India's recent moves on Tibet have generated a lot of heat and noise in media. In themselves and in context of Sino-Indian relationship, these moves are unexceptionable. Yet if it feels that India has suddenly introduced a tectonic shift in Tibet policy, there's a good reason for it.
One of the fallouts of Narendra Modi's shift from Gujarat to New Delhi is that in tune with other areas of polity, our foreign policy commentary too has become largely politicised. While the policy trajectory under Modi hasn't changed, every South Block move nevertheless is now subject to greater scrutiny and sometimes rather amusing interpretations. Political leanings colour analyses now more than ever before, which in turn interferes with perspective.
While analysing India's recent decision to distance itself from events to mark Tibetan leadership's 60th year of uprising against China, it might be useful to point out that first, strategy is not to be confused with tactics. Second, the relationship between India and Tibetan leadership-in-exile remains unsettled and complicated.
Successive Indian governments have tried to use it as leverage against China while trying to balance the aims and interests of the leadership.
In light of the maneuverability in ties, to suggest that avoiding from appearing at an 'inter-faith prayer' and a 'thank you India' program is tantamount to India letting down The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause is alarmist and misleading.
Third, at some point, India and China need to find a new modus vivendi in bilateral ties. The current anxiety is untenable. It may not lead to another military conflict because both countries have nothing to gain from that eventuality but the state of non-engagement could potentially trigger newer areas of conflict that serves the purpose of neither.
In interpreting the dynamics of a bilateral relationship, it is useful to avoid stripping developments of their context and placing them in medias res. The foreign secretary’s note to the cabinet secretary, urging government officials and leaders to skip the events marking six decades of The Dalai Lama’s exile, wasn't an "unusual departure", nor was it adventurism. Every move at this level, and especially with regard to India's relationship with the Tibetan government-in-exile, is cautiously calibrated.
No, otherwise there wldn't hv been a HHDL visit to Arunachal in 2009 (after problems w/ China like the stapled visa issue earlier that yr) or in 2017. These things don't just happen; they are carefully choreographed. https://t.co/tZlgYVp77B
— Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan) March 7, 2018
Such signalling works both ways. For instance, it has been suggested that The Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang in April last year (an area in Arunachal Pradesh over which China claims sovereignty) had set off intense posturing from Beijing which could have led to the standoff at Doka La.
To recall, China was furious that India had disregarded its "sensitivities" and allowed The Dalai Lama to visit the monastery which taps into Beijing’s insecurities over the question of his successor. The Tibetan spiritual leader has not countered speculation that the 15th incarnation could come from a "free region". Tawang, incidentally, is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.
In lodging a protest with Vijay Gokhale, then India's ambassador in Beijing, China had said that "India in disregard to China's concerns obstinately arranged the Dalai Lama's visit to the disputed part of the eastern part of China-India border, causing serious damage to China's interests and China-India relations."
India's step to allow The Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in turn, could be traced to its frustration over China repeatedly blocking New Delhi's NSG bid and vetoing UN move to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist. It is reasonable, therefore, to deduce that foreign secretary Gokhale did not send the note as a sudden flight of fancy.
India has also been careful to reiterate that its position on The Dalai Lama remains "clear and consistent" and that there has been "no change whatsoever in the Government of India's policy towards the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China."
If that is so, what explains India’s move? Does this not appear as inconsistent? It is here that the difference between strategy and tactics needs to be stressed.
We will see more reports like this. Along the way, let us not mistake the tactical for the strategic. https://t.co/uvK51Th99Q
— Dhruva Jaishankar (@d_jaishankar) March 2, 2018
While India’s overall strategy on the Tibetan issue and bilateral ties with China is based on an aim to reach desired outcomes, the objective is incumbent on tactical manoeuvres such as the one we have recently witnessed.
Clearly, by choosing to stay away from a Tibetan leadership’s event to "thank India" on the 60th anniversary of The Dalai Lama's exile, New Delhi — as it has admitted — was trying not to needle China at "a very sensitive time in the context" of the ties.
Before we come to this "sensitive time" and figure out what it possibly may mean, it must be noted that this move is not synonymous with "rolling over", "kowtowing to" or "bending over backwards to please China" as has been variously argued.
That India was signalling intent to thaw tension with China and reset bilateral ties is obvious. The questions are whether this "intent" is a hopeful arrow in the dark, and whether it will be met with an appropriate reciprocation.
Once again, we need to step back and explore the chain of events that may have led to this denouement. Betraying its "iron brother" and a relationship that is "higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey," China recently made way for global Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place Pakistan on the international terrorism financing "grey list" from where it had been delisted three years ago.
While the motion was moved by the US and its allies, China, which could have blocked the move, chose to remain "neutral" at the FATF plenary in Paris last month.
According to Indrani Bagchi in The Times of India, China's decision to "expose" Pakistan was part of a quid-pro-quo with India where New Delhi would back Beijing for a "top position in the FATF" in exchange for "China's neutrality on Pakistan."
The New York Times reported that "Pakistani officials say China dropped its objection to Islamabad's listing last week as Beijing lobbied for the vice chairmanship of the FATF. Beijing was granted that post on Friday, after the decision to list Pakistan." The report also mentioned that Pakistan was "disappointed" at China's decision.
Soon enough, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs congratulated China on its elevation in FATF, cementing further the notion that a deal was indeed struck.
Congratulations to China on its election as Vice President of Financial Action Task Force at the #FATF plenary mtg. on 23 February 2018. We remain hopeful that China would uphold & support the objectives & standards of FATF in a balanced, objective, impartial & holistic way.
— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) February 25, 2018
In light of this context, let us now see how a careful reset in ties is being planned, with both sides dropping subtle hints that they are ready to deescalate tension, reduce irritants in ties, reengage and let the dialogue mechanisms that have been laid over the years, continue. In fact, reports have already emerged that both countries are thrashing out details of a "series of high-level talks" that could culminate in Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June.
According to another report in The Times of India, representatives of both nations will meet in Hangzhou between 26-30 March to discuss sharing of hydrological data and in 13-15 April, "India and China will hold its strategic and economic dialogue between the NDRC of China and the Niti Aayog of India."
We now see that Gokhale’s note on Tibet was indeed part of a larger reengagement exercise where both sides are trying to move beyond Doka La. To be sure, the underlying realities and dynamics of India-China relationship are not going to change in foreseeable future.
The power differential between both nations will place India at a disadvantage. But even as we acknowledge the power differential we must build our economic and military capabilities to maintain an equilibrium; it should not deter us from trying to engage with China, and such engagements should not be read as pusillanimity.
As Tanvi Madan, fellow and director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution had written in Livemint post Doka La. "even as the standoff reflected the competitive and potentially conflictual dimensions of the China-India relationship, it also showed the importance of continued engagement. Not only does this keep the channels for resolving such situations open, it gives the Chinese some incentive to want to resolve them. The terms of engagement, of course, might need to be reassessed."
To sum up, while the attempt to reset ties with China through tactical tools at disposal is smart and logical, the resetting will only be of lasting consequence as long as India does so from a position of strength, which in turn will depend on India's ability to develop networks, improve economic integration with immediate neighbourhood and remove capacity constraints.
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