India Need Not Worry About China's Bluster on Tawang and the Dalai Lama

If the the visit to Arunachal Pradesh by Tibet's spiritual leader is enough reason for China to start a military conflict, then the worst fears about China’s rise would have been proved true and it would pay a lasting price for its misadventure.

China’s policies in Tibet are reprehensible. The destruction of Tibetan patrimony during the cultural revolution was terrible. The suppression of the human rights of Tibetans, the demographic changes being wrought in Tibet through Han migration, the damage being done to the region’s fragile ecology (China’s record of environmental destruction on its own territory legitimises concerns about its activities in Tibet), the increasing militarisation of Tibet when no external threat to China’s control of that territory exists, the water projects being built on the Brahmaputra disregarding lower riparian rights – all of this has a central bearing on not just the Tibetan question but India-China relations too.

The large number of cases of self-immolation by the Tibetans in protest against China’s suppression of the Tibetan community is glossed over by those in our country who are otherwise vociferous on rights issues in India. No distinction is made between the non-violent methods being used by the Tibetans to obtain their rights and the Uighur in East Turkestan, who are resorting to violence against the Chinese authorities and the Han Chinese. The reports coming out of East Turkestan about the suppression of Islamic practices there do not seem to agitate those in India who are critical of the Indian government’s policy of giving the Tibetan leader the right to function across the country in his religious capacity.

China’s spectacular economic growth has given it financial and military sinews that it is aggressively exercising to advance its interests. It has begun to bully and intimidate other countries, with its expansionist tendencies becoming pronounced of late in the East China and South China seas. China defines its core interests arbitrarily and then expects others to respect them even when they clash with the core interests of others. Its policies in our region have been extremely provocative for years, but they have got used to an equation where any resistance to their policies towards us and in our region is seen as a provocation by India.

A regime that accepts no dissent

The Dalai Lama has been in India since 1959. Over 58 years, China has surely assessed objectively the extent of support he receives from India to destabilise Tibet. India has not interfered in direct contacts between his emissaries and China. We have not instigated him to seek independence and have not discouraged him from accepting a genuinely autonomous Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China’s inability to find a solution to the Tibetan question is the political failure of an authoritarian regime that accepts no dissent. China cannot expect others to accept a solution to the Tibetan question that denies a people its political, cultural and religious rights, that relies on military occupation and demographic change, and that goes against our own democratic, pluralist and humanist principles.

Worse, China uses its military occupation of Tibet against the wishes of its people to make demands on Indian territory in the name of the suppressed Tibetans. In recent years it has become more assertive in its claims – calling Arunachal Pradesh South Tibet – and has now begun to specifically claim the Tawang tract as the minimum condition to consider a settlement. Besides violating the 2005 agreement on guidelines and parameters for a political settlement of the boundary question, China, by making the claim to Tawang public through its erstwhile chief negotiator for the boundary question, has bound its own hands and ours for the future. China will not withdraw this claim and we will never accept it. Instead of recognising Chinese chicanery, some Indian commentators are worried by what China might do if we allowed the Dalai Lama to tour Arunachal Pradesh and visit Tawang, as we have done.

The Dalai Lama has visited Arunachal Pradesh six times since 1983, including his visit to Tawang in 2009. Our foreign ministry is right in decrying Chinese attempts to create an artificial controversy around the latest visit. The tone of Chinese statements is unacceptable. It is not India but China that is severely damaging the bilateral relationship by not only making untenable territorial claims on Indian territory, but also its policies south of the Himalayas, especially the building up of the political and military capacity of an inveterately hostile Pakistan against us. Its hubris prevents it from seeing the glaring contradiction between its position on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Arunachal Pradesh. It considers the building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK and the presence of its enterprises and PLA personnel there  as legitimate even though it violates India’s sovereign rights over that territory. It has prevented international financial institutions from funding even minor development projects in Arunachal Pradesh because it claims the territory is disputed, but will not apply its own logic to PoK.

