July 25, 2021
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Countering China

Even if the foreign secretary's visit to meet the Dalai Lama was not connected with the Chinese decisions announced during Mr Zardari's visit, it is important for India to let China know its indignation

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Countering China

Mrs Nirupama Rao, India's Foreign Secretary, arrived in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh on July 10 and called on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She was reportedly with him for about an hour. His Holiness lives in Dharamsala, where his Tibetan-Government-in-exile is located. Senior advisors of His Holiness, including his Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, were reportedly present during the meeting. According to  local sources, the welfare of the Tibetan exiles living in India and the adequacy of the physical security arrangements for His Holiness were among the subjects discussed.

A representative of the HP state Government had stated on July 9 that Mrs Rao would be visiting Dharamsala on July 10 and 11, but he  did not indicate whether she would be calling on His Holiness. Foreign Secretaries have usually been making a courtesy call on His Holiness during their tenure.  She herself had planned to make a courtesy call on him on two or three occasions after taking over as the FS, but the visits were postponed due to her preoccupation with other work. In fact, it has been reported that  she was to meet His Holiness on July 3 just before Mr Shiv Shankar Menon, the National Security Adviser, left for China as a special envoy of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan  Singh, but her meeting was postponed.

There was thus nothing unusual or secret about her visit and meeting with His Holiness, but there is likely to be speculation connecting her meeting with India's unhappiness over China's ignoring Indian concerns over the implications to India's national security of China's decisions  to help Pakistan in improving its road infrastructure in the Gilgit-Baltistan area and in constructing a railway line to Xinjiang which will pass through Gilgit-Baltistan. These decisions were announced during the just-concluded visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to China.

Gilgit-Baltistan, which is de jure a part of India's Jammu & Kashmir, has been under Pakistan's illegal occupation since 1948. Pakistan had illegally ceded  some of the Indian territory in the area occupied by it to China in the 1960s in return for Chinese assistance in the construction of the Karakoram Highway passing through the territory. This Highway is also being upgraded now with Chinese assistance.

The Chinese have sought to play down Indian concerns over their assistance to Pakistan for improving the infrastructure in the Gilgit-Baltistan area by projecting it  as meant to promote trade between Pakistan and Xinjiang, but it has serious military implications for India. It would enable Pakistan to move its troops and military equipment to these areas across the Line of Control in J&K more rapidly than in the past. It would also enable Chinese troops in Xinjiang to move to this area to assist Pakistan in the event of a military conflict. This would further increase the military threat to the Ladakh and Kargil areas where China claims a large area as Chinese territory. The military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 had broken out in this area after Gen.Pervez Musharraf, the then Chief of the Army Staff under the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had  secretly sent Pakistani troops to the area and occupied some Indian territory in the Kargil sector by taking advantage of the withdrawal of some Indian border posts during winter.

Even if Mrs Rao's visit was not connected with the Chinese decisions announced during Mr Zardari's visit, it is important for the government of India to express openly and strongly its indignation over the Chinese actions in total disregard of India's legitimate concerns. Our policy-makers should also examine what options are available to India to counter the Chinese actions. Upgrading the interactions with His Holiness is one option. Establishing open contacts with the secular Uighur elements of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress (WUC) is another option. 

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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