Opinion: The RIC triangle and Tibet’s political Aspiration

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It was the state of strife, strain and harmony among the giant neighbours Russia, China and India through the vicissitudes of time in recent history which more than anything else had a determinative influence on Tibet’s political aspiration, mostly with unfortunate consequences, although its future is far from sealed inasmuch as the jostling for power and influence among the three powers is still ongoing, writes Prof Pradeep NAIR* and Sandeep SHARMA*

‘Look east’ is a phrase which pops up occasionally among the Asian nations whenever to counter western dominance and the West’s vested agenda.The possible reason for this eastward inclination could be the internal geo-polity of Asia and the domestic situation of a particular nation. Whatever may be the case, regions like Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang who are fighting a battle for autonomy under Chinese regime, are pushed to redraw their strategy in light of the changed geo-political environment. Their political aspirationsat the same time can be perceived as a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of a nation and blessings for others. This commentary explores the emerging political aspiration of Tibet by triangulating the territorial ambitions of both Beijing and Moscow in view of RIC (Russia-India-China) relationship.

The triangle analogy always has a strong conceptual premise to bring in new perspectives and fresh debates regarding the political aspiration of Tibet whenever it is looked at from a RIC perspective. The nature of this triangle is unstable and unpredictable, but has always shown its presence consistently with the changing world political order and regional conditions. China’s emergence as a world power and its regional dominance may push this triangle to become more unilateraland this may seriously harm the political aspiration of Tibet by suffocating the free-Tibet movement to a permanent death. But contrary to this, the emergence of India as a political power in Asia and its closer ties with the US have a possibility to make this triangle bilateral or unilateral having Indian dominance,thus leaving a scope for Tibet to exploit the regional political conditions in its favour.

The Russian Dominance and Tibet
Historically speaking, since the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this triangle has never been unilateral even though Russia was a dominant world power before its collapse in 1991. Russia never used her international stature to permanently defeat and dislodge China’s expansionist policy especially in the context of Tibet. Russia might have done this by collaborating with the USA as both the countries once appeared to have similar stance over the Tibet issue. But that also was beyond all possibility for two valid reasons: one, Russia was involved in‘Cold War’ against imperialist forces the USA itself and second, Russia shared about 2600 miles of border with China. Tibet’s independence with Russian intervention would mean creating serious security situation at the border area.

Before the Soviet collapse, Russia appeared to be quite inconsistent in dealing with the Tibet question (Wersto 1983). In November 1950, when for the first time the Tibet question came before the United Nations, Moscow argued that Tibet was an integral part of China and any interference would mean an insult to the Chinese people. It termed the Chinese incursion as ‘liberation of Tibet’ from international imperialistic forces, feudal lordship and high priesthood. Russia was quite convinced with China’s terming of the revolt as an attempt by reactionary Tibetans influenced by the imperialist circle. But interestingly Russia never reacted on India’s action of granting asylum to the Tibetan religious head The Dalai Lama and allowing the Tibetan refugees to settle in India. Besides, Sino-Russian relations became strained over Russia’s increasing closeness with India. From 1960’s up to Mao’s death in 1976, Russia remained critical of China’s Tibet policy. Moscow charged Beijing with the allegation of violating human rights in Tibet. It criticized Beijing for disavowing the Marxist-Leninist principles of minority rights. Russia alleged that China was trying to change the demography of Tibet by installing Han Chinese in the Tibetan region. In 1976, after Mao’s death, Russia tried to improve relationship with China. But these efforts could not produce substantial results owing to each other’s counter positions on the Afghan and Vietnam crises.

In 1979, surprising everyone, Russia completely reversed its stance on Tibet and for the first time described the Chinese’s activities in Tibet in the 1950’s as an aggression. In the 1980’s, Russo-Tibet relations grew even closer. During the first half of the decade, the Dalai Lama twice visited Russia. China noted the political overtone of this development and denounced the visits as an attempt by Russia to organize subversive activities. It was said that during the last visit of The Dalai Lama, Moscow offered to give military aid to the Tibetan exiles. This move by Russia forced China to speak of Tsarist Russian intention towards Tibet. However, Moscow’s offer was turned down by the Tibetan exilein the view of an ongoing dialogue with Beijing. The 1970’s and 1980’s were the decades when Russia at various political and diplomatic forums addressed Chinese activities in Tibet as ‘oppressive’, ‘colonial’, ‘against human rights’, and ‘aggressor’.

After the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, Russia lost its political prestige and regional and international dominance. This led Russia to change its stance on the Tibet issue. Russia strategically started disengaging herself from the Tibet issue. Thus, in March 2008, when riots took place in Lhasa, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing his country’s hope that the authorities of the People’s Republic of China would take all the necessary measures to curtail unlawful actions and ensure the speedy normalization of the situation in the autonomous region (Faulconbridge2008). But the tone was mellowed. And in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s closeness with China and acceptance of sub-status under China brought both the countries to an equilateral dimension on the Tibet issue. And this was the situation which Tibetans and their supporters all over the world never wished to see happen.

