India-China talks today,Tibet holds key

Delhi and Beijing understand territorial dispute is inextricably intertwined with Tibet question.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi | Published: January 16, 2012 3:28 am

As India and China resume their stalled boundary talks on Monday,a candid political conversation on Tibet and the promotion of economic cooperation across the Indo-Tibetan frontier could help in the better management of their long-running territorial dispute and its eventual resolution.

While there are profound sensitivities on the issue,Delhi and Beijing understand that the territorial dispute is inextricably intertwined with the Tibet question.

Restoring the traditional commercial exchanges and intensifying people-to-people contact between India’s Gangetic plain and Tibet,it stands to reason,could transform the context of the boundary negotiations.

In the last few days,Delhi and Beijing have made some efforts to generate a positive atmosphere for the 15th round of the negotiations on the boundary dispute that began nearly a decade ago but have meandered among a series of diplomatic skirmishes in recent years.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon showed up at the Chinese embassy in Delhi earlier this month to underline the strong commitment of the UPA government to elevate the bilateral relationship with Beijing.

China’s state councillor Dai Bingguo presented himself at the Indian embassy in Beijing and reciprocated the sentiment last week. Menon and Dai are top advisers on foreign policy to the political leadership in Delhi and Beijing and are the Special Representatives for the boundary negotiations.

This diplomatic orchestration appears to have set the stage for a more productive round of negotiations. Menon and Dai are expected to announce the formation of a new mechanism at the ground level to reinforce the political will in both capitals to preserve peace and tranquility.

While many other confidence building measures are on the anvil,there is no issue between India and China that calls for greater mutual understanding than Tibet. Tibet-related issues have for long poisoned the bilateral negotiations on the boundary dispute.

At the end of last November,the 15th round of the negotiations had to be postponed because it coincided with an international conference in Delhi on Buddhism in which the Dalai Lama was participating. The dialogue,rescheduled for this week,was nearly derailed when Beijing denied a visa to an Indian Air Force officer hailing from Arunachal Pradesh. China claims that the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of Tibet and China.

China’s issue of stapled visas to Indian citizens from Jammu & Kashmir and government officials serving in the state saw Delhi suspend military exchanges in 2010. Delhi hinted that if China did not recognise India’s sovereignty over Kashmir,India might have to rethink its support to the proposition that Tibet is part of China.

Despite the challenges it has posed,Beijing and Delhi have found it difficult to talk about Tibet. For China it is an internal issue and Beijing is naturally reluctant to discuss it with a third party. India says the Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of China and it is upto the Chinese and Tibetan leaders to resolve their differences.

But the presence of the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees on Indian soil inevitably brings India into the picture. Barring a small section of Jammu & Kashmir that shares a border with the Xinjiang province,Delhi’s long and contested frontier with Beijing is largely about separating Indian and Chinese sovereignties on the edges of Tibet.

The situation gets more complicated when there is restiveness in Tibet. It is not surprising that the sporadic internal protests in Tibet since 2008 have coincided with political instability in Sino-Indian relations. The direct negotiations between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government have also stalled in this period.

Opening a quiet Sino-Indian conversation on Tibet and expanding positive engagement on the Tibetan frontier,then,makes practical sense for Delhi and Beijing.

There are possibilities at hand to deepen commercial exchanges on the border. The current border trade mechanism at Nathu La between Sikkim and Tibet is under-utilised and the two sides could consider facilitating deepening trade exchanges. Delhi and Beijing should also consider re-opening the old trade route between Kalimpong (West Bengal) and Lhasa (Tibet) through the Jelepla pass and the Chumbi valley.

Linking China’s improved transport infrastructure in Tibet with the rail and road networks on the Indian side could be a bold move. A move in that direction could act as a much needed political spur for the rapid modernisation of infrastructure on the Indian side.

India and China could also consider a coordinated effort to develop the many pilgrimage sites on either side of the Tibetan frontier and provide a big boost to religious tourism.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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