Tibet was critical for British India to mitigate any potential direct threats from and confrontations with adversarial powers such as Russia and China. To counter them, it devised “buffer zones”, “inner and outer” territory concepts, employed “forward policies” and built strategic forts often termed as glacis. Primarily, these policies evolved to protect its mercantile interests. It was also done to ensure that the countries are not engaged in a zero-sum game.

Similarly, the Russians also created a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Far East. Despite its decline in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, Russia under Putin is trying to protect its “near-abroad” in order to retain its great power status.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have been practising the Li concept that primarily functions on a ritualistic tributary system of the “core” controlling the “peripheries” through economic, trade and cultural relationships. This imperial-era idea seems to still shape strategic thinking in present-day China in terms of both gaining additional territory and market access outside the country.

Not surprisingly, unlike other nations which tend to play a straight game of chess to defeat the adversary on a single battleground, the Chinese are used to playing a slower build-up game on multiple battlefronts to inflict progressive losses upon its adversary – explained in the “go” game.

The only counter to Sun Tzu’s “salami-slicing” strategy was found by the Mongols. A Mongol Khan once reminded the Chinese that a “small, sharp razor” could tonsure millions of hairs on the scalp at once. Of course, it was said in the context of Mongolian demographic deficiency vis-à-vis China.

The Chinese “go” game involves taking less risks but also incremental steps while working on the enemy’s weaknesses to ensure complete victory. This recipe for winning war is being employed in the ongoing dispute in the maritime domain: in the South China Sea. On land, the slow invasion tactic has been the hallmark of Chinese success in Inner Mongolia, Siberia, Xinjiang and the Tibetan plateau.

In the 1960s, Chinese leaders made a nuanced assertion of Bhutan, Ladakh and Sikkim always being subject to Tibet and thus to the great “Chinese motherland”. Since the military stand-off in 1962, the Himalayan perimeter between India and China is being defined under the mutually agreed-upon LAC mechanism. But China has not yet accepted the McMahon Line drawn by the British as the boundary between the two countries.

While China has been building infrastructure and military capability along the LAC, it has allowed limited engagement with India on trans-border issues, pilgrimage visits and exchange of hydro data. Similarly, boundary negotiations have been carried out through diplomatic channels but the issue is allowed to remain in a state of stalemate – leaving the matter open-ended.

China’s thinking in many ways is indicative of how they eventually hope to change the Himalayan configuration to their advantage. In fact, the Chinese may have been thinking about playing the reverse strategic depth policy by leveraging the critical interplay between Buddhism and the Himalayas for a long time.

After consolidating its hold over Tibet in the 1960s, China seemingly worked on the canvas of the southern Himalayas, what it called South Tibet. Unlike India, China never viewed the Himalayan ranges as a barrier but a bridge to create additional spheres of influence. Here, Beijing probably took its cue from the Qing Dynasty – using Tibetan Lamaism as a useful vehicle for enlarging the empire.

China, in a masterstroke strategy, allowed the Dalai Lama to flee in 1959 to settle down in the southern Himalayas. Many conspiracy theories are afloat about his escape, including a CIA plot. It was a setback but Mao certainly had something else in mind. The Chinese believe in converting challenges into opportunities.

A young Dalai Lama with Jawaharlal Nehru | Image credit: Claude Arpi

The Pentagon’s warning that China is building up troops along the border is something the Indian military feels confident of dealing with effectively. But the more critical issue is how to counter China’s countless asymmetric warfare moves in the Himalayas.

For most Indian Mandarins, the game remains unfathomable. Instead, trusting Indians have excitedly facilitated every move made by the Chinese. They have rejoiced in receiving and harbouring a stream of influential Tibetan lamas who they thought would be useful assets for India, without realizing that the Chinese had quietly launched asymmetric warfare vis-à-vis India. Indian policies perfectly suited Beijing. The idea was to employ Sun Tzu’s dictum: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Since then, the Indian state has done everything possible, like spend hundreds of crores of rupees annually, for Tibetan rehabilitation and welfare programmes. This is in addition to the financial assistance the cause receives directly from the US and elsewhere. Most importantly, India was made to feel proud of supporting the Tibetans without realising that the Chinese were directly ensnaring it in a game plan in which the ultimate victory is with China.

Indian policy seemed to have failed on the ground of its inability to strictly follow British policies. As stated earlier, first, British India defined its identifications in the north-western Himalayas for the strategic consideration of containing Russian threats towards India.

Second, setting frontiers in the eastern Himalayas was driven by the need for securing the lower land in Assam for mercantile interests: tea plantation and rice cultivation. Here, the British avoided exerting control over areas that were wasteful and irrelevant for revenue gains. While qualifying those lines, the British were careful not to confront a situation of diminishing returns.

Third, the boundary lines (Inner/Outer and McMahon Lines) in the Himalayas were conceived as against the Tibetan territorial claims. In fact, soon after the British left in 1947, the Tibetan authorities in Lhasa officially asked India to return the alleged (lost) territories of Tibet that virtually claimed the entire Indian Himalayan region.

All in all, British India pursued a national boundary based on objective reality, devoid of any illusionary line that simply wasn’t there. However, in the aftermath of British rule, policymaking in India lost subtlety, became lacking in perceptivity and above all the ability to judge spatial patterns and taxonomic distinctness on the ground. While independent India continued to follow the British-drawn ‘colonial’ boundary line, in reality, policymakers may have grossly negated the inherent basis on which the frontiers were identified by the British, howsoever colonial in scheme they may have been.

Sixty years down the line, India seems to have gained little. Instead, the country now finds itself worryingly and helplessly entangled in a Tibetan quagmire with serious implications for the stability of its frontier region. It may have got trapped in a policy of opacity – the exact opposite of what British strategists had avoided falling into. And this pertained to the so-called “Tibet card”, so obliquely played, detrimental to India’s own interest.

The most galling aspect is the absence of a counter-strategy for reversing the game. The system lacks comprehension and understanding, let alone the wherewithal to counter China’s asymmetric warfare. It also does not have the kind of scholarship that is needed to understand the depth of Buddhist political disposition. With the exception of a few such as Rahul Sanskrityayan, Raghu Vira, Lokesh Chandra and Ram Rahul, scholarly naivety in understanding the finer nuances may have done more harm than good for getting clarity.

Western scholarship has rather obscured Himalayan geopolitics. Several books have brought to light the grandeur of the Buddhist Himalayas, mostly by tapping into various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that were found to be appealing and even exotic, especially to Western audiences, in the second half of the twentieth century.

In fact, the influence of the Dalai Lama and his efforts at drawing attention to the Tibetan political cause, combined with the power of publicity in the West, ensured that the Himalayas were projected as a kind of cultural and geopolitical exotica to the outside world.

Tibetan Buddhism even became the subject of pop and rock songs in the 1960s and 1970s. Novels like Lost Horizon by James Hilton inspired many myths, such as the one about the legendary Shambhala – a sort of Shangri-La located in the Himalayas. It is also noteworthy that the myth-making process ran parallel to China’s massive efforts at transforming the economy and infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau.

Yet, the myth of Shambhala and its profundity had grossly overshadowed the reality of Himalayan geopolitics. For example, the British strategists played the “Great Game” within the context of consolidating its hold while limiting if not undercutting the Himalayan proximities towards China-controlled Tibet.

Excerpted with permission from The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India And China’s Quest For Strategic Dominance, Phunchok Stobdan, Vintage Books.