Raja Mandala: The odd triangle

The argument over the Dalai Lama is not new. But its gathering intensity could add to the turbulence in Sino-Indian relations.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:December 20, 2016 12:00 am
dalai lama, sino indian relations, china, india, india china, dalai lama presidential palace, beijing, delhi beijing, political exile, bilateral relations, One China policy, indian express opinion, opinion, india news The highest Buddhist spiritual, Dalai Lama. (Source: Reuters)

It was no surprise that China strongly objected to the presence of the Dalai Lama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan a few days ago. In a sharp reaction last week, the spokesman of the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing said “in disregard of China’s solemn representation and strong opposition, the Indian side insisted on arranging for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian Presidential palace”. He added that Beijing is “strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed” to all contact between the Dalai Lama and the Indian authorities.

Delhi’s response was equally predictable. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a respected and revered spiritual leader. It was a non-political event organised by Nobel laureates dedicated to the welfare of children”, the foreign office said. Delhi says it does not allow any political activity by the Dalai Lama in India. China, however, argues the Dalai Lama is a “political exile” who engages in separatist activities “under the cloak of religion”.

This by no means is a new argument between Delhi and Beijing. But there is a gathering intensity to it that could add to the current turbulence in Sino-Indian relations. If Tibet is at the very heart of the Sino-Indian disputation over territorial sovereignty and much else over the last six decades, the Dalai Lama has personally embodied the dynamic tension between the two Asian giants. Born Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama took charge of Tibet’s political affairs after China gained control of the region in 1950, when he was barely 15 years old.

As Communist China became independent India’s new neighbour, Tibet, the traditional cultural bridge between India and China, turned into a zone of contestation. When the young Dalai Lama turned to Delhi in 1950 for support against Chinese occupation, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided not to challenge China’s control over Tibet. This did not help remove Tibet from India’s China agenda.

India’s Tibetan border with China remains in dispute, despite on-again, off-again negotiations over the decades. Delhi and Beijing also differ over the nature of Tibet’s relationship with China. Delhi would like to see Beijing arrive at a political settlement with the Tibetan people and allow the Dalai Lama’s return to China. Beijing sees Delhi as part of the problem ever since the Dalai Lama took took refuge in India after a failed Tibetan uprising against Beijing in 1959. The breakdown of the Dalai Lama’s relations with Beijing in the late 1950s coincided with the escalation of tensions on the disputed Sino-Indian border and an eventual military conflict in 1962.

The normalisation of Sino-Indian relations since the late 1980s saw Delhi and Beijing limit Tibet’s salience for bilateral relations. But Tibet and the Dalai Lama are back in the frame as Sino-Indian relations entered a difficult period since 2008. As China’s power relative to India began to rise rapidly over the last decade, China’s position on the boundary dispute with India has become harder even as Beijing suspended its informal political dialogue with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

China also ended its neutrality in Delhi’s territorial dispute with Islamabad on Kashmir and has tightened its strategic embrace of Pakistan. China’s reluctance to support India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, its active opposition to Delhi’s effort to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and Beijing’s strategic push into the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean have pushed the bilateral ties into an uncertain phase.

Although China’s new economic clout has allowed Beijing to limit international engagement with Tibetan affairs in recent years, it has not been able to render the Dalai Lama irrelevant to the world or undermine his spiritual authority. And it is not just Delhi that has been involved in an argument with Beijing on the Dalai Lama. China’s northern neighbour, Mongolia, in defiance of Beijing’s warning, invited the Dalai Lama to visit and is now facing Chinese economic measures.

At the end of his visit to Mongolia last month, the Dalai Lama announced that the next spiritual leader of Mongolia, the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, considered the third most important lama after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, has been born. The move has angered Beijing, which has long challenged the Dalai Lama’s right to anoint Buddhist reincarnations. Meanwhile Dalai Lama’s own succession will be a problem for China and India. Last year, Beijing denounced the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that he might end his spiritual lineage and not reincarnate. China, however, insists that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate, and on Beijing’s terms.

