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Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a cat among the pigeons when he did something that might be considered rather mundane in usual circumstances. He wished Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama publicly on his 86th birthday. In his Twitter message, Modi wrote: “Spoke on phone to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life." But, as this was the first time since 2015 that the Prime Minister was publicly greeting the Dalai Lama on his birthday, it has naturally raised a whole set of questions about India’s China policy at large.

Modi had begun by inviting the former Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, to his oath-taking ceremony in 2014, and had invited the Dalai Lama to Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2017. But once the ‘Wuhan spirit’ emerged after the Doklam crisis, New Delhi considered it prudent to dial back its Tibetan outreach. On the eve of the Wuhan summit in 2018 between the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese president, India pointedly issued a “classified circular advisory advising all Ministries/Departments of Government of India as well as state governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in any commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India."

But much water has flown down the Ganga since then, and now there are reports that the Dalai Lama is expected to meet Modi after the country’s covid situation stabilizes. Last week’s greetings for the Dalai Lama should be juxtaposed with India’s decision not to extend formal wishes to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the celebration of its centenary. It is unlikely that the Chinese leadership will ignore these developments, especially as the Chinese president has marked the CCP’s 100 years by warning that foreign powers will “get their heads bashed" if they attempt to bully or influence the country. Underlining that China maintains an “unshakeable commitment" to unification with Taiwan, Xi had thundered that “no one should underestimate the resolve, the will and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity" and “anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people."

This is a regime that is far less secure than it seems on the surface, and so overt aggression is its preferred disposition. And, as it comes under greater global scrutiny for its conduct in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, it will become even more defensive on Tibet and Taiwan. Tibet is at the very heart of a major Sino-Indian geopolitical fault-line. With border tensions between China and India having escalated, there is a renewed focus on Tibet. Beijing is keen to take control of the post-Dalai Lama era. The regime has repeatedly rejected demands for Tibetan autonomy and made it clear in its official white paper on Tibet in May 2021 that any successor of the Dalai Lama must have its approval. While the rest of the world views the present Dalai Lama as a symbol of the struggle of the Tibetan people for freedom, for China, he is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing." Perturbed by the efficiency of India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), primarily drawn from Tibetan refugees in India, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is also trying its best to recruit more Tibetans in its ranks.

For India, therefore, it is imperative to get its Tibet policy right. There are growing demands in India to take a relook at its ‘One China’ policy. Since 2010, India has not been using this term in its official statements and documents. But as China is refusing to abide by agreements of the past, New Delhi too should start thinking afresh its commitment to the recognition of Tibet as an ‘Autonomous Region of China’. If Beijing is not sensitive to India’s core interests, New Delhi should also signal its resolve to move away from old arrangements. In any case, India’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was contingent upon China’s acceptance of Tibetan autonomy, on which Beijing has reneged completely. Modi has done well to signal that a rethink may be in the offing, but something substantive is needed now.

India’s Tibet policy has put New Delhi in a peculiar position, one with which only China seems satisfied. The younger generation of Tibetans are dissatisfied with India’s incoherent approach, while many in India question the utility of a policy that doesn’t seem reciprocal at all. If India’s position in the past was tied to the hope that such a policy would result in a broader normalization of Sino-Indian ties and an eventual resolution of the border dispute, those hopes have been belied repeatedly by Chinese malevolent behaviour. Deference to China has turned out to be a useless proposition. It is time for New Delhi to follow up Modi’s opening with a policy response that challenges China on its own turf, galvanizes the Tibetan spiritual leadership on the question of succession, and mobilizes global opinion on this issue.

As India recalibrates its China policy post-Galwan, Tibet and Taiwan are two issues that need a serious relook. It is time to acknowledge that the old framework has collapsed along with the breakdown at the border.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London

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