There is but one way to diffuse the tension along the 4,056-kilometer Sino-Indian border. The neutrality of the current buffer states of Nepal and Bhutan must be recognized in full by Beijing and Delhi.
There is no border more in need of a string of buffer states than the mountainous Sino-Indian border that traverses the Himalayan range. Buffer states have traditionally existed between rival super-powers as neutral buffer zones to prevent the outbreak of hostilities between rival powers, including China and India. The former Kingdom of Sikkim, a semi-independent protectorate of India, was invaded and annexed by India in 1975, an act that eliminated a crucial buffer state between India and China. It was also an action that led to the current tensions on the Sino-Indian frontier.
It is no coincidence that China’s recent military foray into the Doklam Pass tri-border area of Bhutan, China, and India is in a region of Sikkim claimed by all three countries. Ever since the incorporation of Sikkim into India as a constituent state, China has been wary of India’s attempts to bring about similar annexations of Bhutan and Nepal. In fact, it is India’s continued influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs that has prevented Bhutan and China from establishing full diplomatic relations. Similarly, India’s border incursions into the Madhesi area of southern Nepal has brought about increased wariness in Beijing about India’s ultimate strategic aims along the Sino-Indian border.
Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan once served as buffer states between British-ruled India and China, with Tibet, now part of China, serving as an additional buffer state. The change of status of Tibet and Britain’s replacement by India as the protecting power over Sikkim helped bring the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Chinese troops captured Rezang La in Ladakh in the western Himalayas and Tawang, a district of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. Tawang and surrounding areas were once part of “Greater Tibet. The 1914 Simla Accord defined as the new border between British India and Tibet the McMahon Line. The treaty was agreed to by British Foreign Secretary Henry McMahon and Tibetan government representative Lonchen Satra. However, Simla was never recognized by China. The presence of a major Tibetan monastery in Tawang resulted in British troops not occupying the town, which continued to pay taxes to the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
After the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950, Indian troops of the Assam Rifles moved into Tawang and placed the Tibetan-claimed territory under Indian military control. China never recognized India’s control of the region.
A neutral buffer zone between the two nuclear powers should be extended to the west in Kashmir with the granting of independence to Ladakh, which is presently a part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. To the east, should be granted sovereignty under a neutral and demilitarized Tibetan administration. Whether a neutral and independent buffer state of Tawang answers to the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India should be left to negotiations, with the emphasis on the state being demilitarized, except for a local police force, and strictly neutral. Tawang, Nepal, Ladakh (with its capital in Leh), Gilgit-Baltistan (which was briefly independent in 1947 but eventually taken over by Pakistan), Nepal, Bhutan, and a Sikkim that is restored to independence under the rule of the family of the deposed Chogyal (King) would provide a baseline for a string of buffer states to prevent the outbreak of armed hostilities between the Indian and Chinese armed forces. The seven buffer states should be free to establish diplomatic relations with other nations and join the United Nations and other international organizations as full member states.
But the establishment of neutral buffer states should not be limited to Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and four new nations. The proposed new federal structure for Nepal, once a feudalistic kingdom, fails to take into consideration the autonomy desires of several of its ethnic groups. The establishment of autonomous states of Kirat and Limbuwan and the restoration of the autonomy status of the former Kingdom of Mustang or Lo, would create further buffers between India and China, as well as between Nepal and China. India is already concerned about a growing Chinese influence in Mustang after the post-royalist government of Nepal abolished, in 2008, the traditional Tibetan kingdom governing a strategic region jutting from Nepal into Tibet. China currently capitalizes on the irredentist pro-Tibetan sentiments among Mustang’s population. Mustang has always been a prize in big power politics. The US Central Intelligence Agency used Mustang as a launching point for anti-Chinese operations in Tibet in the 1960s and 70s. The establishment of an Indian state of Gorkhaland, demanded by the Gorkha inhabitants of northern West Bengal, would also help diffuse regional tensions.
A CIA briefing for the National Security Council, dated April 1, 1959, described Tawang, in what was then part of India’s North-East Frontier Agency, as a natural headquarters for the Dalai Lama after he fled Tibet. The Dalai Lama did stay in Tawang after his trek out of Tibet. The CIA document points out that Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the Dalai Lama closer to New Delhi where the “two could be in closer touch.” The Indians settled on Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, north of New Delhi, as the home for the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. A transfer of the Dalai Lama and his government to an independent Tawang might assuage feelings in Beijing that the Dalai Lama, officially considered a “dangerous splittist” by China, remains too close to the Indian government. The Dalai Lama controlling his own territory in Tawang might also relieve pressure on China by groups supporting the Dalai Lama’s return to power in Tibet.
There is a belief among some political scientists that buffer states, far from preventing war between neighboring rival powers, encourages aggression. However, a CIA report on Bhutan, dated April 2, 1965, found no evidence that China sought to “upset the status quo” in Bhutan, which was, as it remains today, governed by India in certain sectors. The 1949 Indian-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship, amended by a new treaty in 2007, grants India a say in Bhutan’s foreign and defense policies. It was the view by Beijing that Bhutan was a virtual colony of India that prompted China to seize control over several Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet during the Tibetan rebellion of 1959. The Sino-Bhutanese border issue remains unresolved.
Ironically, in 1965, the CIA saw a small Buddhist sect in Bhutan, which was ultimately loyal to the CIA-backed Dalai Lama, as a threat to then-King of Bhutan Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The sect, known as the Tawang Movement, recognizes as their leader not the King of Bhutan but the head of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Tawang. According to the 1965 CIA report, New Delhi saw the Tawang Lama as a threat to the Bhutanese king and a possible pawn of China. If the Dalai Lama were permitted to govern his Buddhist faithful from Tawang, it would certainly help stabilize Buddhist politics in Bhutan, as well as in Sikkim and the state of Arunachal Pradesh. A fact long ignored by policymakers in New Delhi and Beijing is that there are ancient familial ties between the royal and monastic houses of Tibet, Mustang, Bhutan, Sikkim, Tawang, and Ladakh. Recognizing the independence of these houses and their states as neutral buffers should be welcome in India and China as an important insurance policy against all-out war.
An independent Sikkim would also draw down military forces stationed on both sides of the strategic Nathu-La pass that provides a transit route between Sikkim and Tibet. Currently, the pass is the most heavily militarized area in the world. After the Doklam Pass standoff between Indian, Chinese, and Bhutanese troops, the pass has become even more militarized. One misfired bullet could result in a major war between two nuclear-armed nations. A string of buffer states along the Himalayan range might go a long way in separating the military forces of these Asian giants.