The Dilemma Of India’s One-China Policy

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By Anuraag Khaund and Haris Rashid

THE recent Sino-Indian tensions along the LAC including the aggressive stalemate of 15-16 June 2020 resulting in casualties of 20 Indian soldiers have led to increasing debates about re-evaluation and possible altering of India’s One China Policy. Regarding the One- China Policy, the focus has invariably been on the two regions which have traditionally aroused Chinese ire in any form of discussion on the latter- Taiwan and Tibet. The present article is an attempt at understanding the feasibility of possible alteration to India’s One China Policy in connection to Tibet and Taiwan.

The question of Tibet has been casting a shadow on Sino-Indian ties since the Anglo-Tibetan convention of 1904 involving British India, Tibet and Qing dynasty and post -1947 between the newly formed nations of India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Indian leaders and statesmen including Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr BR Ambedkar had expressed concerns on the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950 as being morally wrong and proving detrimental to India’s security of the Himalayan border states, yet the issue was resolved by the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 which saw India (Nehruvian regime) acquiesce to the claim of Tibet being an integral part of China. Even though the Chinese war efforts in 1962 were launched from the Tibetan plateau, the issue of possible Tibetan independence was not pursued by subsequent Indian governments. To the contrary, the Panchsheel position on Tibet was further reinforced by subsequent border agreements signed between India and China in 1993 by the Narsimha Rao government and in 2003 during the Vajpayee era. Coming to the current era, the recent debacle in Galwan Valley has again brought to the fore the issue of Tibet and especially the notion that an independent Tibet is integral to Indian security and stability in the Himalayas. To that end, this has intensified popular demands both from Indians as well as the Tibetan exile community for scrapping India’s long-standing hesitation to openly support the Tibetan independence movement and raise the issue vehemently in forums such as the UN. In other words, the domestic Indian population are demanding the usage of the possible ‘Tibet Card’ to discipline Chinese behaviour.

Regarding Taiwan, India was among the first countries to adhere to the One China principle when in December 1949, the Government declared the ambassador of the so-called Republic of China (Taiwan) to India as persona non-grata, derecognizing Taiwan and asked its envoy to leave the country while proceeding to offer its recognition to the PRC. Since then, India never had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but associations such as the India Taipei Association (ITA) and India Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre (TECC) offered consular and passport services and promoted trade and business links and people-to-people interactions between the two countries. Direct flights between New Delhi and Taipei were also initiated in 2003 and various other significant initiatives were taken to improve bilateral relations. Despite such improvement, India has been finding it challenging to balance the political implications of fostering closer ties with Taiwan alongside its own interests involving mainland China. In 2018, Air India acquiesced to Chinese demand by renaming Taiwan as Chinese Taipei on their website. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs justified this as being in line with “international norms and (its own) position on Taiwan since 1949.” Earlier in May 2016, India had reversed its course on a prior commitment to send two Members of Parliament to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration. However, the second swearing-in ceremony of Tsai last year was attended by two BJP MPs amidst the LAC skirmishes and attracted strong protest from China.

Given the recent LAC skirmishes, there have been growing calls for India to play Taiwan card, but is it possible to do so? In its 2018 report, the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs raised concerns over the fact that India is “overtly cautious about China’s sensitivities while dealing with Taiwan and Tibet” but “China does not exhibit the same deference while dealing with India’s sovereignty concerns.” It expressed its discontent over India continuing with its “conventionally deferential foreign policy towards China” and recommended that the government “contemplate using all options including its relations with Taiwan” as part of a new approach.” Such sentiments were in sync with the stance of anti-One China Policy advocates who wanted to use the ‘Taiwan Card’ for accruing reciprocal Chinese recognition of ‘One-India’ regarding Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. However, the committee also noted that “it does not want to upend this (One China) policy…in deference to China’s sensitivity on the matter.”

