Dalai Lama in Tawang: Tibetan spiritual leader's visit could test already-strained India-China ties

Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang could escalate India-China tensions as it would look like New Delhi is deliberately seeking a confrontation with Beijing.

Seema Guha March 29, 2017 12:24:21 IST
Dalai Lama in Tawang: Tibetan spiritual leader's visit could test already-strained India-China ties

Considering that India-China ties are going through a rough-patch, allowing Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit Arunachal Pradesh is virtually like waving a red flag before a bull. His visit, starting in Tawang on 4 April, could further escalate tension as it seems like New Delhi is deliberately risking a confrontation with Beijing.

Nay-sayers believe the consequences of a visit at this time could even lead to another border skirmish. But this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal. As recently as November 2009, the Manmohan Singh government had allowed the Tibetan leader, who has made India his home since 1959, to travel to Arunachal.

Despite loud protests from China before his visit, things settled afterwards and soon it was business as usual. China claims the entire state of Arunachal as its own, and says that the monastery town of Tawang is part of South Tibet.

The Dalai Lama, as a young man, had challenged China. His rebellion was put down swiftly and he fled to India and set up a government in exile. Though China has long accepted the one-China policy, Delhi welcomed the Tibetan monk and set him up in Dharamshala, albeit forbidding him from indulging in any political activity.

Dalai Lama in Tawang Tibetan spiritual leaders visit could test alreadystrained IndiaChina ties

File image of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Reuters


The Communist Party of China has always seen the Dalai Lama with suspicion. Though Tibet’s spiritual leader has been asking for more autonomy for Tibetans and not independence, he remains a hated figure for the Communist leadership. China believes that Western powers use the Dalai Lama to embarrass it. They regard him as a "splittist", who is trying to break the one-China policy. So, his every visit to a western capital is condemned in the harshest manner.

China is concerned that the Dalai Lama may declare a monk from Tawang as his successor. Though he has often said that he may be the last Dalai Lama and that the institution will die with him, Beijing does not believe him and thinks this is a strategy to disarm them. Beijing intends to name the next Dalai Lama from mainland China. So, the Tibetan leader’s Tawang visit will be closely monitored by a suspicious Beijing.

The program released by the Dalai Lama’s office, reveals the dates of his travel to Arunachal, starting 4 April: The teachings in Tawang are scheduled from 5 to 7 April; the next stop will be in Dirang on 10 April; then in Bomdila the next day and he will round off the visit with a sermon in Itanagar, the state capital, on 12 April.

Latest salvo on Tawang

Considering the fragile nature of India-China ties at the moment, the visit may set the cat among the pigeons. Despite a long festering border problem, the two Asian giants have left their Special Representatives to deal with the issue and have tried to go ahead with both economic and people to people engagement.

Sixteen rounds of border talks have yielded little results. The latest salvo on the border issue was by a former state councillor and China’s special representative for the boundary talks, when he said that a final settlement could be reached soon if India was ready to give Tawang to the Chinese in exchange for land in the west. This was not acceptable to New Delhi. During the UPA term as well, the Chinese had been pushing for Tawang, despite a former agreement that there would be no exchange of populated areas.

Modi-Xi 'bromance'

Just three years ago, India-China ties seemed poised to take off. President Xi Jinping came calling in November 2014, a few months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. Instead of flying in straight to Delhi, he visited Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Similarly, when Modi travelled to China in 2015, he was received by Xi in the latter’s home province.

But things took a downwards turn with China's investment of $46 billion to build infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India protested against the plan, claiming the area as part of its own. The CPEC has made China-Pakistan relations even better. Since the beginning, China has used Pakistan as part of its strategic doctrine to counter India and now, with economic ties binding them together and talks of Chinese commando’s guarding the strategic assets, China‘s military can finally spread its wings in the region.

Batting for Pakistan, China vetoed India’s ambitions of becoming a member of the Nuclear Supplier Group. At the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) too, Beijing has repeatedly refused to let Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) leader Masood Azhar come under UNSC sanctions. His organisation, JeM, is already a designated terror group. These two issues have dogged India-China ties since the last two years and has become a major irritant for India.

Dalai Lama in Tawang Tibetan spiritual leaders visit could test alreadystrained IndiaChina ties

File image of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

But neither of these issues make a major difference. India already got the sanctions against it lifted in 2008, thanks to the United States. It is now free to go ahead with nuclear commerce and is no longer regarded as a pariah. JeM leader Azhar can always be used by Pakistan’s deep state, whether he is a designated terrorist or not. So why all the fuss?

"I believe India is right in constantly raising these issues, but we need to play this strategically and with more fineness," former foreign secretary Shyam Saran said.

Saran sees this as part of the blow-hot-blow-cold ties between the two Asian neighbours. "In 2009, there was tension over stapled visas, there were intrusions by the PLA deep into Indian Territory in Ladakh, yet this was smoothed out… Frequent meetings between the leaders of India and China may have had no specific outcomes, but the positive ambience tricked down the line and the even keel was restored."

He acknowledges, though, that there is now a significant difference: "That ambience is not readily discernible with both sides upping the ante. The basic problem now is that China no longer hides the fact that it is far ahead of India, that it is the number one economy in the world and is on its way to become the number one global player. China no longer needs to be cautious about its ambitions. Instead, there is a conscious effort at power projection," Saran said.

What this would lead to is uncertain, but Saran believes that India needs to continue to fill in the loopholes in its defence.

Ashok Kantha, India’s former ambassador to China till early 2016, believes that the Dalai Lama visiting Tawang will not make a dent on India-China ties. Asked about the constant chatter of coming closer to the US as a bulwark against China, Kantha said, "India is too big a country to depend on some other nation for our protection. Instead, we need to close the gaps in the border areas and build our defences.”

He said that relations with China are complex, yet both countries have been able to maintain peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There may have been intrusions, but not a single shot has been fired. This is an achievement for two nations that had fought a short border war in 1962. He, however, admits that there are "many discordant notes at the moment.”

Economic ties surging

Kantha stresses the point that despite a rough patch in their ties, Chinese investments in India are growing. Economic engagement as well as people to people contacts are all on the upswing. He said that roughly $70 billion of projects are in the pipeline. Of this, $32 billion are China-linked schemes. He admits that perhaps all of these projects may not finally see the light of day but, as of now, Chinese investments are ready to flow.


During Xi’s visit to India in 2014, a decision was made to co-produce films. Three major films were made of which two, Kungfu Yoga and Buddies in India, were among the four films that did great business during the lunar New Year holidays. So far, India and China have been able to manage their relations in a mature way. Will this change is anyone’s guess.

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