The proposition that we should find a compromise formula with China on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in order to put the issue back into the freezer, or at least ban the international and Indian media, except news agencies, from Tawang during the visit, as we did in 2009, is elevating pusillanimity to diplomatic discretion. Such a step under Chinese pressure would imply acceptance that India does not have full sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh. In any case, what compromise formulas have the Chinese explored on our border differences (they have actually hardened their position in recent years), the CPEC, the persistent opposition to our membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the designation of Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN – even though the last two issues have been raised at the highest levels with the Chinese leadership? We are being asked by our own people to make a compromise over vital bilateral territorial issues of core interest to us when the Chinese are unwilling to compromise over multilateral issues that do not touch their core interests. The Chinese are accusing India of obstinately going ahead with the Dalai Lama’s visit but do not think they are being obdurate in making unrealisable claims on “South Tibet”, pursuing the CPEC and opposing India on the NSG and Masood Azhar issues.

Who will bear the cost?

China would have us believe that if bilateral ties are severely damaged, India alone will bear the cost and not them. It is time that we took a leaf from China’s book and imposed economic costs on the Chinese for their political misconduct in the same way as they have sought to impose costs on Japan, Mongolia and now South Korea over political differences. Our trade deficit with China has reportedly risen to around $60 billion, which means that we are enabling China to build more than one CPEC every year at our expense. In the process, China is destroying our manufacturing sector. Independently of the current controversy, we should better protect our economic interests vis a vis China.

China’s bluster that it will take necessary measures to firmly preserve its territorial integrity and legal interests and summoning us to stop our ‘wrongful’ behaviour need not be taken too seriously. India has no territorial claims on Tibet and we are not yet questioning Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, although we had recognised an autonomous Tibet as part of the PRC and not a militarily occupied Tibet that gives China the right to make additional claims on India. China should be careful in not taking overbearing positions and should conduct itself responsibly. Its call on us not to expand differences over sensitive issues that can harm the foundation of our relations should primarily apply to its own behaviour.

Commentators who are questioning India’s “adventurism” over the Dalai Lama visit and scare-mongering about possible Chinese military action are encouraging China’s psychological warfare. It is a fallacious view that from 2009 to 2015, China believed it had a strong motive for minimising its differences with India. Because the Manmohan Singh government was too timid in dealing with China – remember the then foreign minister calling the Depsang intrusion ‘acne on a beautiful face’  which could be removed by an ointment and who said Beijing was an attractive place to settle down – and Modi tried to initially engage Xi Jinping personally does not mean that China had embarked on any genuine peace process with India. Our membership of BRICS is not courtesy China. We were opposed to the interventions in Libya and Syria independent of China’s position. Our position on multipolarity was concordant during the unipolar phase even with France, not to mention that we have been proponents of multipolarity in Asia too, keeping in mind China’s unipolar ambitions in the Asian region which have now become more open with its OBOR project. Navigation rights in the South China Sea (SCS) are important to us as 40% of our trade passes through these waters. China’s conduct in the SCS has implications for our interests in the Indian Ocean. To argue, as some commentators do, that China’s nine-dash line is justified because of the US threat and imply that China could legitimately teach India and SCS states a lesson for the positions they are taking is an astonishing view. That China was looking to India to avert a US-China potential conflict and that India let China down is an imaginary proposition. That it is now being touted as good reason for China to be belligerent towards India is stupefying.

Prem Shankar Jha believes India is helpless militarily and that China has the option to teach us a lesson just as in 1962 but I have a very different understanding of the size of forces China can meaningfully mobilise on the Tibetan frontier, our capacity of monitoring the movements, the air power at our disposal and the lessons we have learnt from the 1962 debacle to make sure it is not repeated. We are reasonably confident in our ability to neutralise any Chinese military action on the boundary.

We have not had an actual military clash on the border since 1967. In 1987 an actual clash was averted. If the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang is enough reason for China to start a military conflict with India then the worst fears about China’s rise would have been proved true and it would pay a lasting price for its misadventure.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary of India