The deadly clash on 15 June between Chinese and Indian soldiers on along their border in Ladakh has increased the threat of the whole Himalayan arc turning into a geopolitical flashpoint.
A new book by former Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan had warned of that even before the current tensions flared, and the world was plunged into the COVID-19 crisis.
The Himalaya stretches nearly 3,000km from Afghanistan through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, up to Burma on one side, and China to the north. Many of the inhabitants of the mountain region are Buddhist.
View of Galwan from Bhutan, Passang Dorji
Stobdan is from Ladakh and besides serving as Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan was also in the National Security Council Secretariat and is a defence studies analyst with a wealth of experience on the region.
‘Himalayas has been a theatre of competition by proxy between India and China for over a half a century now,’ Stobdan begins, noting that the mountains of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh have been a hotbed of dispute between India and China with occasional standoffs, but without turning into such bloody skirmishes since the war of 1962.
The profile of Himalayan Buddhism in Chapter 1 is a fascinating account of the historic development of Buddhism and various Buddhist traditions (and sects) in Bhutan, Nepal, India and the Tibetan rimland. It documents many historical instances of conflict over the selection process of the Dalai Lama, and the consolidation of power behind this position. There have been centuries of interaction and power struggles between Imperial China and institution of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
Stobdan has been criticised by the Tibetan government in exile over his stance, and this book will provide further grist. He writes that the question of whether Tibet is a part of China or an independent state has been contested for centuries, even leading to wars in the past.
When Buddhism spread across the Himalaya it branched into several sects that up to this day face many conflicts both among themselves, and against Chinese state power. Stobdan delves at length on the development of Buddhism and Buddhist institutions, pointing out that the Hemis monastery in Ladakh is an important node of Himalayan Buddhism, much overlooked in India.
Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the British role in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries, and their maneuvering and manipulation of relations between Tibet, China, India as well as Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. Stobdan recalls that the British and later Americans failed to understand the symbolic relationship between Tibet and China of a ‘priest-patron’ nature.
The events that followed the 1951 Chinese annexation of Tibet ‘decisively changed the terms and the geopolitical context of India and China in the Buddhist Himalayas’, he says. The US wanted the Dalai Lama to take asylum in Sri Lanka, or even the United States. Eventually the CIA even gave logistic support for the Dalai Lama’s journey into exile to India.
In Chapter 4 Stobdan discuss Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s soft corner for China, and his desire to build pan-Asian solidarity based on ancient common spiritual destiny of both civilisations. Various steps taken by India to improve diplomatic and trade ties are documented.
Stobdan argues that the conflict arising from the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India soured the friendship between India and China leading to the brief but bloody war between the two countries in 1962. The CIA’s role in the region and in that war between India and China is discussed at length in Chapter 5 under the heading ‘Wrecking The Himalayas’.
Chapters 7 to 9 contain extensive discussions on how Buddhist politics could turn the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (claimed whole by China) a regional hotspot of the future. The author notes that if Tibet was independent today, the Arunachal Pradesh capital of Tawang would be claimed by Tibet as a major spiritual centre.
Tawang is historically important for the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and the author hints that there could be future trouble brewing for India from the activities of the sect leader Karmapa who mysteriously fled from India to the US in 2017.
Stobdan warns that Himalayan stability will depend on the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama and how his reincarnation is recognised and by whom. In the final chapters the author discusses China’s opening up to Buddhism and the fact that Xi Jingping comes from a Buddhist family, could open ways for a peaceful Buddhist Himalaya.
Stobdan argues that India should have built its own Buddhist profile and employed it for advancing its interests and making sure that China does not gain primacy in Asian Buddhism.
The process of resetting ties between India and China that began in Wuhan in May 2018 with a Xi-Modi summit has now come a full circle with a global pandemic that began in the same city. The Galwan Valley skirmish and the economic and geostrategic impact of the lockdown may mean that Stobdan will have to soon update his book, or write another one.