India has upped the ante with China by issuing visas to World Uyghur Congress leader Dolkun Isa and three others, and by allowing them to visit India for a conference in Dharamshala — home to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and the capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Conference is slated for the end of the month.
Smarting under China's refusal to sanction Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, who New Delhi blames for the Pathankot terror strike, India has hit back. Though the plan to allow the conference to be held with the Chinese dissidents was taken months before China's refusal in the UN, this could be Prime Minister Narendra Modi's muscular foreign policy in action.
Although much has been made of the new aggressive foreign policy of the NDA government, the Prime Minister's record in external relations so far has been good. He has shown no aggression, and has carried on the UPA policy, albeit with much more vigour and determination.
Is this about to change? Many of his supporters, as well as the larger Sangh parivar, will be delighted. They want India to act as a strong power, notwithstanding the fact that New Delhi lacks both China's economic clout and its defense capabilities.
Many in the Indian establishment have welcomed the government's move.
"China has for a long time got away scot-free – whether it is claiming Arunachal as its own, or the Masood Azhar case, where China twice bailed out Pakistan at the UN. If India continues to take all this then it creates the impression that China is strong, while we (India) swallow everything it throws at us," said former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra.
"I fully support the government's move. I am particularly happy that it has taken place just after the NSA border talks," Chandra said.
He believes that India should not be seen as docile towards China.
"Also the situation in Asia at the moment is such that China cannot afford to be adventurist with India," said Chandra, who was also India's ambassador in Washington. He said that apart from being a political appointee, he did not always go by the rules of the IFS, and would often meet the Dalai Lama publicly during his visits to the US.
Chandra supports the government's stand on Masood Azhar. The fact that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj raised the issue with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also spoke of India's unhappiness to his counterpart Yang Jiechi, substantiates the government's stand on the issue.
China has been battling Uyghur Islamic extremism in the Xinjiang province since the 1990s. Dolkun Isa is regarded as a terrorist by China, and there is an Interpol red-corner notice against him. He has been a German citizen since 2006, and has been in the forefront of the movement for democracy, often speaking out against the human rights abuse by Chinese authorities.
He is the chairman of the World Uyghur Congress. The Uyghurs are the largest Turkic ethnic group living in Xinjiang. Isa has denied the Chinese charges that declare him as a terrorist.
Whether Dolkun Isa eventually comes to India for the conference, or if he sends his colleauges instead is not the point. Beijing is angry with India's move to grant them visas, thereby directly oppsoing the Chinese views.
China will see red. For one, the conference calls for restoration of democracy. And, it will be held in Dharamshala. To make things worse, the Dalai Lama, who China regards as enemy number one, will address the meeting.
"China will not take this lightly. More so because the Dalai Lama is involved and the conference is taking place in Dharamshala," said Alka Acharya, director at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
"This will unnecessarily sour relations at a time when India and China need to build some momentum. Ties between India and China are progressing in fits and starts," Acharya said.
President Pranab Mukherjee is slated to visit China at the end of May. Hopefully, by then the two sides will get over this latest blip. The initial euphoria of improved ties between the two Asian giants, following President Xi Jinping's visit to India and Prime Minister Modi's subsequent return trip to China, will fade quickly and the relations will continue to be lukewarm at best.
The brief border war between India and China – when the PLA troops rolled into Arunachal as an ill prepared Indian army beat a hasty retreat, left a psychological blow on India. Suspicion of China is pervasive in the Indian establishment.
China too regards India's decision to host the Dalai Lama as a provocation. Beijing is also wary of India's warming relations with the US, and the Washington's efforts to draw New Delhi into a future defense architecture of the Asian Pacific region.
The good news is that despite the irritants, both countries are pragmatic enough to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand. As officials on both sides keep pointing out that the border between the two countries continues to be peaceful, not a shot has been fired here.