The Great Game at the Top of the World: Geopolitics in the Himalayas

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being On 1 October 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defeated the Kuomintang in China’s civil war. The Republic of India emerged shortly after on 26 January 1950, when the Independent British dominion became a federal and democratic republic. There is little doubt today that both are the two geopolitical heavyweights on mainland Asia. But while the two states capture the headlines, what the world does not pay much attention to are the countries situated between the two giants, in the Himalayas. 

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Despite the two civilisations of China and India emerging adjacent to each other, the Himalayan range has historically prevented the two from developing deep cultural ties, while also keeping them militarily apart. It is only with the advent of the Modern Age and its trappings such as GPS and modern artillery has the Himalayan region taken on greater geopolitical significance. The disregard with which both civilisations used to look at the region can be seen by the fact that almost the entire 4,057 km border is still disputed territory. For most of the past, there had never been a  historical need to define the border since it was simply impassable.

Setting up the chess pieces

The Himalayan countries along with their larger neighbours are today engaged in what is effectively a “localised cold war,” very similar to the “Great Game” played between the British Empire and Russian Empire over Afghanistan and Central Asia. The key buffer zones that need to be examined to get an idea of the situation are Tibet (Tibetan Autonomous Region), Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim. As there are quite a few, this article will very briefly go over all of them before concluding with an overview of current events and the future. As China’s growing involvement in Pakistan is widely examined elsewhere, for the purposes of this piece we will focus on the central Himalayan states and their relation to China-India geopolitics.

Political map of the greater Himalayan region, showing administrative boundaries, political claims, major uprisings and armed separatist activity in the region.

Fig 1.0 – Political boundary and activity map of the Himalayas


When India and China came into force in their current forms, both realized the importance of Tibet as a geopolitical lynchpin. Not losing any time, in 1950, Mao Zedong asserted Chinese control over Tibet by force of arms, aiming to end Tibetan Buddhism and feudalism. In effect to this, an agreement was signed in 1951 called the “Seventeen Point Agreement” by which Tibet ceded to Chinese sovereignty, but was offered an independent internal political and social system.

However, as with all things geopolitical, things soon became messy. The government in Lhasa did not have effective administrative control over the provinces of Amdo and Kham. Thus the PRC began to treat the two regions like other Chinese provinces and implement socialist reforms such as land re-distribution. Guerrillas took up arms in 1956, and by 1957 the area had become extremely volatile.

Things came to a head on 10 March 1959, when several thousand Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace to prevent him from leaving for a cultural performance. There was a widespread rumour that he would be arrested during the performance. This gathering sparked the rebellion in Lhasa proper, with the crowds declaring independence for Tibet two days later. The PLA began to deploy and the Tibetan forces too began preparing. An appeal of assistance was sent to the Indian consul, and on 17th March, artillery shells landed near the Dalai Lama’s palace, forcing his exile. Being heavily outnumbered and outgunned, the Tibetan rebel forces were defeated in only 48 hours. The Dalai Lama and his party crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane Pass on March 31. Indian Prime Minister Nehru announced on the 3rd of April in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) that the Government of India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. On 18th April 1959, the Dalai Lama, his mother, sister, brother, three ministers and around 80 other Tibetans reached Tezpur, Assam, where the Dalai Lama made the famous statement that the Seventeen Point Agreement was signed under duress and under threat of military force. By the end of May 1959, as many as 7,000 Tibetan refugees had entered India to seek asylum, inflaming the tensions between the hitherto friendly neighbours. These events were a major catalyst for the 1962 Sino-Indian War, where India came away with a bloody nose courtesy of the PLA.

Tibet continues to be a flashpoint, but as of now, both countries do not want to disturb the status quo. However, the Dalai Lama is 83 years old, and his death will spark a change in the current scenario. As is well known, the Dalai Lama does not appoint a successor, but instead through rebirth returns in the form of a new leader. After his death, it takes about 2-3 years to locate his reincarnated successor. But this time the situation is different, and the Dalai Lama is afraid that after his death China will use the intervening years to install a puppet in his place and thus strengthen its grip on Tibet, just as they did with the Panchen Lama; another Tibetan holy figure. However, if he does not return through rebirth, then the Tibetan government-in-exile will become leaderless and might even lose its legitimacy. Only time will tell what will happen.


Nepal has historically been a close friend of India due to similar cultural and religious ties and signed the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” in 1950 establishing formal ties. Similar to Bhutan, Indian and Nepali citizens can travel across the border without passports or visas, and Nepali citizens can work in India without any restrictions. India has also played an outsized role in Nepal; restoring and dismantling the monarchy, introducing democracy, and brokering deals between political factions. Nepal is also heavily dependent on India for fuel, with roughly 300 trucks crossing the border every day.

