This is the question that’s being asked after a news report last week said that Indian government had asked officials and leaders not to attend functions planned by the Tibetan government in exile in India to mark the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
More so since it’s almost exactly a year since the Indian government seemed to mount a stout defence on why it should let the Tibetan spiritual leader visit Arunachal Pradesh despite several warnings from China. It included India’s foreign ministry putting out detailed statements on the Tibetan spiritual leader’s previous visits to the state.
And during that visit, the Dalai Lama was seen with India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju as well as state officials in Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost entirely claimed by China as part of its territory.
The foreign secretary’s missive seemed at variance with the policy adopted when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014—when he had invited the then Prime Minister (now President) of the Tibetan government in exile Lobsang Sangay for his swearing-in—signalling India’s espousal of a more muscular approach towards China.
Analysts are divided over whether to term New Delhi’s seeming change of heart a policy “rethink" or simply as moves aimed at arresting the slide in India-China ties seen since 2015.
Some of them warn that India may be taking the burden of stabilising the relationship without any seeming effort on China’s part.
The ball seems to have been set rolling by Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to Beijing last month.
Gokhale, India’s ambassador to Beijing till recently, met with Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou, and called on foreign minister Wang Yi and state councillor Yang Jiechi.
“During the consultations...both sides agreed upon the need to expedite various dialogue mechanisms in order to promote multifaceted cooperation across diverse fields of India-China engagement. They noted the need to build on the convergences between India and China and address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations," an Indian foreign ministry statement said.
The two sides are now looking at a series of bilateral exchanges including a possible high-level visit from China to India later this year.
According to Srinath Raghavan, an analyst with the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, Gokhale’s visit was aimed at “bringing ties back to the levels they were in 2015."
“An antagonistic relationship with China does not benefit India," Raghavan said.
Since 2015, there has been a downslide, Raghavan said, pointing to India-China frictions over India’s membership of the elite Nuclear Suppliers’ Group that Beijing has opposed and China blocking India’s bid to get Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group chief Maulana Masood Azhar designated a terrorist by the United Nations. There was also a military face-off between India and China at Dokalam in Bhutan that ended after 73 tense days.
On its part, India refused to attend the ambitious China’s Belt and Road Initiative meeting in May. And New Delhi gave its go ahead for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. India has also joined the US, Japan and Australia for quadrilateral talks on peace and security in the Indo-Pacific—a grouping seemingly ranged against China.
“The question is—do you want to keep at this tit for tat that has led to the deterioration in ties or do you want to put the relationship on an even keel," Raghavan said.
“It looks like the government has taken a call that it is time to arrest the downward slide and it seems it is in this context that the foreign secretary’s letter asking officials and leaders to stay away from functions organised by the Tibetan government in exile. Diplomacy is the art of making room for manoeuvre," he said.
“It looks like the government is trying to see how far we can go with the new strategy," Raghavan said.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal sounded a warning. The government’s move showed that “we are taking upon ourselves the burden of reaching out to China. And past record has shown that China hasn’t changed one bit," Sibal said, referring to what is seen in India as efforts by Beijing to thwart India’s rise as a regional power. This includes keeping a bilateral border dispute—a legacy of the 1962 India-China war—unresolved.
“Now that we seem to have made a gesture, we need to see whether China is willing to make some gesture of its own towards us and inject a note a realism" in the border talks, he said.