Central governments come and go in New Delhi but India’s instinctive chariness and reserve on the issue of Tibet still persist, despite an increasingly muscular China upping the ante against it. Tibet’s annexation has affected Indian security like no other development, giving China, for the first time under Han rule, a contiguous border with India, Bhutan and Nepal and facilitating a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis through a common land corridor.
Even as then-independent Tibet’s forcible absorption began just months after the 1949 Communist victory in China, India—despite its British-inherited extra-territorial rights in Tibet—watched silently, even opposing a discussion in the UN general assembly on the aggression. Since then, India has stayed mum on increasing Chinese repression in Tibet. But now, it is allowing itself to come under Chinese pressure on the Dalai Lama’s activities and movements within India.
Consider the recent development when the Dalai Lama attended a public event at Rashtrapati Bhavan and met President Pranab Mukherjee. The government did the right thing by permitting the Dalai Lama to participate in the event, especially since it was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama himself.
But after China protested the Dalai Lama’s presence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, India responded gratuitously rather than disregarding Beijing’s silly gripe, which was couched in imperious terms.
Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” to avoid “any disturbance” to bilateral ties, the Chinese foreign ministry stated, “China has urged India to clearly recognize the Dalai Lama’s anti-Chinese and separatist nature, to respect China’s core interests and concerns, to take effective measures to eliminate the negative influences of the incident, and to avoid disturbing China-India ties,” adding, “Recently in disregard of China’s solemn representation and strong opposition, the Indian side insisted on arranging for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian presidential palace, where he took part in an event and met President Mukherjee.”
The ministry of external affairs responded not to censure China for seeking to interfere in India’s internal affairs or for dictating terms to it; rather, it responded to explain the matter to Beijing, saying, “India has a consistent position. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is a respected and revered spiritual leader. It was a non-political event organized by Nobel laureates dedicated to the welfare of children.”
Where was the need for India to explain apologetically that it was “a non-political event”—that too to a country that has no compunction in blocking UN sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists or in frustrating India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group? The way to deal with China on such an issue is to ignore its protests and keep doing more frequently what it finds objectionable so as to blunt its objections. This approach is necessary in order to send a clear message that China cannot arrogantly lay down terms for India to follow.
Just as China has perfected the art of creeping, covert warfare through which it seeks to take one “slice” of territory at a time, by force, its objections regarding the Dalai Lama have similarly advanced in a crawling form. From objecting to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and a foreign head of state or government, China’s opposition has progressed to protesting his presence at any state-linked event or even his purely spiritual visit to another country, as to Mongolia recently. It has also sought to crimp his freedom within a free India.
Take Mongolia, which has had close links with Tibet ever since the great Mongol king, Altan Khan, converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, the fourth Dalai Lama was born in Mongolia. But when Mongolia in November stood up to China by permitting the Dalai Lama to undertake a four-day religious tour involving no official meeting, Beijing responded as a typical bully by freezing ties and seeking to throttle its economy—dependent on commodity exports to China—by slapping punitive tariffs and shutting a key border crossing point. And it kept up the coercive pressure until Mongolia, battling a recession, agreed not to allow the Dalai Lama in again even for a religious tour.
Far from being vulnerable to Chinese economic blackmail, India is in a position to employ trade as a political instrument against China, given the lopsided nature of bilateral commerce. Fattened by a rapidly growing trade surplus with India that now totals almost $60 billion yearly, China has been busy undermining Indian security, either directly or through its surrogate Pakistan. China’s surplus has actually doubled since Narendra Modi assumed office.
India not only needs to fix the increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship with China but must also reclaim its leverage on the Tibet issue—a leverage it remains very reluctant to exercise. Had China been in India’s place, it is unthinkable that it would have shied away from employing the Tibet card or the trade card.
Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. But China has had no hesitation in playing the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military balancer on the subcontinent through continuing transfers of nuclear-weapon, missile and conventional-weapon technologies.
Way back in 1965, then education minister and soon to be minister of external affairs M.C. Chagla declared, “The conditions under which we recognized China’s suzerainty no longer exist.” Yet today India recognizes Tibet as part of China even as Beijing openly challenges India’s unity and territorial integrity, including by occupying the Aksai Chin plateau and claiming an entire Indian state.
Without India asserting itself by reopening the Tibet issue, China will continue to breathe down its neck and seek to dictate terms. For example, when the Dalai Lama tours Arunachal Pradesh shortly, Beijing will again unleash its diplomatic fury by hectoring India.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.