New Delhi: In what can be seen as a swift diplomatic balancing act by India, barely a week after Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama wrapped up his controversial visit to the Northeast, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal played host to China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui during a two-day visit to the state, starting April 15.
The Dalai Lama, who began his ten-day visit to the region with Assam on March 31, returned to Dharamshala on April 11 from Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang, a town on the India-China border considered a part of South Tibet by China. The Chinese government lodged a severe protest with the Indian government regarding the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s visit to the “disputed area”.
On April 17, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing, “Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh had a negative impact on India-China ties. India should observe commitment on Tibet-related issues and should not use the Dalai Lama to undermine China’s interests.”
However, during his visit, the Chinese diplomat refused to take any questions from local media on the Tibetan spiritual leader and his visit to Tawang.
Besides travelling to parts of upper Assam, Luo, who was accompanied by his wife, a Xinhua reporter and five members of the Chinese mission in New Delhi, met Sonowal and his predecessor Tarun Gogoi separately in Guwahati.
While Sonowal referred to Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang’s visit to the state and the region to highlight the “age-old ties between China and Assam [which] must be revived to script the future growth story”, Luo urged the state government to “consider setting up ties with Kunming”, the capital city of the Yunnan province, due to their geographical proximity to the state.
“The BJP-led central government is taking keen interest in developing the Northeast region as a major trade hub of Southeast Asia under its Act East Policy. Opening the historic Stilwell Road with the neighbouring country is high on the Centre’s agenda,” Sonowal reportedly said.
While Sonowal is likely to visit Kunming in June to attend a trade summit, Chinese companies might find a place in the global business summit to be held in Guwahati in November.
The state government also expressed a desire to borrow Chinese know-how on “taming the Brahmaputra.”
“Managing the Brahmaputra river is a big concern for the state. It would be benefited by learning from the Chinese how the mighty Hwang Ho river – the second-longest river in Asia – had been turned into a resource from a problem,” Sonowal said.
The Chinese team, apart from visiting the Pobitora wildlife sanctuary near Guwahati, also paid homage at the Second World War cemetery in Lekhapani area of Tinsukia district.
During the Second World War, Chinese general Chiang Kai-shek provided soldiers to the American army to construct the 1,736 km long road from Ledo in Assam to Kunming. The American general Joseph Stilwell oversaw the construction of the Ledo Road which was later renamed as Stilwell Road. Used only once, the road was built to transport supplies and reinforcements to China to fight the invading Japanese army. On the Indian side, the road began in Lekhapani, where many soldiers who fell on duty were buried.
At Lekhapani, the Chinese team was also reportedly greeted by a group of “silent” protesters opposing the construction of dams over the Brahmaputra by China.
In Guwahati, referring to his meeting with the ambassador to reporters on April 17, former chief minister Gogoi mentioned raising the issue of “reports about harbouring” the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-Independent) within its territory. Gogoi said he categorically denied it.
“I had asked the ambassador about reports indicating that ULFA and several other militant outfits were being provided shelter in China but the ambassador denied it and said the reports were untrue. He also said that ULFA (I) chief Paresh Barua had no role in his visit to Assam,” he said.
According to media reports, Barua is believed to be camping on the Mynamar-China border. In 2015, the separatist group reportedly sought China’s “friendship” to help achieve its aim of a “sovereign” Assam. The outfit also strongly opposed the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Assam and warned him not to make any anti-China comment from “the soil of Assam.”
In September, the outfit also issued a press note opposing a growing demand for a ban on the use of Chinese products across the country, saying “China has always been friendly to Assam”.
Gogoi also quoted Luo as saying that the Dalai Lama should not have “meddled in China’s affair with India”.