The Indian Side
Even though India gave political asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 and facilitated his establishment of a Tibetans-in-Exile government in Dharamshala, it under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s regime mostly worked to build closer ties with China. That’s why the Indian government under Nehru at that time accepted the Chinese seizure of Tibet without any quid pro quo.  In fact, India in a formal document recognized Tibet as an integral part of China (Kalha 2017). By saying this, India accepted that there was no ‘invasion’ of Tibet by China in 1950 and it was just a territorial consolidation. That happened because India at that time was more comfortable to continue with the colonial understanding that Tibet was a neutral buffer between Britain and China. Rather than taking a stand on Tibet by joining hands with Moscow, New Delhi preferred to be a part of the communist crusade and to support the Soviet side.India never opposed China directly on the issue of Tibet.

On the other side, Russia became suspicious about the Chinese interest in holding control over Tibet and perceived it as a check against its expansion. China also claimed that India was interfering in Tibet. All this suspicions and ill-faith towards each other ultimately resulted in a Sino-Indian break-up and a Sino-Soviet split. The unilateral triangle in the form of the first edition of the RIC thus turned bilateral as Indo-Soviet tie. But this bilateral tie never benefited the Tibetan cause in the 1970’s as Russia later got involved in the cold war with the USA and India struggled with political instability and war against Pakistan.

The Triangulation
A unipolar world order emerged in the 1990’s after the cold war and there was a scrambling in the international politics of both the East and West to re-evaluate their strategic choices of alignments. Since a number of countries in Europe and Asia had developed their political relations with the United States during the cold war, no choice was left for Russia, India and China except to revive the second edition of RIC despite the fact that the first edition had miserably failed. By this time, however, the global geo-politics was quite changed and the American economy had emerged as the largest economy of the world. Instead of countering the US dominance by having closer trilateral ties, the second edition of RIC, especially in the case of Moscow and New Delhi, worked more on bettering their own ties with Washington.

Meanwhile, the Soviet collapse put a deeper dent on Asian and global politics and the power in Asia gradually shifted from Moscow to Beijing. Also, in the 1990’s, there was a change in the power regime in India from the Congress to the NDA which started working towards closer ties with the USA. This made Russia the weakest corner of this triangle and drove it to depend on Chinese support.  Both Moscow and Beijing decided that they will not interfere in each-other’s territorial ambitions and the trilateral thus becomes bilateral again. This gave a huge jolt to the Tibet Question.

While studying the political allies formed due to territorial invasion and expansion, Lord Palmerston in the 19th century observed that countries do not have “permanent allies, only permanent interests(Lipson 2013).” This became a truth in the case of China and Russia. Russia’s own territorial ambitions and its approach to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia made it feel hard pressed to look for new allies who could not be judgemental at any time. For this China was quite eligible as it had no reason to cast aspersions on Russia so long as its own regional aspirations in Tibet and South China Sea were not questioned.Even though China was conflicted by the Russian action in Ukraine and its consequence in the form of a referendum held in Crimea, which always have a probability to create trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang, as they too may attempt to leave the People’s Republic, by abstaining from voting on a UN resolution condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, China showed a clear support to Russia’s Ukrainian policy. Further, the way Chinese diplomacy responds to Russia’s military incursions most of the time clearly indicates that Beijing prefers to exercise refrain on the issue of Russia’s invasions. At the same time, Chinese diplomacy responds promptly on the imposition of sanctions by the EU on Russia. Interestingly, Beijing has always shown itself to be interested to strategize a triangulation between Moscow and Washington on the basis of its own calculations of the emerging geo-political position of the RIC.

Today, if China supports Russia because it suits its own political interests, tomorrow there is a possibility that it may collaborate with the US when its own territorial claims will be questioned by Moscow. That’s why the road to resolve the Tibet problem only passes through the Indian soil. Indo-Russian close ties onward from the 1960’s was one of the reasons which pressurized Russia to change her tone and took a reverse stance on the Tibet question in the 1970s and 1980s. Presently, Indo-US relationship which is coming closer day-by-day has a probability to serve the same purpose with regard to the Tibet question. India has always remained a significant dimension of the RIC triangle. Even though having lesser regional dominance than China,India,with its Western allies,has the potential to hinder the Chinese aspiration to push the triangle to become more unilateral. Moscow’s increasing proximity with Beijing may temporarily work as a booster for China,but in the long run its definitive stand on Tibet is not guaranteed. History reminds us that Moscow has always been inconsistent, unstable and even unreliable in its stance over Tibet. This is the reason why China, with its newly discovered partner, cannot stretch this triangle to become more unilateral. So, China’s emergence as a world power is not the answer to the ‘Tibet Question’, especially because India too will work as a counter force in the Asian region to resist the Chinese agenda on Tibet.

Faulconbridge, Guy. (2008): Russia wants China to curtail “unlawful” acts in Tibet. Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-tibet-russia/russia-wants-china-to-curtail-unlawful-acts-in-tibet-idUSL1712670020080317

Kalha, Rajit S. (2017): There is no Tibet Card for India to Play. Here’s why. Published on 13th January 2017. Available at http://thewire.in/99468/india-has-no-tibetan-card-to-play-heres-why/

Lipson, Charles. (2013): Reliable Partners: How Democracies have made a separate peace, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wersto J. Thomas. (1983): “Tibet in Sino-Soviet Relations,” Asian Affairs, Vol 10, No 3, pp 70-85.


Pradeep Nair, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. His research interests include media and civic engagement, political communication and practicing participatory communication approaches for development.

Email: nairdevcom@yahoo.co.in.

Sandeep Sharma is a Research Scholar at the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media,School of Journalism, Mass Communication & New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.


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