China summoned the Indian ambassador in Beijing Wednesday and lodged a strong protest as the Dalai Lama began his tour of Arunachal Pradesh. Warning New Delhi that Beijing will take “necessary measures” to preserve its territorial sovereignty and legal interests, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader could “severely damage peace and stability in the region” and “hurt ties” between the two countries.
Sources said Ambassador Vijay Gokhale was called around 4 pm Beijing time and the tone of the Chinese officials was unusually sharp. The Foreign Ministry said India had “obstinately” arranged the visit by the Dalai Lama who reached Bomdila in West Kameng district at the start of his nine-day tour of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Chinese embassy in New Delhi is also expected to issue a demarche to the Ministry of External Affairs on the issue, Chinese diplomats indicated. Government sources in New Delhi said the reaction from Beijing was expected and reiterated that the Dalai Lama was a “revered religious leader” who had visited Arunachal Pradesh on “half a dozen occasions” earlier.
“We have also urged that no political colour be ascribed to his religious and spiritual activities and to his visits to states of India, and no artificial controversy be created around his ongoing visit,” Indian government sources said.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “China will take necessary measures to firmly preserve our own territorial sovereignty and legal interests. We ask India to stop this wrong behaviour. Taking advantage of the Dalai Lama harms China’s national interests. Do not speculate and expand the sensitive issues between two countries, do not purposely harm the negotiation of boundary as well as the foundation of our bilateral relation.”
The spokesperson refused to elaborate on what measures China would take to underscore its dissatisfaction. This was Beijing’s sharpest reaction to the Dalai Lama’s visit, the fourth in under a month. “Tibet-related issues involve China’s core interest. China’s standpoint on this issue is consistent and clear. India does not care about China’s concern and negotiation and has purposely arranged the visit to a disputed area of China-India boundary. India’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to the disputed border region will severely damage peace and stability along border areas and hurt ties between the two countries,” Hua said.
China maintains that parts of Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as Southern Tibet, form part of the mainland and India’s continued engagement with the Dalai Lama, described by the Chinese government as an anti-China separatist, will cause damage to bilateral ties. Hua also rejected Minister of State (Home) Kiren Rijiju’s remarks that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh was “purely religious” and not political.
“Could you tell me honestly… do you seriously believe that Dalai is only a religious leader? I think the answer is known to all. He is not just a religious figure. Therefore, his visit to the place will not be purely of religious purpose. So using empty words to defend this arrangement is not reasonable. We demand the Indian side stop this move of undermining Chinese interests,” Hua said.
China had lodged similar protests in 2009 when the Dalai Lama last visited Arunachal Pradesh. But Wang Dehua, Director, Institute for South and Central Asia Studies in Shanghai, said this visit was different. “China’s reaction this time is stronger simply because the Indian side has given the Dalai Lama higher status. He is being accompanied by a junior minister. Continuing this trend is dangerous for India,” he said.
Despite tensions, Wang said China would stop short of military action. “This is a very serious issue and I think the MFA has made this clear. But in my opinion, China will stop short of using the military as an option and instead choose economic options. Nobody wants a confrontation, but China can use economic factors, which are critical to India,” Wang said.
Hu Shisheng, South Asia expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, concurred: “China can see the big picture here and I do not foresee any military action. The visit of the Dalai Lama is a setback for China-India ties, but I believe the Chinese reaction could be over the border disputes alone.”
He said China could make its dissatisfaction felt by decreasing the border dispute mechanisms. “We could see a reduction in the number of flag meetings between the two armies on the border for example and reduced defence cooperation,” he said. According to Hu, India’s Tibet gambit could even negate the recent talks between the Indian Foreign Secretary and senior Chinese government officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui. “In my opinion, those talks that many believed were successful will be negated. India should not rake up old disputes, whatever the reason may be,” Hu said.
Wang said playing the Tibet card was a “misassessment” of the situation. “India and China can solve their border disputes by dialogue and accommodation alone. Using such pressure tactics, which go against China’s core interests, is in the opposite direction,” Wang said.
While New Delhi doesn’t link the Dalai Lama’s visit to China’s attitude on issues of India’s core concern — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, NSG membership and Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar’s listing — many think it is being used as a leverage on these issues.