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China’s Brinkmanship on Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh

Paper No. 6242                               Dated 12-Apr-2017

By Bhaskar Roy

China has periodically raised the issue of Arunachal Pradesh as a disputed territory, and linked it to the resolution of India-China border issue.  It has always protested visits by senior leaders to Arunachal Pradesh, especially to Tawang, where the Galden Namgyal monastery is located. 

When former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited the region, China protested in a shrill tone.  They realised that they had crossed the line and the matter was let to rest when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao met Manmohan Singh at a regional meeting in Thailand.

This time, the Chinese assertion on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, and the disputed nature (according to the Chinese) of Arunachal Pradesh has been hard and much more aggressive than in the past.  This appears to be in line with China’s tough position on territorial issues like the South China Sea where artificial islands have been created and militarized. There has been a barrage of Chinese official media propaganda bolstered by hardening official statements from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Repeated warnings came from the Chinese foreign ministry, saying that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh would seriously damage bilateral relations.  India’s ambassador, Vijay Gokhale was summoned and a sharply worded demarche read out to him.  Beijing warned that it would take “necessary measures” to preserve its territorial sovereignty and legal interests, and added that the visit, “could severely damage peace and stability in the region”, that “India-China relations stand damaged and “tensions fuelled”.  Strong words indeed!

China considers Tibet as one of its ‘core’ interests.  Their talks with the Tibetan government-in-exile has gone into the freezer.  China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping had told the Dalai Lama’s representatives that, “anything under the sun could be discussed, except independence”.

The Dalai Lama moved from the independence demand to genuine autonomy under Chinese sovereignty.  Deng’s successors, however reneged on his assurance and launched a “strike hard” campaign in Tibet, which is still continuing.  Chinese researchers and officials who disagreed with the central government’s Tibet policy and pointed out flaws, were silenced.

The Chinese leaders are in a dilemma where the 14th Dalai Lama is concerned.  The Dalai Lama is over 80 years old now.  One section in China’s officialdom preferred that the Tibet issue be resolved during the Dalai Lama’s life time, since only he could control the anti-China Tibetans.  However, the hardliners scuttled this approach with the view that after the Dalai Lama’s death, the Tibetan movement will become much weaker and wither away.

But there are still trepidations which are related to the 14th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, the 15 Dalai Lama.  The Chinese want to control the 15th Dalai Lama, having changed the religious process to finding the reincarnation.  Their experience with the Chinese controlled 11th Panchen Lama has not succeeded.  He is not accepted by the Tibetan people, while the 11th Panchen Lama recognised by the Dalai Lama has been removed from public view along with his family.  China enacted a law which says all incarnates have to go through their process.  Several high ranking lama “incarnates” have been recognised by the government through this process.  This is, however, not working.

China is highly concerned with the possibility that the 15th Dalai Lama may be discovered in Tawang.  They claim that since the 6th Dalai Lama (1683-1706) was born in Tawang, where the Karmapa monastery is located, the town belongs to Tibet and hence to China.  This is a puerile argument.  The Chinese calculation is that if India is forced to cede Tawang to China, then they will be able to coerce the future 15th Dalai Lama, (who will have been born in Tawang).  To control the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.  China managed to smuggle into India in the year 2000  Ughen Trinley Dorjee (UTD), one of the two claimants to the throne of the 16th Gyalma Karmapa.  The strategy did not work as under the teachings of the Dalai Lama UTD grew up as a pro-Tibet monk and should, in time, ascend the throne as the 17th Karmapa in Rumtek monastery in Sikkim.  A key actor for the Chinese in this strategy was Tai Situ Rimpoche (TSR) one of the regents of the monastery.  Unfortunately India did not revoke the refugee status of TSR although he was working on several projects in Tibet.  A refugee cannot go back to the country from where he claimed to have escaped.  (Once he goes back to his original country he no longer remains a refugee).  The Indian government should review the TSR refugee case without further delay.  To this writer, TSR is a Chinese agent.  The other claimant to the Karmapa throne, Thaye Thinley Dorjee is reported to have rescinded his monkhood.  China has a hard problem on its hand which is of its own making.  China’s great plan on the Tibetan issue is to have their selected monks in the monasteries in the Indo-Himalayan belt.

