India's shifting stance on Tibet indicative of New Delhi's desire for thaw in tensions with China

Caution seems to be writ large on the government's recent actions, as the senior-most bureaucrat in the country has directed senior political leaders and government functionaries not to participate in Tibet-related activities.

On the face of it, the direction seems to have been motivated by an event in New Delhi by the Tibetan government-in-exile, for which invites had gone out to major dignitaries and officials. The venue of one of the two events commemorating Dalai Lama's 60th year in exile has since been shifted from New Delhi to Dharamsala by the Tibetan government.

Tibet. File image of the Dalai Lama delivering a lecture to followers in Arunachal Pradesh. AFP

File image of the Dalai Lama delivering a lecture to followers in Arunachal Pradesh. AFP

Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha's directive, in turn, was based on a request from Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, just prior to his visit to Beijing. While that was probably the immediate motivation, there is clearly far more to this first visit by the top diplomat to a country where he had served as ambassador. Subtle or not so subtle 'signalling' is an important part of diplomacy, and world capitals are usually adept at interpreting the signs in such actions which may indicate a sign of friendship, a thaw after a period of tension or a freeze.

In this case, it seems to be more indicative of New Delhi's desire for a thaw, after a long period of relative tensions with China, with the most recent instance of this being Beijing's shrillness on the Maldives situation. While China is not known for delicate diplomacy, its virtual warning to India – even if delivered through a prominent daily – against unilateral armed intervention was likely to have startled China watchers, not for its language, but for its outright interference in a region that has long been seen as India's backyard.

Added to this have been continuous reports of a very significant Chinese presence in the archipelago, to possibly include a future military base. Such developments when taken together with President Abdulla Yameen's needless and incendiary rhetoric, makes for a situation that could escalate to very serious proportions. There is clearly a need for dialogue, not with threats and use of the "Tibet card" – at least not yet – but with cool heads and clear objectives.

There's likely to be another reason behind the foreign secretary's caution. This is likely to be his first meeting with President Xi Jinping, who's term now seems likely to outlast both his own and the government he serves. The ever-smiling Xi is now a different man – for better or for worse. His elevation to a virtual president for life could, on the one hand, contribute towards making him more secure, and thus better positioned to deliver on key areas.

However, it is equally likely that he may feel the need to ward off threats from those who will find his elevation extremely irksome, to say the least. In this case, the president and his team would want to project a more hardline stance than before. This critical evaluation is likely to have been made by Indian intelligence agencies before the visit of the foreign secretary. A positive outlook would make all the difference in terms of regional dynamics.

Meanwhile, experts have observed that Beijing has recently hardened its stance on Tibet. At a press conference on the sidelines of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress last October, Zhang Yijiong, vice-minister of the Communist party Central Committees' United Front Work Department, and elevated as a full Central committee member, was heard to deliver a stern warning to foreign officials in meeting the Dalai Lama, which he said would be seen as an "insult to the Chinese people".

He also warned that attempts to present such visits as being in a personal capacity would not be entertained since these visitors were ultimately government representatives. Zhang seems to have done two tenures in Tibet, and his elevation in itself seems to recognise his value to the CCP.

A recognition of Chinese sensitivity on Tibet is apparent elsewhere. In London, a play on Tibetan exiles put together over the last three years by an Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar has been canned by no less than the Royal Court Theatre. The irate playwright claimed that the cancellation was due to pressure from diverse sources.

Within Tibet itself, press reports of oppression and disappearances are common, including that of a monk based in South India who had been visiting his family. None of this matters very much at present. Media reports also include the news of a hike in the Chinese defence budget to almost $175 billion at a time when India's own defence spending is plateauing – to put it kindly. To put it in reverse, its time to talk softly, while searching about for that big stick.

Published Date: Mar 06, 2018 16:21 PM | Updated Date: Mar 06, 2018 16:33 PM

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