Similarly, keeping aside popular sentiments and moral obligations, many prominent scholars and former diplomats have expressed reservations about the possibility of India playing the Tibet Card. Prominent among their arguments is the fact that the agreements of 1993 and 2003 have further reinforced the Indian acceptance of Chinese sovereignty in Tibet as mentioned in the Panchsheel. Besides, the attitude of the Indian government towards the Tibetan movement can be said to have been mixed or ambiguous and dependent on the vagaries of the nature of Sino-Indian relationship. This was evident during the 2018 official circular preventing government officials from taking part in Tibetan celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama’s escape into India. Again, the Mamallapuram Summit of 2019 also witnessed the arrest of Tibetan protesters to prevent and contain any possible diplomatic fallout during the summit. Although during the Galwan clashes, actions such as the overt recognition of the Tibetan-staffed Special Frontier Force (SFF) through the public honouring of martyr SFF Company Leader Nyima Tenzin and announcement by the BJP Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh Pema Khandu for renaming of the Sino- Indian border as the ‘Indo- Tibetan’ border were interpreted as signs of impending Indian recognition of Tibetan sovereignty, yet Tibet hardly appeared in the diplomatic exchanges between India and China whether in the Moscow Summit or the commander-level talks held to find a resolution to the stalemate.

As seen in the preceding paragraphs, what prevents India from altering its One-China Policy or playing the ‘Tibet and Taiwan Cards’ against China despite a considerable domestic demand to do so? As per the authors, there can be three possible reasons. Firstly, as both the armies have gradually begun the process of disengagement at the banks of Pangong Tso Lake, any change in India’s One China Policy regarding Tibet and Taiwan has the potential of breaking down the hard achieved fragile peace in the LAC by flaring up Chinese sentiment. The possibility of attracting Chinese ire has been increased by the fact that Beijing has recently revealed the names of 4 Chinese soldiers who had lost their lives in the 15 June 2020 clash to bolster feelings of nationalism among the domestic Chinese population; hence any Indian action regarding Tibet and Taiwan at this point is bound to negatively affect the perceptions of China on the recently agreed de-escalation process.

Secondly, one cannot be sure whether such a radical step taken by India would receive the backing of one of its major allies at this point of time -the US. Although there were calls for the Indian government to change its policy towards Tibet and adopt a more unequivocal stance in line with the actions of the previous Trump administration who had passed legislations such as the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act 2018 and the Tibet Policy and Support Act (TPSA) 2020, yet it is unclear whether the current Biden administration would equally be vociferous on the issues of Tibet and Taiwan. This is more so as President Joe Biden explicitly stated his aim of undoing the damages done to American foreign policy by the preceding administration including mending ties with China. Even as Trump had moved closer to Taiwan, the Biden administration reiterated its support for One China policy as recent as that of 3 February 2021. Hence, in such a scenario despite the growing strategic closeness between USA and India on account of China, the Biden administration is unlikely to support the Indian unilateral action of alteration in One China Policy.

Finally, India’s geographical proximity to China would ensure that the immediate costs and implications of any alteration to One-China policy would have to be borne by India than the US. Such costs can include a hardening of Chinese attitudes towards India and a no-holds barred approach from the PLA on the LAC. Besides, other areas such as trade which remained relatively unaffected throughout the Galwan crisis might witness negative repercussions because of possible heightened military conflict. Also, such a radical step by India might be interpreted by China as the breaking of the final straw and further affirm the traditional Chinese stereotype of India being a ‘Western (US) lackey’ (similar perceptions had prevailed before 1962) thus ending possible avenues of goodwill and cooperation.

As noted by former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, it would prove costly for India to bend foreign policy issues for serving domestic political ends. Hence, the Indian government is most likely to adopt the pragmatic approach of not bowing to the sway of popular domestic opinions at the risk of incurring heavy and fateful costs in the context of already strained Indo-China ties.


Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • Anuraag Khaund is Pursuing a Masters in Politics and International Relations (PIR) from Central University of Gujarat (CUG) and Haris Rashid is a student at Ashoka University

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