Why China is more touchy about this visit by the Dalai Lama to Tawang

In a rapidly changing world order, Donald Trump has introduced a mix of unpredictability and truculence.

 |  5-minute read |   06-04-2017
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The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh has upset Beijing. Since this is not the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Arunachal or Tawang, Beijing’s anger could be passed off as diplomatic bluster. But this time around the global environment is markedly different.

Three factors are playing on China’s mind. First, the two-day summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump begins on April 6. Hard talk on trade is inevitable. The summit is being held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, not the White House. While seemingly innocuous, that’s a minor snub: no state dinner, just a walkabout in the sprawling 20-acre property.


In a rapidly changing world order, Trump has introduced a mix of unpredictability and truculence. He has kept China in the dark about how tough he intends to be on trade, currency, North Korea and the South China Sea. The Chinese don’t like uncertainty. Trump unsettles them.

The second cause of Beijing’s touchiness is that Xinjiang, the country’s northwest province which has a large Muslim Uighur population, is simmering. A new Reuters report draws a grim picture of communal tension and Beijing’s nervous, heavy-handed response:

“China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in Xinjiang. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority there of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority and plotting attacks elsewhere in China. A Chinese security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new security measures in Xinjiang were not politically motivated, but based on fresh developments and intelligence. The Communist Party has vowed to continue what it terms a ‘war on terror’ against spreading Islamist extremism. In Xinjiang, this can also be seen at weekly flag-raising ceremonies that Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who once formed the majority in Xinjiang, are required to attend to denounce religious extremism and pledge fealty under the Chinese flag.”

xibd_040617083820.jpg Two-day summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump begins on April 6.

The third reason for China’s anxiety is its slowing economy. The government projects GDP growth in 2016-17 at 6.5 per cent. International estimates place real, non-fudged growth at a slower 5.5 per cent. In 2017-18, a further decline in growth is likely. Dissent is likely to grow as people, lulled for years by rising incomes, feel the pain of an ageing, greying society.

The abandonment of Mao Zedong’s one-child policy, which caused China to age dramatically, shows how seriously Beijing takes disaffection among citizens who have bartered freedom and democracy for prosperity and security.


It is against this grim backdrop that Beijing views the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang. The Dalai Lama sought and received exile in India in 1959. Less well known is that he fled to India via Tawang to set up the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

As Dipanjan Roy Chaudhary wrote in The Economic Times: “The Tawang monastery, known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery in Tibet, was founded by Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1680-81 according to the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. It is also the seat of the Karma-Kargyu sect. The Chinese Communist party has been of the opinion that without controlling Tawang it cannot have legitimacy over Tibet.”

For India, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang presents an opportunity to reset the relationship with China. Significantly, the Dalai Lama’s high-profile trip to Arunachal Pradesh will last for nine days, including two days in Tawang.

An agitated China has continued to issue statements opposing the visit: “China and India are two major developing countries and we are close neighbours,” the foreign ministry said. “It is very important for the two peoples to maintain sound and steady China-India relations. But such a relationship has to be built on certain foundations. Such visits will have deep damage on China-India relations. We have asked India to stick to its political pledges and not to hurt China-India relations. It’ll come down to India to make a choice.”


In the past India has made that choice: sit on the fence. It allows the Dalai Lama freedom to travel anywhere in India but not make political statements. The policy of placating China must now end. Beijing thumbs its nose at India over illegal construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s policy of appeasing China over the Dalai Lama has given India little geopolitical leverage.

Beijing treats India’s objections over the CPEC in PoK with thinly disguised contempt. India should return the compliment over Tawang. There’s no better time to do this. A growing China-Russia-Pakistan axis threatens India’s interests in the region. As a counter, India must develop a strong pole with the US, Japan and Afghanistan.

The Trump-Xi summit in Florida starting today will show how committed the US is to confront China on both trade and Beijing’s bullying of littoral states in the South China Sea. New Delhi must use all the cards it has, including Tibet, to keep China guessing.

Speaking to Beijing in the dulcet tones of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) won’t do. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must take the dragon head-on and reset India’s China policy at a time when Beijing is plagued by Islamist unrest in Xinjiang, a slowing economy and a truculent US President.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)



Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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