Sunday, February 13, 2011

Taking In The Tibet Tangle

In terms of damage control, the past week was hectic if not exactly hysterical. The taming of the Jhal Nath Khanal government required the denial of the home and defense portfolios to his Maoist patrons. Infuriated, the ex-rebels vowed not to join the government, a posture that served to expose both the peace and revolt camps within the party. But since the Maoists initially didn’t fully comprehend the Nepali Congress’ ability or willingness to step in and save Khanal, if so required, they started having second thoughts.
As for Khanal, the fact that the Maoists – and not he – characterized his government as anti-Indian gained traction. Once in power, there was little else the prime minister could do but seek New Delhi’s goodwill and support. In his first extensive interview with an Indian newspaper, Khanal seemed to make the right noises about respecting India’s security interests.
By envisaging Cambodia as his first foreign destination, the prime minister sought to maintain symbolic adherence to the image of Nepali ingenuity the Maoists created for him – and perhaps more, given our extended parallels with that South East Asian nation.
Nepalis, however, Maila Baje feels, must brace for a larger fight looming on the horizon, which has little to do with the new constitution. Although everyone is tiptoeing around the Tibet issue, Nepal is likely to face far greater convulsions than those created by the Khampa Rebellion over a generation ago.
The Achilles’ heel of a rising and assertive China, Tibet has entered the crosshairs of hardliners in India who are seeking a showdown in pursuit of other aspects of the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. Predictions of war in 2012 made by a leading Indian strategic analyst continue to roil Beijing amid the approaching 50th anniversary of the ‘lesson’ it believed it taught New Delhi.
New Delhi, which never reconciled itself to Beijing’s incorporation of Tibet, is sensitized by continuing revelations of vast mineral wealth in the region and China’s drive to harness it for military as well as economic purposes. The Chinese, for their part, recognize how fast the Naxalites insurgency has flared across regions of India that are rich in mineral resources. Could the Indian Maoists be stopped from the turbulent and resource-rich northeast, home to myriad other uprisings?
As they seek to preempt an escalation of the threat from Nepal to Tibet, the Chinese have been dropping off hints on how an unstable Nepal could inflame insurgencies in India, not necessarily limited to the Maoist variant.
For the Americans, the abandonment of the Khampas was not universally popular. If anything, much of the original justification for backing the Tibetan resistance retains its relevance. One group of veterans made a public display of their enduring fealty by commemorating the site at Camp Hale in Colorado where the original Khampa warriors were trained.
Still, the Chinese and Indians see stark incongruities. As President Barack Hussein Obama’s administration all but welcomed the military coup in Egypt as a democratic alternative to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime, parts of the world saw the triumphalism as emblematic of declining American power. Weeks earlier, Obama hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao at a White House state dinner with much fanfare, during which a key attraction was an anti-American anthem going back to the Korean War.
In the eyes of Rush Limbaugh, the leading conservative American radio commentator, the toasting of Hu represented a far vulgar display. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner (Obama) feted the jailer of this year’s laureate (Liu Xiaobo) in the presence of another former laureate (Jimmy Carter).
Beijing, which funds the massive American deficit spending, saw how Obama, on the eve of his visit to China in 2009, refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington. When U.S.-Chinese tensions escalated the following year, Obama did receive the Dalai Lama at the White House but made the Tibetan spiritual leader leave from the backdoor, sidestepping bulky trash bags.
Indian hardliners itching for a fight with China acknowledge they cannot count on the Americans. Nor do they seem to want to. Standing up to China on Tibet as an equal will have a palliative effect on the 1962 psyche. It would force the Chinese to understand the power and potential the Indians have accumulated over half a century.
In one sense, both putative belligerents could benefit from the Americans hedging their bets, with Beijing relishing it as an endorsement of its comprehensive national power and New Delhi as a justification of its pursuit of strategic autonomy. Does all this sound convoluted? Who ever said our geopolitics were any simpler than our politics?