By Bhaskar Roy*
India-China relations have broadened over the years with not a single shot fired along the disputed borders since the signing of the Peace and Tranquillity Treaty between the two sides. Military exchanges and other high level visits have become a regular affair. There is convergence of interest in several regional and international affairs.
But there are many sticking points which impinge upon India’s core interests. The latest is the issue of Arunachal Pradesh and its capital Tawang, on India’s border with Tibet, which China claims as its Autonomous Region under China’s sovereignty. India endorsed this position in 2003 when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China.
In an interview with a Beijing based publication recently, Dai Bingguo, a former high ranking diplomat and communist party leader said, “The major reason the boundary question persists is that China’s reasonable requests (for Tawang) have not been met (by India) … if the Indian side takes care of China’s concerns on the eastern section of the border, the Chinese side will respond accordingly and address India’s concerns elsewhere”.
Responding to news from India that the 14th Dalai Lama will be allowed to visit Tawang in March as a pilgrim and the junior minister for Home Affairs of the central government Kiran Rijiju will be there to receive him, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang issued (March 03) a warning to India. Geng said “China is gravely concerned” over this development, holding out the threat that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang will “cause serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations”.
Geng Shuang’s statement is the official position of the Chinese government, which is governed by the communist party of China. How serious is China about this threat? When they challenge India in the words of the foreign ministry, do they say if the Dalai Lama visits Arunachal Pradesh, the agreement of the 1993 Peace and Tranquillity Treaty, the Confidence Building Measures and the 2005 agreement of political modalities for settling the border issue will be torn to bits? In none of these treaties and agreements has the question of the Dalai Lama been mentioned. Gradually the Chinese authorities began protesting against visits of Indian leaders including the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh. That too, in sharp words.
The sharp edge and aggressive posture of the Chinese foreign ministry was quickly toned down the next day by the spokeswoman of the ongoing annual National People’s Congress (NPC), Fu Ying. At a press conference for the NPC Fu specifically addressed India-China relations and how it had broadly expanded over the years in a large number of areas from trade to military and frequent high level exchanges to consensus on regional and international issues. She agreed that while some disputes remain, they have been properly discussed through diplomatic channels. She appealed for more understanding of each other and not let disputes stand in the way of cooperation.
Three statements on India by three different high level Chinese officials in different tones make things very interesting in the context of India-China relations. Nobody in China speaks on such important issues without clearance of every word from a sufficiently high level. Are there two views on India among the Communist Party Central Committee and its politburo? This is very unlikely in foreign policy. Or did the South Asia Division of the Chinese foreign ministry overstep their brief, given their long time close relations with Pakistan? Because, it appears, they have been pulled back. Or, is it the old blow hot, blow cold policy?
Dai Bingguo’s proposal on Tawang is not new. It has been held out before and allowed to cool or taken back like some others on the border issue. Clear parameters have never been stated as to what they will cede in the Western Sector. If India agrees to a discussions do not go China’s way, they can withdraw on the grounds that it was only a thought or an idea, and Dai was not the government’s official representative. If anyone believes that China may be willing to opt for Tawang only and give up its claim over the rest of Arunachal Pradesh, which it now calls South Tibet, is day dreaming on the beaches of Hawaii.
According to the 2005 agreement on political modalities for reserving the border issue between the two countries, no populated areas on either side will be transferred. Tawang has a settled population. Since the signing of this agreement China has been trying to either eliminate or dilute this particular clause by some means or the other. The danger is that if one agreement is tampered with, others will follow. Whatever has been achieved since late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s path breaking visit to China in 1988, late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit in 1993, and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s in 2003, and other confidence building measures, all will begin to unravel. Back to 1962 is not wanted by either of the two countries, or the regional and international actors.
China’s argument that since the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso was born in Tawang, it is close to the hearts and religious sentiments of the Tibetan people, and India should make this concession. According to Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama may be born anywhere but his seat is at the Drepung Monanstery in Lhasa, Tibet. It is a Gelug School of Mahayana Buddhism tradition.
The Tawang monastery, known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery in Tibetan, was founded by Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1680-81 according to the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. It is also the seat of the Karma-Kargyu sect. The Galden monastery had a religious association with the Drepung monastery that is all.
China, simply, does not have any claim on Tawang. Under such specious arguments the Vatican can claim all Roman Catholic countries.
The Global Times (March 6), a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, placed further pressure on the 14th Dalai Lama’s upcoming pilgrimage to Tawang. The commentary by Yu Ning said “These Indian officials apparently didn’t realize, or deliberately ignored, the severe consequences the Dalai Lama’s trip (to Tawang) would bring”. The words are not only misleading but also disparaging about Indian officials. This is a handover from the Maoist era when intemperate language was used against foreign countries and leaders.
The commentary went on to say that “Leveraging the Dalai Lama issue to undermine Beijing’s core interest (emphasis added) risks dragging the two countries into a state of hostility”.
These comments come at a time when the two sessions of the CPPCC and NPC are being held in the capital, Beijing, to have the maximum impact on the large number of deputies gathered. India has not given the Dalai Lama any privilege which was not accorded to him earlier. The only difference is that India used to sweep Chinese attacks under the carpet in the interest of stability and promoting good relations. The Indian people are no longer willing to suffer the Chinese onslaughts. The Dalai Lama is a highly revered spiritual leader.
China appears to be very frustrated with India’s disinclination to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and their “One Road, One Belt” (OBOR) initiative. Persuasive pressure through diplomatic channels and media offensive on India has sharply increased. India has its own foreign policy and economic policy interest, and improving relations with China is one of them. And this is in China’s interest, too.
Raising the temperature at this time is an ill- advised move. India has its own core interests and strategic interests. China is yet to address them positively.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]