(In this context, China on Wednesday said that it will lodge a diplomatic protest with India for "obstinately" allowing the Dalai Lama to visit "disputed" Arunachal Pradesh, causing "serious damage" to bilateral ties.)
India and China are having their roughest week in the past year as Beijing threatens to downgrade the bilateral relationship in the wake of the ongoing visit of the Tibetan holy leader, the Dalai Lama, to Arunachal Pradesh.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to the monastery in Tawang has been postponed due to bad weather, but he is still expected to go there. The Chinese are furious that Delhi is allowing the visit because the area – the Chinese claim the region as South Tibet – is disputed and believe India is deliberately violating the status quo by having the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju accompany the Tibetan holy leader on his 12-day visit to Arunachal.
“Arunachal Pradesh is an inseparable part of India and China should not object to his visit and interfere in India’s internal affairs,” Rijiju said, insisting that China should not create an “artificial controversy.”
Clearly though, the Indian government is enjoying China’s open discomfiture.
Picking on China
Delhi has had to bite its tongue twice over the last year. First, when none other than the Chinese President Xi Jinping refused Prime Minister Modi’s request in July 2016 to allow India to accede to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Second, towards the end of 2016, Beijing denied Delhi the comfort of having the UN censure Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar by disapproving sanctions against him.
Delhi is now paying China back in its own coin. Officials point out that “things cannot get worse than they are already.” Delhi has been smarting so long under China’s perceived arrogance that it decided to pick on its Achilles heel – Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
Tackling the Dragon
Interestingly, the Tibetan leader’s visit to Arunachal is coinciding with Xi Jinping’s travels to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida later this week. It is highly unlikely that the Dalai Lama will figure in that conversation, but the world will watch for clues as to how the US has strategically decided to deal with China.
Will Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s business dealings come in the way of a tough approach which Trump had cited earlier, relating to Chinese companies taking away American jobs?
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is said to have had an important meeting with the US Defence Secretary James Mattis in mid-March, where both men discussed the Afghanistan-Pakistan conundrum. Moreover, the Dalai Lama is expected to visit the US later in June.
After a long, long time, a new great game in Asia is afoot wherein the centre of gravity – or contention – is Beijing, with everyone else, including Delhi, being forced to respond to China’s moves.
Tension Simmering on the Border
Allowing the Dalai Lama to go to Arunachal Pradesh is a manifestation of Delhi’s determination to seize the initiative.
China has told India that it remains “resolutely opposed to the visit” and that India should not undertake any action that will further complicate the border issue.
But the truth is that Beijing has resiled from its own 2005 agreement when it agreed upon the two “guiding principles” to help resolve the border issue.
The entire 4,057 km-long border – from Aksai Chin in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east – is disputed between the two countries.
In 2005, the Manmohan Singh government took the initiative to resolve the border again. The guiding principles in effect stated that there would be no exchange of populations and that a future resolution of the border would take into account geographical features such as hills and valleys.
But in a couple of years, as the Chinese became economically stronger, the country believed it could afford not to compromise with India on the border issue. Remember that in 2008, China was the last country to accept the India-US nuclear agreement and its concomitant entry into the NSG.
Watching the trajectory of the China-US relationship will be essential for Indian foreign policy observers – and indeed, all those interested in Indian politics – because that relationship will have a direct impact on India’s unfolding relations with China.
Significantly, Modi will soon meet Xi Jinping himself in June on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan. Started in 2001, the SCO is a China-led organisation and this time around will admit both India and Pakistan as full-fledged members.
Certainly, Modi will have the satisfaction of meeting a leader who seems to be much needled by the Dalai Lama – and who goaded Modi personally last year.
As for the Chinese threat that India should back off otherwise the deteriorating relationship will have an impact on the border issue, Indian officials say the Chinese can only ramp up their strategic relationship with Pakistan in the west in order to make life more troublesome for India.
But India seems to be prepared for that – at least, for the time being. Modi still hasn’t taken a strategic decision to resume talks with Pakistan, despite small ongoing initiatives.
In fact, at the SCO meeting in Astana, Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will also meet. Question is: Is India-Pakistan-China thaw on the cards on the steppes of Kazakhstan?
India, Safe Haven for Tibetan Refugees
As for the Dalai Lama, he is returning to the route he once took exactly 58 years ago, in the sunset of his life. He knows he must make full use of every week and month that is available to him, from pronouncing a future Dalai Lama to securing free and safe spaces for the growing Tibetan refugee community in India.
As he travels to the Tawang monastery where his incarnation, the sixth Dalai Lama, was born, the Dalai Lama is surely hoping that the Modi government will reciprocate by continuing to give the Tibetan refugees all the help that they need.
Also Read: Boxing It In: China’s Approach to India
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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