Dalai Lama is an excuse: Why China is bullying India and why we must resist its strong-arm tactics

China has started threatening India again over the Dalai Lama. To tell the truth, Beijing's bullying is becoming a little tiring. While it may build roads and pathways over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to extend its commercial-strategic influence, construct relentless military and civil infrastructure in Tibet, allow its Red Army to violate the McMahon Line at will, lay territorial claim over 90000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh, India apparently does not have the liberty to allow a monk to visit the world's second-largest monastery in Tawang.

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Reuters

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Reuters

New Delhi has rightly refused to be a victim of China's strong-arm tactics. The foreign office has maintained that Dalai Lama is free to travel to any part of the country and the NDA government's senior ministers have reiterated that the Tibetan monk's visit is religious and nothing more. There are reports that Union Minister for State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who is from Arunachal, will meet the Tibetan spiritual leader during the week-long visit.

It is important that India gives out a polite but firm message that we will not be intimidated. There is no need for provocative comments but equally, we must not give in to Beijing's blatant blackmail.

This seems to be an attempt by Xi Jinping-led China to gauge the limits of Narendra Modi's resolve and test the durability of India's pressure points. If New Delhi buckles under Chinese pressure and prevents the Dalai Lama from visiting Arunachal Pradesh, this will send an unmistakable message that our border dispute can be held hostage to similar pressure tactics. Whereas ignoring China's threats will send a message that we will honour Beijing's One-China policy as long as it honours our One-India stand.

Note the calibrated way in which China is ramping up the noise. It first pressed Dai Bingguo, a former negotiator on Sino-Indian border talks, to float the idea that China is ready to renegotiate the border dispute with India and may even consider making allowances in Aksai Chin if India is ready to let go of Tawang, which it considers a part of 'South Tibet'. This is a red herring if ever there was one.

When India did not fall into the trap, it issued an angry riposte through its foreign office saying "if India invites Dalai to visit the mentioned territory, it will cause serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations."

When that, too, was met with Manohar Parrikar's defiant response, it took a more threatening posture via the state-run Global Times, warning us of "severe consequences". This is no longer a veiled threat but direct intimidation, seeking to put the onus of its actions on India.

"Indian officials apparently didn't realize, or deliberately ignored, the severe consequences the Dalai Lama's trip would bring. The 14th Dalai Lama is by no means a spiritual leader but a Tibetan separatist. Allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the disputed area will inevitably trigger confrontation, undermine the stability of the region and sour Sino-Indian relations… For a long time, some Indians have considered the Dalai Lama as a strategic asset. For instance, making an issue of the Dalai Lama could serve as a diplomatic tool to deal with China's growing economic and political influence in South Asia. However, they overestimate the political value of the Dalai Lama and his group while miscalculating China's determination to safeguard its core interests."

Why is Beijing bullying India?

China's actions seem to be based on the altered global geopolitical reality that Donald Trump's election to White House has ushered in. If the Trump administration goes for 'deal making' with China with an 'America First' strategy and seeks a solution to the trade imbalance in exchange for a blank cheque to Beijing on its Asia-Pacific hegemony, this may impede India's larger plan to stand up to Chinese domineering.

The new incumbent at White House is adamant that America will no longer play the global cop and will adopt a narrower foreign policy focused on bringing back jobs, a much stricter immigration strategy, minimise US role in universal conflict zones and focus on mutual deals instead of multilateral engagements. In short, a Trump-led America will let go of its exceptionalism and give up the captain's armband of a Uni-polar world.

If America does walk the talk and relinquish all claims to be the world's moral guardian, this alters terminally the global power-sharing calculus. Inescapably, Asia-Pacific too must face up to the reality that the US won't be around to neutralize blatant bullying by a revisionist China.


What does this imply for India? And what does America's 'inward policy' have to do with Beijing's intimidation?

To understand the larger question, we have to analyse the tilt in India's foreign policy that started with a landmark civil nuclear deal with George Bush-led US and gathered momentum under Barack Obama's 'Asia Pivot'. As Narendra Modi-led India grew closer to the US-Japan-Australia axis, the move caused severe consternation in China which pressed its various arms into service to make this threat quite explicit.

In April last year, shortly after India agreed in principle to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US — which makes it possible for militaries of both countries to use each other's bases for logistical repairs and reloading — following the visit of Obama regime defense secretary Ashton Carter, a prominent member of an influential Chinese think tank expressed "alarm".

Hu Shisheng, the Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), told IANS in an interview that this "renewal of defence and technological cooperation (between India and the US) for another 10 years, enhancing the cooperation under the framework of Defence Technology and Trade Initiative… is an alarming signal to China. It is a concern for China."

If that wasn't blatant enough, Hu added helpfully that India must "resist pressure" exerted by the US and Japan. "We also know that the US and Japan, as well as Australia, are very keen on getting India in their camp. They are also exerting pressure… They are also luring India by giving high-technology deals and advanced military weapons. It is up to India whether India can resist this kind of temptation."

We saw similar threats being issued by China when it came to India's Act East Policy. Modi became the first Prime Minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee to visit Vietnam and strengthen ties in areas such as commerce, defence cooperation, security and counter-terrorism. In Modi's move to seal a 'Comprehensive Strategic Partnership' — a status Hanoi has previously accorded to only Moscow and Beijing — China saw further provocation.

No sooner did India promise Vietnam a $500 million line of credit and agreed to transfer shipbuilding technologies, Beijing's Global Times  ran another one of its confrontational op-eds, stating that: "If the Indian government genuinely treats its enhancement of military relations with Vietnam as a strategic arrangement or even revenge against Beijing, it will only create disturbances in the region and China will hardly sit with its arms crossed."

These warnings should not be seen in isolation. China, which frequently uses state media and diplomatic back channels to deliver messages that can't be disseminated through official sources, is clearly telling India to stay true to its historic 'non-aligned' foreign policy instead tilting West or East. The question is, why?

As this writer has argued several times in the past, staying non-aligned is a geostrategic luxury India can no longer afford. India's movement towards a more pro-US foreign policy was a natural counterbalance to increased hostility from China which has been rapidly changing its economic heft into hard military power. The goal? To extend its political, economic and social influence over Asia and restore its 'Middle Kingdom' hegemony.

This project, of Making China Great Again, has gathered unprecedented steam under president Xi Jinping who has sought to rebalance power equations in Asia based on its natural trajectory towards becoming world's largest economy by 2020.

China, it is clear, now reckons that with US in retreat mode and Obama's Asia Pivot up in smoke, it is in a good position to arm-twist India and gather concessions through coercion. Now, more than ever, we should stand up to Chinese bullying. We should not accept the asymmetry in power equation that Beijing is forcing down our throat. Much of this asymmetry is illusory, not real, but actions based on such perceptions may result in tangible changes in power equation. That is an eventuality we cannot afford.

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2017 16:13 PM

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