However, this relationship has seen turbulence. Nepal thinks of India as an overbearing neighbour, especially after India reportedly blockaded the country in 2015. A new constitution was being put into place in Nepal that did not give adequate representation to the Indian-origin Madhesis (pejoratively called “Indian agents”) in the country. Towards the end of 2015, Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli threatened to break tradition and visit China ahead of the normal new year visit to India, signalling Nepal’s willingness to move closer into China’s orbit. Despite this, Nepal remains geographically and culturally closer to India than China.


Sikkim was initially a kingdom established in the 17th Century and became a princely state in British India in 1890. Before Indian independence, the Kingdom was declared to be as “not an Indian State” and its future destined to be negotiated separately. In 1950, Sikkim was made an Indian protectorate. In 1975, the Prime Minister of Sikkim appealed to India for Sikkim to accede to its larger neighbour, and later that same year in April, the Indian Army took control of the capital city of Gangtok and disarmed the royal palace guards. A referendum was held in Sikkim where an overwhelming 97.5% supported the abolishment of the monarchy and accession to India. On 16th May 1975, Sikkim officially became the 22nd state of India, and the monarchy was abolished.

25 years later, with the dawn of the new century, the 17th Karmapa – another Buddhist holy leader from Tibet – fled from Tibet to India. This created a dilemma for Chinese officials, since any protests to India for the return of the Karmapa would mean an explicit recognition that Sikkim was an Indian state and not an independent country occupied by India as per the standing Chinese position. However, eventually, Sikkim was recognized as an Indian state in 2003 on the condition that, in exchange, India recognises Tibet as a part of China, which India had originally accepted in the 1950s. This 2003 agreement between the two led to a thaw in relations and became the catalyst for cross-border trade through the Himalayan pass of Nathu La, the first open border between the large neighbours.


When India became independent, Bhutan signed a friendship treaty with India. Bhutan had always been fearful of Chinese expansion, and its fears were exacerbated by the 1959 Tibet rebellion and eventual Chinese militarism. Bhutan has firmly embraced India, with Bhutanese and Indian citizens allowed free travel to each other’s countries without the need for a passport and only on the basis of their national identity cards. Bhutanese citizens can also legally work in India without any restrictions. Bhutan doesn’t even have formal diplomatic ties with China, only maintaining honorary consulates in the Semi-Autonomous Regions of Macau and Hong Kong. The border with China is also largely un-demarcated and thus disputed, with almost 269 square kilometres of land hanging in the balance.

Despite this, China has continued to make small-scale incursions into the disputed territory, most notably in 2005 when China began building roads and bridges. Such small-scale incursions have been termed “Salami slicing tactics” by the Indian General Bipin Rawat. This disputed territory was also the flashpoint for an almost 70-day military standoff between India and China in 2017, called the Doklam Standoff.

Present Day and Near Future

Despite multiple rounds of talks between Bhutan and China, the international border at Doklam is still not defined. In June 2017, China began trying to construct a road in the area, and Indian troops – aiding their Bhutanese counterparts – objected to it, culminating in the stand-off. The geopolitical significance of the territory cannot be overstated, with the site providing an excellent view and easy access to the Siliguri Corridor, dubbed the “Chicken’s neck” of India. This corridor, just 27km at its narrowest point, connects mainland India with its Northeastern territories. The stand-off grabbed global headlines and brought the Himalayan Cold War dangerously close to a kinetic war.

However, post-Doklam, the relationship between India and China has begun to change. Neither side wanted war, and both realised how dangerously close they had come to one. In April of 2018, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Wuhan, China for an informal summit. Relations seem to have been normalised to an extent after the summit, especially along the disputed border. They met again on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in July; their third meeting in just four months. China also suggested a “2+1” summit to Nepal, which would involve all 3 nations. Under this mechanism, “China and India can jointly conduct a dialogue with a third regional country,” ostensibly setting the stage for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the Himalayan Cold War. The Nepalese government recently welcomed the “2+1” summit, also acknowledging the “spirit of Wuhan.”

However, this view might be very optimistic as China continues to build infrastructure around the Doklam disputed region. Further, both nations are locked in an outreach war by trying to gain influence with the power-holders in poll-bound Bhutan. Regardless of peace overtures, it seems that geopolitics in the area will continue to be messy for the time being.

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Ananay Agarwal is a graduate of Delhi University and is currently a master’s student of Economics at the Institut d’études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and focuses on India and the wider South Asia region in both modern and historical geopolitics. He has gained first-hand experience in India’s burgeoning public-policy sector, having worked with several Members of Parliament.

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Photo credit: Cover Image – NASA // Himalayas Political Map – Woudloper