This week’s exchange between Delhi and Beijing over the Dalai Lama could get a lot worse in the coming months as the US president-elect, Donald Trump, questions Washington’s commitment to the “One China” policy on Taiwan. Trump might also seek an early meeting with the Dalai Lama. Given the current negative dynamic in Sino-Indian relations, Delhi and Beijing can’t afford to let their renewed arguments over the Dalai Lama spin out of control. They need a quiet dialogue on Tibet that seeks to limit and manage their differences in the difficult times ahead.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. A
    Anbu
    Dec 20, 2016 at 1:47 pm
    The Chinese "leadership" is in a fantasy world, thinking that they can become a super power by bullying, threatening and adopting petty tactics to scheme things. Neither south China is their frontyard and the Indian ocean their backyard. Xi Jinping - the so-called "core" leader of China (as he claims to be!) needs to use his brain, atleast a little.
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      Ash
      Dec 20, 2016 at 8:51 pm
      Chinese people are friendly bt not the their government.
      Reply
      1. A
        abhinav
        Dec 25, 2016 at 6:51 am
        china is a bully......... it wants the w world and especially asia to function on its terms and conditions..... the more we allow china to bully us ...the more it will....under modi india is standing up to china and talking in equal terms .....as expected beijing does not like this
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          ajeet
          Dec 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm
          The Chinese hate unpredictability and Modi is good at that. Chanakya versus Sun Tzu
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            Raj
            Dec 20, 2016 at 11:12 am
            Can they please clarify? If one China means Arunachal Pradesh, South China Sea, Uttar Khand, Kashmir too?lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;If the Chinese state that to accept one China means to accept the above (since the above is also considered part of 'their territory') then why does India accept that policy?
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            1. R
              Raj
              Dec 20, 2016 at 3:31 am
              Yes, one China probably also includes South China Sea! It includes Arunachal, Uttar Khand, Kashmir and a w lot of other territories! How can India accept one China if parts of China are disputed?! This is ridiculous by India, no harm revisiting. Issue them stapled visas if needed, but do something that irks.
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              1. S
                shekhar
                Dec 19, 2016 at 9:50 pm
                Chinese govt has become street gunda,land Graber and bully. Their way only.. how many countries is in China ? ie: communist
                Reply
                1. K
                  Kalsang Tsering
                  Dec 20, 2016 at 9:45 am
                  For the readers information and particularly to correct the author, when Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama took charge of Tibet's political affairs on 17 Nov 1950, the PRC is yet to gain control over the region that is ruled by the Lhasa government. It was only after signing the "17-Point Agreement" with the PRC on 23 May 1951 the PRC took control over the region. Well, the other traditional Tibetan areas which were at that point of time not under the rule of the Dalai Lama's government in Lhasa were already took control by the newly formed PRC.
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                    Rock G
                    Dec 19, 2016 at 11:33 pm
                    F the chinese
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                    1. M
                      Manas
                      Dec 20, 2016 at 7:10 am
                      Nehru the great - I will recognise Mao's occupation of Tibet. In return, China need not recognise Arunachal or JandK. China can recognise PoK. Panchsheel and NAM zindabad.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Indian Liberals - We will support Geelani and Burhan Wani to create a caliphate in Kashmir. But, we won't raise our voice against the genocide of Tibetans by Maoists.
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        Subodh
                        Dec 20, 2016 at 6:01 pm
                        Lately, somehow only hear about what "angers" China in most Indian and foreign MSM . Why is it relevant ?? lt;br/gt;China's expansionist plans are sinister. lt;br/gt;Media deliberately makes rest of the world appear meek. Is it reduced to becoming a tool of money bags ? Mr. Rajamohan should do an investigative piece on that.
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                        1. P
                          Paramjit
                          Dec 20, 2016 at 3:32 am
                          Why should India worry about what china says? Thet have blocked your NSG membership and UN resolution on a terrorist. Stand up and show some maturity and tell china ahtever we do in our country it is our problem not yous.
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                          1. K
                            K.P.RAJENDRANATHAN
                            Dec 20, 2016 at 10:51 am
                            There is no purpose in living without honour, be it an individual or a country. Our left wing intellectuls gladly grant China the right to be arrogant and dominant. They insist India to accept this as unavoidable fact of life , or be prepared to miss peace. Patel's letter to Nehru on this matter reveal how foolishly the nation handled the situation that day.Perhaps what Patel could not correct, another Gujarati may live to salvage,, to some extent.
                            Reply
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                              rkannan
                              Dec 20, 2016 at 8:23 am
                              India needs to take a leaf out of China's book and craft the stan policy in the same way. India should derecognise stan and tell all nations to chose between relations with India or with stan. As its is , stan is merely a satellite of China and its only contribution to the world is terrorism. However, India's soft approach on stan has clearly failed and India needs to up the ante.That will be the best way to deal with chinese proxies.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                saligrama
                                Dec 20, 2016 at 2:27 am
                                It's Nehru's policies of recognizing China, handing over permanent seat at UN security council to China that was offered to India by President Eisenhover, giving up Tibet to name a few that proved disaster for India. Nehru's China policies as acknowledged by himself after 1962 war as a disaster. India's options are truly limited
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  Sumo
                                  Dec 21, 2016 at 6:31 am
                                  one of the central argument of the author is the Dalai lama and the Tibet issue being the cause of w tension between India and China. He forget to mentioned the other side of the story that how Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama was used by the Indian government to seek political compromise from the Chinese government. Tibet issue is one of the important political card that Indian government has been using to against China. If today India have been able to stand against China as what Jeff.M Smith mentioned in the FP, tat because of Tibet card. Tibet still continues to play a role of buffer zone between India and China.
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                                    autonomous
                                    Dec 20, 2016 at 8:17 am
                                    China are well prepared to conquer neighbouring country territories , but the previous congress lead gov should have realised it in the beginning itself and should have acted swiftly but congress lethargic way in global politics and hidding facts from public and trying to gain political millage in every aspect is causing the current gov to raise up quick in global but mistakes are being rectified.
                                    Reply
                                    1. S
                                      SP
                                      Dec 20, 2016 at 8:55 am
                                      India should fully support restoration of sovereignty to Tibet and independence for Balochisthan.
                                      Reply
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                                        Vedic_Citizen
                                        Dec 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm
                                        Dragon can spit fire, whip its tail, what xsn old Buddist monk do! lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Chinese fears about Lama are self inflicted and imaginary
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                                        1. S
                                          Srirama
                                          Dec 20, 2016 at 7:10 am
                                          Boycott all Chinese products, encourage local talent and trade. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.
                                          Reply
                                          1. S
                                            Srirama
                                            Dec 20, 2016 at 6:56 am
                                            Mr.Nehru has mismanaged and utterly failed during his 16 years rule . Donated large areas of land in NE while justifying that even gr won't grow there! We lost 1962 war too! Pancha sheel has become a slogan.
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