasions, India appears to acknowledge that it would be in its best interests to work in conjunction with other democracies to counter that aggression. New Delhi has recognised that its policy of non-alignment, re-cast as “strategic autonomy” by the Modi Administration, has been overtaken by China’s anti-India policies and, consequently, has few qualms in working with other democracies, including the US to counter China.

There could be little doubt, despite the regularly-published platitudes of the Quad countries, that the primary objective of the alignment is to counter China. The weak link in the alignment is, however, India. Whereas the US, Japan and Australia are treaty allies, India is not, that being one consequence of its strategic autonomy. If the Quad is to fully develop, it requires India to enter into a security alliance with the US. Such an alliance would almost immediately turn the Quad into an Asian NATO, which would then enable the Quad to draw up a charter that is predicated, like NATO’s, on the principle of collective defence (also here). China’s publicly-stated contempt for that idea and its hubris are little more than a patina to cover its fear of that outcome. While China may rely on its rocket forces to compensate for its general lack of a well-trained and disciplined fighting force, its rocket force would not suffice to counter the combined war-fighting abilities of all four Quad countries. A Quad that is made up of treaty allies would, moreover, give it far more credibility and serve, thereby, to attract other members from the region. If the renewed Quad were to then form an association with NATO, China would be truly outclassed and outmanoeuvred.

India, as a member of that alliance, could bring its considerable resources to bear against China from its south while Beijing faces simultaneously has to contend with a growing threat to its east. Three aircraft carriers, two US and one British, recently came together off Okinawa in a show of force soon after China conducted military exercises that simulated an invasion of Taiwan. They were joined by a Japanese helicopter carrier. China will be very aware that the four carriers converged rapidly from different directions and with little apparent effort, indicating a well-planned and executed manoeuvre. Beijing will also be aware that it would take most of its resources to counter the combined strength of the carrier groups.

As a treaty ally, India could work with the other Quad countries to force China to contend with having to enact measures to defend itself on two fronts. If the US, Japan and Australia combined their maritime forces once again in the South China Sea, India could put China under tremendous pressure by building up its land forces along their common border. It is possible that China would react militarily, but that would be in the full knowledge that it would then have to contend with a well-armed and sophisticated alliance that was constructed on the notion of collective defence. It is more likely that China would adopt an attitude of wait and watch to determine the alliance’s objectives and not risk taking any action that could see the situation escalate beyond control.

Having created the necessary pre-conditions, India could then increase the pressure on China by announcing that it is re-visiting its Tibet policy. India’s ties to Tibet extend into antiquity. Thus, in a note dated 26 October 1950, the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided China with its perception of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949:

In the context of world events, [the] invasion by Chinese troops of Tibet cannot but be regarded as deplorable and in the considered judgment of the Government of India, not in the interest of China or peace.

That India considered Tibet an independent country is made evident by the 1947 note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that reads in part,

The Government of India would be glad to have an assurance that it is the intention of the Tibetan government to continue relations on the existing basis until new arrangements are reached that either party may wish to take up. This is the procedure adopted by all other countries with which India has inherited treaty relations from His Majesty’s Government.[1]

It was India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who later validated India’s recognition of China’s territorial claim to Tibet when his government, represented by India’s Ambassador to China, N. Raghavan entered into the “Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India”, better known as the Panchsheel Agreement, in Beijing in April 1954. While Mr Nehru entered into that agreement, hoping that sacrificing Tibet by acknowledging China’s claim to it would bring about a more peaceful and less suspicious between the two countries, China harboured no such illusions. Beijing eventually initiated the Sino-Indian war of 1962; it could be argued, however, that Mao Zedong was provoked into doing so by Mr Nehru’s so-called “Forward Policy”. India’s defeat in that war has rankled New Delhi and Indians ever since.

New Delhi learned not to trust China, a sentiment that has received increasing credibility by China’s actions since that time. China’s actions against Indian troops at Pangong Tso, along the Line of Actual Control (their common border) and in Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region have, more recently, deepened that suspicion.

To be clear, India has highly trained troops who are acclimatised to fighting at higher elevations in the Himalayas. New Delhi has, furthermore, inducted and trained exiled Tibetans to fight against the Chinese military. When one of those Tibetan soldiers, Tenzin Nyima, was killed in by a landmine, the General Secretary of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party laid a wreath on his coffin, thereby acknowledging, by means of a leaked report, India’s ties to a Tibetan faction that challenges China’s rule over Tibet. The Special Frontier Force, as the unit is called, was established soon after the India-China war in 1962. Every soldier in it is trained as a para-commando and operates undercover in conjunction with the Indian military. It is more than likely that the unit has engaged in operations close to or even within Tibet.

As former Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, points out, however,

The SFF has been in existence for several years. Its efficacy lies in its rigorous training, high morale and professionalism. It should not have become yet another pawn in a political game to convince public opinion that India has more levers of influence than it actually has. In doing so, the potential efficacy of the SFF has been undermined and Chinese suspicions over India’s intentions regarding Tibet would have been aroused to a new intensity.

The dedication and professionalism of India’s military personnel is not to be doubted. New Delhi cannot afford, however, to waste those attributes against the superior firepower of China’s military. Entering into a formal alliance with the US would enable Mr Modi to give the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile more recognition without having to give as much consideration to China’s reaction as it currently does. It would also enhance India’s military prowess, even more so than the four foundational agreements that it has entered into with the US advantage it.

The question now is, does Mr Modi have the political will to enter into a security alliance with the US? That remains to be seen but if he could, he will rid India of its inhibiting “strategic autonomy”. As a previous FDI paper noted:

Mr Modi also needs to move politically to demonstrate to Beijing that New Delhi is not to be taken lightly. It is true that in the event of a full-blown conflict between the two countries, China might prevail if they do not fight to a standstill. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the losses that India would suffer in that conflict would be much greater than those incurred by China. If Mr Modi could set aside India’s so-called strategic autonomy, even if only until such time as it truly becomes a major economic and military power, and become a treaty ally with the US, just as Canberra and Tokyo are, the Quad would become a strong institution rather than the alignment that it currently is and China’s position would be weakened considerably. That would leave India relatively free to focus on its economy rather than have to choose between its economy and defence.

To be clear, it would take much political will to broach the subject in New Delhi but that is just the kind of difficult situation that Mr Modi claims to relish. It would be one of the largest policy shifts in independent India’s history, if not the single-largest, but would break the final shackles of Nehru’s non-alignment that constrain India even today and raise Mr Modi to an unequalled stature among his fellow prime ministers.

There is yet another benefit: India would repay China in its own coin and test its leaders’ mettle, just as they have tested others for far too long. India could do that by taking economic and diplomatic measures against Pakistan and Sri Lanka to gauge the manner and degree to which China reacts to them. With a security alliance in place, it would be surprising if China did react save, for instance, by lodging protests at the United Nations and making similar half-hearted attempts to save face.

There is much advantage for India in entering into a security alliance with the US and Quad countries.




[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements Signed by the Government of India and China, Vol. 2, New Delhi, 1959, p. 39.

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