It’s like a slow and tense tango, but with more partners than two. At the centre of the stage, shedding its dormancy all of a sudden, is the Tibet issue. Its reappearance as a factor in Sino-Indian ties has sharpened the focus on a long-pending boundary dispute and reminded countries in the neighbourhood and beyond of the high stakes involved. But the Dalai Lama’s ongoing visit to Arunachal Pradesh and the strong Chinese reaction to it are not just a matter of some extra needle coming into bilateral ties. At a time when the two Asian giants are involved in a game of brinkmanship trying to expand their ambits of influence in South Asia and beyond, all regional players get pulled into the unfolding drama.
Yet, the Sino-Indian race for influence also offers opportunities, and challenges, for the neighbours, offering them tactical leverage to extract better bargains with both India and China to enhance investment opportunities. At the same time, there is also a creeping sense of worry on whether the thickening Sino-Indian rivalry, if left unchecked, could deteriorate into an armed conflict and drag them in, affecting their hard-won growth.
China, like it does elsewhere, has been investing heavily in South Asian countries to push through its One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) Initiative and the New Silk Route project. It has been pouring billions into infrastructure in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh, developing roads, highways, ports, cities and airports in a bid to string up and link important road and sea lanes in these countries with its ambitious projects.
Over the past years, India too has been making significant investments in neighbouring South Asian countries—maybe not on China’s lavish scale, but significantly more than what it had done in the past. In the process, it is these smaller neighbouring nations who are embroiled in a classic scenario of ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’—using the ongoing rivalry between the two aspiring powers to rake in the best deals. This has been the leitmotif in regional politics of late. “It is a reality we have to accept. All our South Asian neighbours are trying to take the best advantage of the situation and make the most of it,” says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
The best example may be seen in Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s April 7-10 visit to India. New Delhi’s ties with Dhaka have been growing steadily; indeed, they have improved after Modi became PM. Now, India wants to showcase this as a model of good neighbourly relations, something from which others in the region could also perhaps learn.
The Bangladesh PM’s India visit is likely to be a success. But Hasina will also have to strike a delicate balance between India and China.
Over 30 agreements and MoUs are likely to be signed during Hasina’s visit and a substantial Line of Credit is likely to be offered by India to boost trade and business ties. But what will be keenly watched by a number of countries, especially China, is the proposed agreement in the area of defence. China and Bangladesh already have a defence pact, under which Beijing has been supplying military hardware, including submarines and other equipment, to Dhaka. India may not end up with a defence agreement, but even an MoU will reflect the growing confidence between the two sides. For Hasina, this will require a delicate diplomatic balance between the two Asian giants.
The Bangladesh PM’s visit, by all indications, is likely to be a great success. But how will it affect, or rather be affected by, the ongoing tension that has suddenly filled the air? And how crucial a role will Dhaka continue to play?
Tibet, one could argue, is an old thorn in India’s relations with China. It had been the nub of the boundary dispute that had driven the two countries to war in 1962; in subsequent years, a series of Indian governments continued to use Tibet as an issue, in an unspoken manner, in their dealing with China. The salience which the Narendra Modi government accords to it could be gleaned from the little-observed fact (which may not have gone unnoticed in Beijing) that among the regional heads of state he invited for his swearing-in in May 2014 was the prime minister of the Tibetan-government-in exile, Lobsang Sangay. Tibet, it was clear, was on the radar as a card.
Diplomatically for India, this has not been a great week. First, there was the African countries’ statement, describing attacks on African students in Greater Noida as “xenophobic” and “racial”. Then, out of the blue, the Donald Trump administration decided to break away from the stated American position on India-Pakistan relations by offering to mediate in bringing the estranged neighbours to the talks-table. Last of all was the escalating tensions with China on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh.
Muddying the waters further, Arunachal Pradesh CM Pema Khandu made some remarks on Wednesday that raised doubts on whether there was a shift in India’s position in accepting Tibet as an autonomous part of China. Arguing that the McMahon Line demarcates the boundary between India and Tibet and not China, Khandu said, “Let me get this straight, China has no business telling us what to do or not to do, because it is not our next-door neighbour.”
Officially, India recognises Tibet as an autonomous part of China. However, since 2010, it had stopped reiterating this position in joint statements with China, perhaps to register its protest on Beijing’s lack of support on issues key to New Delhi. Khandu is an elected political leader in India, but no diplomat. But the ministry of external affairs has so far not come out with any statement to clarify whether his remarks were an off-the-cuff response or indicated a shift in India’s stand on Tibet.
So how should one read the ongoing war of words that is emanating from India and China on the Tibet issue?
Arguably, a reaction from China to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh was not totally unexpected. What was not expected, however, was the strident note in its criticism of the Indian decision to allow the Tibetan spiritual leader to travel to the Northeast state that lies along the unsettled boundary between the two sides—a region that China also claims as its own as ‘south Tibet’.
Since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and took refuge in India, he has visited Arunachal Pradesh several times—the last one being nearly nine years back when the Congress-led UPA government was in power in New Delhi. Therefore, as he too acknowledged, the Chinese reaction to his visit was “normal”. He also clarified that though he was one of the long-standing guests of the country, “India had never used me against China”. An irate China certainly does not subscribe to that placid view. It summoned Indian ambassador Vijay Gokhale in Beijing to register its protest against the Indian move and suggested that India should stop the “wrong action”, “not hype sensitive issues”, that instead “concrete steps” should be taken to safeguard growth in India-China relations.
Though India argued back that “no political colour” should be ascribed to the Dalai Lama’s “religious and spiritual” activities and “artificial controversies should not be created around his ongoing visit to Arunachal Pradesh”, China seemed least interested in climbing back from its position. Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, pointed out that India had “obstinately” gone ahead in preparing the Dalai Lama’s visit to the “disputed part” of the India-China border, causing “serious damage” not only to China’s interest, but also to bilateral ties.
The Chinese media was equally unsparing. “With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India’s peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India’s turbulent northern state borders China, if China engages in a geopolitical game with India, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?” the daily Global Times asked in a comment.
Should India see this as a warning from China?
In the past, the Modi government has shown its ability to moderate its Tibet policy, though keeping it at the centre in its dealing with China. While it had allowed the US ambassador Richard Varma to visit Arunachal Pradesh—the first American envoy to have been accorded that privilege—it has also pulled back on a number of occasions. For instance, though Modi had met the Dalai Lama as chief minister of Gujarat, he has not done so since assuming the premiership. It also cancelled a meeting between the Tibetan spiritual leader and BJP president Amit Shah last year when Modi was to visit Beijing, keeping in mind Chinese sensitivities. It had allowed a conference of Chinese dissidents to be held in Dharamshala some years back, but had cancelled the visas of some prominent dissidents after China protested.
Will India again show the same wise moderation and finesse in its Tibet policy? If so, it could create the right atmosphere for a meaningful dialogue between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi when they meet in Almaty for the SCO Summit in June. The Dalai Lama’s visit won’t be forgotten, but quiet diplomacy in the intervening two months should muffle the early rumbles of a crisis.