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Xi in Tibet: What This Could Mean for India

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

by Debendra Sanyal

Xi Jinping in Tibet - The Economist

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently undertook a 3-day trip to the Tibet Autonomous Region, a visit which was kept under the wraps by the state-owned media. This was the first tour to the province by a Chinese President in over 30 years, the last one being Jiang Zemin in 1990. As for Xi, he last visited Tibet in 2011, when he was the Vice-President, and this was his first visit to the province as President. This visit comes at the time of a border dispute with India in the Ladakh region close to Tibet, which intensified last year leading to clashes between the militaries of both countries.

Xinhua reported that Xi visited Tibet in connection with the 70th anniversary of Tibet's "peaceful liberation for the first time in the history of the Party and the country." He first landed at Nyingchi, a strategic border town close to Arunachal Pradesh, and inspected crucial infrastructural projects such as the Nyang River Bridge and the Sichuan-Lhasa railway line. From there, he went to Lhasa via the newly-inaugurated Nyingchi-Lhasa bullet railway line, the first bullet train in the province. In Lhasa, he visited the Drepung Monastery and the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India. He also met people of various ethnic groups, Party officials, and “conveyed the CPC Central Committee’s care to them,” according to Xinhua. Xi concluded the trip by meeting with representatives of the Tibet Military Command of the People’s Liberation Army. In this meeting, according to the CPC-run tabloid Global Times, he called for “fully strengthening the work of training soldiers and war preparation,” as well as encouraging infrastructure building in the border areas.

What does the visit signify?

Xi’s visit to Tibet seems to send out a clear signal to the world that Beijing has complete control over Tibet. The province has been waging a liberation struggle against the Chinese state since its annexation in 1950 and has vehemently resisted attempts to ‘Sinicize’ the province through demographic changes and state control over Tibetan Buddhism. Beijing views the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, as a ‘threat to the nation’s territorial integrity. In his speech to the people at Lhasa, Xi made it clear that Tibet’s, and China’s, future lay in the hands of the Communist Party of China.

There is also a geopolitical purpose to the visit as well. India and China have been engaged in border disputes since the middle of the 20th century, as the People’s Republic of China does not recognize the boundary settlements agreed upon during the colonial era. These disputes have occasionally turned into standoffs and conflicts, such as the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 2017 standoff in Doklam, and the 2020 standoff in the Galwan Valley. India lost badly in 1962 but managed to hold off the Chinese forces in 2017 and 2020. Since last year’s standoff, there has been an increase in military deployment in Ladakh from the Indian side, and on the diplomatic front, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi agreed earlier this month to continue negotiations over the border dispute. Also, with the current Dalai Lama turning 86 and close to initiating the process for nominating a successor, this would have some impact on the ground in Tibet.

What could Xi’s visit to Tibet mean for India?

Talk between China and India on Ladakh Standoff - Business Standard

Considering India’s proximity with the United States, the formation of the Quad alliance, and the fragile situation in Tibet, China would be pre-empting an aggressive India and a potential military-strategic alliance with the US. According to Robert Barnett, a British academic who has been closely following Tibet, Xi’s trip “suggests that he places the border dispute with India close to the very top of China’s national agenda.” In particular, his visit to Nyingchi, close to the eastern sector of the border where India is at a slight disadvantage, intends to send a warning signal to India. Nyingchi is also close to the site where the Chinese are building a dam over the Yarlung Tsangpo river, which enters India as the Brahmaputra, thereby indicating China’s intentions of weaponizing the waters of the Brahmaputra. Moreover, Xi’s meeting with the PLA in Lhasa seems to suggest that China is preparing for another potential standoff in the western sector of the border. Overall, by keeping its guard up in the western sector and aggressively upgrading its infrastructure in the eastern sector, China intends to warn India from making any unnecessary moves.

In conclusion, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet, the first by a Chinese head of state in over 30 years, was more than just an affirmation of national sovereignty. It was also aimed at signaling to India that China is ready for any potential standoff on the frontier and that India should choose its next move wisely.

About the Author

Debendra Sanyal is a research intern at Ytharth.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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