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Is India ready to play the Tibet card?

By Sana Hashmi
April 03, 2017 11:15 IST
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The Dalai Lama's Arunachal visit is not likely to derail the India-China relationship but it is a signal to the Chinese that India is also willing to flash the Tibet/Taiwan card should the need arise, says Sana Hashmi.

Image: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama being felicitated with an Assamese Japi during the platinum jubilee of the Assam Tribune Group in Guwahati on April 1, 2017. Photograph: PTI Photo.

Tibetan spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, will visit Arunachal Pradesh for a week from April 4, on the invitation of Chief Minister Pema Khandu. This will be the Dalai Lama's first visit to the northeastern state in eight years.

Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama’s visit is not well received by China, which claims  the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet, a claim that is in violation of India’s territorial integrity. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang stated recently that 'China is gravely concerned over information that India has granted permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and it would cause ‘serious damage’ to the bilateral ties and peace in the disputed border region'.

India has made its position clear by maintaining that the Dalai Lama is a religious leader and free to go anywhere in India.

Apparently, this is not the first time that China has raised objections on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (or elsewhere); it has been responding in a similar fashion every time an Indian leader or any foreign dignitary visits Tawang.

For instance, last year, it had objected to the visit of Richard Verma, the former US ambassador to India who was a guest at the Tawang festival. The meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Pranab Mukherjee at a non-political event in New Delhi in December also led China to issue a statement.

In the past, it has raised objections over the visits of former prime minister Manmohan Singh and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Arunachal Pradesh.

However, this time round, India has made it very clear that by objecting to India’s domestic affairs, China is stepping on its shoes.

Kiren Rijuju, minister of state for home affairs, firmly stated that, “China should refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of India”.

Due to China’s cartographic invasions in India’s northeastern states and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, India is getting increasingly concerned. For instance, though India has long given its consent to One China policy, it has been refraining from giving its affirmation to the same in joint statements since 2008.

This is partly due to former Chinese envoy to India Sun Yuxi’s statement on China’s claims of sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh in 2006, in clear violation of India’s sovereignty, issued shortly before the maiden state visit of then Chinese President Hu Jintao to India.

Secondly, in 2014, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stated, “For India to agree to One China policy, China should reaffirm its One India policy,” meaning that Beijing should refer to Kashmir as well as Arunachal Pradesh as India’s rightful territories.

Although statements like these have not really derailed the relationship so far, all does not seem to be well between the two Asian giants. India and China are already at loggerheads on several issues.

First, the resolution of the border issue is yet to see the light of the day.

Second, China has been obstructing India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group.

Third, India is concerned over China’s activities in PoK under the framework of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative that passes through PoK.

Fourth, China has also been hindering India’s demand for the United Nations to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, the mastermind of the 2001 attack on Parliament and the 2016 attack on Pathankot airbase. 

Though India has, time and again, raised these issues with China, it is clearly not proving sufficient to remove the irritants and convince China to not ignore India’s concerns over a range of issues.

Therefore, India has adopted a bolder strategy to counter China’s moves. Agreeing to host a parliamentary delegation from Taiwan in February 2016 seems to be part of this strategy.

On the issue of the Dalai Lama, China has been aggressive and not just with India. In November 2016, when the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia, China closed its border with Mongolia and imposed fees on import of goods from that country.  

Moreover, it levied additional charges for transit of commodities over the China-Mongolia border, especially along China’s northern region of Inner Mongolia. It compelled Mongolia to seek an apology from China and assure China of never inviting the Dalai Lama again.

The Dalai Lama’s Arunachal visit is not likely to derail the India-China relationship but it is enough to signal to the Chinese that India is also willing to flash the Tibet/Taiwan card should the need arise.

However, this will be not be a major factor in India-China relations in the longer run given that India will not compromise on India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the context of Arunachal Pradesh.

Though the situation is not comfortable for both the Asian giants, it signals strongly that it is in the best interests of both countries that China starts showing some sensitivity to India’s concerns while India looks for more opportunities to proactively engage China, rather than go for a confrontation.

Sana Hashmi is a research scholar at Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Sana Hashmi