India must use Dalai Lama's Tawang visit to rattle China

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantNov 07, 2016 | 16:19

India must use Dalai Lama's Tawang visit to rattle China

The Indian government's announcement that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will travel to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in March 2017 has infuriated Beijing. This will not be the Dalai Lama's first visit to Tawang which China claims as its territory. What is different this time is the timing of the announcement.

India and China are locked in a dispute over designating Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. The two countries' NSAs met last week to discuss a way forward on this and the other contentious issue of India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that China has blocked as well.

China's 90-day block in the United Nations on Azhar comes to an end shortly. Beijing knows that being seen on the same side as a designated terrorist in order to protect Pakistan diminishes its international reputation. Beyond a point, such grandstanding becomes counter-productive. Beijing, with superpower ambitions, is keenly aware of this.

Beijing is gradually replacing the United States as Islamabad's principal rent-payer. Credit: Reuters

The Dalai Lama's Arunachal visit therefore comes at an awkward time for the Chinese. Tibet is one of the most sensitive international problems that Beijing wants to put a lid on. It has pressurised global leaders like former British prime minister David Cameron to boycott a meeting with the Dalai Lama by threatening to hold back Chinese investments in the UK.

US President Barack Obama though has shown courage in hosting the Dalai Lama more than once in Washington. Most other world leaders have succumbed to Chinese pressure.

India enraged China in 1959 when it granted asylum to the Dalai Lama who set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, now called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA)). Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's brave decision ended India's entente cordiale with China. Nehru's subsequent aggressive "forward policy" on the India-China border, however, was an unnecessary provocation which led to the 1962 war.

New China policy

It is time to refashion India's China policy. Beijing has a self-centred image as the Middle Kingdom. When Indians were succumbing to rapacious colonial invasions by first the Mughals and then the British, China remained fiercely independent despite the shortlived Japanese invasion of Manchuria. It took the brutal opium wars by the British against nineteenth-century China to colonise tiny Hong Kong in 1842.

Despite its growing economic and military strength, China today has several weaknesses which Indian policymakers can exploit. Tibet is one of the biggest. The Dalai Lama makes no political statements on Indian soil but there is a vibrant community of Free Tibet Chinese activists in India. Give them untrammelled freedom to press their case with seminars and peaceful protests. Global celebrities will join the cause. Many have expressed open support for the Free Tibet movement.

As a democracy, India cannot, and should not, curtail such peaceful demonstrations against China's depredations in Tibet.

Tibet has a long history as an independent nation. In 1950, the People's Republic of China assumed sovereignty over Tibet. It granted the 14th and current Dalai Lama limited autonomy. The Dalai Lama fled to India nine years later, rejecting the sovereignty agreement with China.

An oppressive state

China is a totalitarian and oppressive state. It blocks Facebook, Twitter, Google and other internet sites. Its citizens have few freedoms. Its economy is slowing, its population ageing. Many "wonder towns" built during the boom years are ghost cities with empty buildings and empty roads.

In the northwest province of Xinjiang, China has ruthlessly changed its Muslim-majority demographics over the years by resettling ethnic Hans. Islamist terror attacks - ironically originating in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) - have become common.

The Chinese media, which is strictly censored, not only blocks such news but disallows foreign journalists from independent visits to the province. Newspapers like Global Times and the Xinhua news network are shoddily-produced government mouthpieces.

In many ways China's totalitarian government is akin to Pakistan's. The close links between the two countries are therefore not surprising. With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects, Pakistan has become China's vassal state. Beijing is gradually replacing the United States as Islamabad's principal rent-payer.

Will India's robust stand on Tibet aggravate matters? When China brazenly (and illegally) builds infrastructure in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan for the CPEC despite Indian protests, New Delhi should certainly not worry about upsetting Beijing. The Chinese government has the mindset of a hegemon: stand up to it and it will back down. Appease it and it will climb all over you.

India and China have not exchanged a single bullet along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) since 1987. Beijing does not send terrorists to kill Indians as Pakistan does. But by shielding Pakistani terrorists like Azhar, it is complicit in encouraging terrorism on Indian soil.

The prime minister has embarked on a calibrated policy on China. It is time to ratchet it up. The Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit to Tawang should be widely hailed. The recent visit to Tawang by US ambassador to India Richard Verma was another pointed signal to Beijing.

Free Tibet activists should be allowed to voice their protests around the country in greater numbers even as trade and diplomatic channels with China remain open and robust.

India has good trading links with Taiwan as well. Expand them. Bilateral India-Taiwan trade is now over $6 billion. A visit by Taiwan's first woman prime minister, Tsai ing-Wen, is not untenable despite the lack of official diplomatic relations.

Closer links with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea, all of whom have disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, should form part of India's new China strategy.

Japan especially wants India to be more assertive with China. "We are encouraging India to speak up on issues related to the South China Sea because maritime security is important," says Yuki Tamura, deputy director of Japan foreign ministry's regional policy division which handles the South China Sea.

Those fond of quoting the legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu should remember what he said: "All warfare is based on deception. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

Last updated: November 07, 2016 | 16:19
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