This 15th Dalai Lama will not fall into China’s lap.  Beijing could have dealt with the present Dalai Lama in a different way with understanding.  Instead, it has branded him as a separatist, abusing him as a “devil”, “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, the “serpent’s head” and many other insults.  The Dalai Lama has withdrawn from politics and is a purely religious person.  But if pushed, he has his personal sentiments about Tibet, his mother land.  Had Deng Xiaoping been alive he would have dealt with the 14th Dalai Lama differently.  In fact, the Chinese leaders have thrown Deng Xiaoping’s vision into the dustbin.  Had it not been for Deng, today’s Chinese leaders would have been wallowing in the mud that Mao Zedong created with his Cultural Revolution.

Most of China’s ethnic minorities have been erased or totally sinicized.  There is resistance to this lethal strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang.  The power of China’s xenophobic policy is so strong that even personal choices which are not anti-China, are not allowed.  This is emphatically soft genocide.

A curious development in connection with the Dalai Lama’s Tawang visit cannot go unmentioned,  Paresh Barua, leader of the break-away militant separatist group of Assam, appealed to the Dalai Lama not to visit Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang (as the Chinese were his friends).  Barua is reported to be living in the Chinese city of Ruili, bordering Myanmar.  He was in Bangladesh for several years, conducting armed militant acts in Assam.  He was involved in procuring  arms from China with help from high leaders of the BNP-

Jamaat coalition government (2001-2006).  He fled Bangladesh when the BNP-Jamaat government fell, and pressure was mounted on these militant groups.  Is China planning to use Barua and his group as a card against India?

The Chinese official media has accused India of using the Dalai Lama as a card to pressure China.  India, however, has maintained a hands-off policy.  It is not in New Delhi’s interest to disturb a relationship with an important neighbour.

Historically and legally, China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh is untenable.  Even if the Chinese representative at the 1914 Simla Agreement curated by the British Colonial government in India did not sign on the Macmohan line between Tibet and India, that is not consequential.  In fact, he did not have any locus standi.

China’s interest in Tawang has little to do with the sentiments of the Tibetans.  But it has everything to do with China’s strategic superiority over India.  With Tawang in their possession they can have quiet access to the Siliguri Chicken-neck, a narrow land corridor which is the only link between the mainland India and North East India.  Beijing for long has fomented trouble by supporting separatist organisations like the ULFA and the Naga insurgents like NSCN (I/M) in India’s North-East.

Shortly before China’s outburst on Arunachal Pradesh, it signalled that it was willing to consider concessions to India in the Western Sector if India made concessions in the Eastern Sector.  This is old wine but not even in a new bottle.  This has been gone over before, and India has never received any clarification.  The Chinese have even declined to exchange respective maps of the Western and Eastern sectors.

It appears China’s recent position could be linked with their internal politics.  As some experts say the battle for Zhongnanhai is not yet over”.  It is apparent that President Xi Jinping today is more powerful than even Mao Zedong was.  He controls the state, the communist party, and the army.  He is now designated as the “core” of the 5th generation leadership, after eliminating most of his opponents.  The responsibility on him is even greater now.  But he still has some members in the party politburo standing committee who are linked to his predecessor Jiang Zemin.

Xi plans to establish himself even more firmly at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party, to be held later this year, when questionable colleagues will retire.  He has taken assertive and belligerent positions on the South China Sea and East China Sea confronting a series of countries starting from Japan and ending with the USA.  Hong Kong is another festering issue where he was almost led into a trap by some of his colleagues.

It may be that some of these incidents have been foisted upon him.  When Xi visited India in 2014, an hour before dinner with Prime Minister Modi news came that Chinese soldiers had entered Indian areas in Ladakh.  This hugely embarrassed him.  At that time there were several top ranking PLA officers who were Jiang Zemin’s protégés.  Since then, of course, the PLA has been generally cleansed.  President Xi, a princeling, is very ambitious, but personally clean.

He has raised himself to a precarious high, trying to take China to its historical glory.  To remain there, he cannot afford to back down.  Unfortunately for him, he had to go soft with US President Donald Trump.  Has he slipped a little?  That is the way that highly secret Chinese politics works.  In the meanwhile, China has brought down its relations with India a notch or two.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail