The ongoing visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, his seventh, has evoked strong reactions from Beijing. Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India, and New Delhi has never prevented the country’s “longest staying guest”, as the Dalai Lama describes himself, from visiting any part of its territory. Tawang, which he is visiting for the fifth time, is home to the world’s second largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. As the spiritual leader of the community, the Dalai Lama has every right to visit and preach at Tawang. New Delhi could not have stopped the visit, as Beijing appears to suggest it should have done. Suggesting that New Delhi staged this visit in order to use the “Dalai Lama card” against China, gives little credit to his intelligence and wisdom, and the evolution of his own position on Tibet and China over the decades of his exile.
China has said that the visit has “severely damaged peace and stability in the region” and “hurt bilateral relations”. On his earlier visits too, Beijing objected, but the escalation in the rhetoric this time, with warnings from other quarters of retaliation in Kashmir, and a letter from ULFA’s Paresh Barua asking him not to damage India-China relations “from Assam’s soil”, show how much has changed between the two countries since 2009, the last time the Dalai Lama visited Tawang. Beijing’s steady outreach to India’s neighbours on all fronts, the Belt and Road initiative, India’s own energy interests in the South China Sea, its desire to join the NSG, its strategic and economic ambitions, show how the core interests of both countries have expanded. The Trump presidency has introduced new variables. But instead of discussing a new modus vivendi, as befits two big neighbours with global aspirations, India has been content to view ties with Beijing through a narrow security prism, reducing it to Masood Azhar and China’s ties with Pakistan.
The angry rebuke from Beijing has shown that communication between the two sides is in serious neglect. China has said before that the boundary issue was a “leftover of history, and it cannot be resolved overnight”. That is absolutely right. The way forward from the Dalai Lama’s visit is for both sides to ensure that the tensions are not ratcheted up, and find ways to talk with each other more. February’s strategic dialogue came after a long hiatus, and did little to address the gap in engagement. Both countries have too much at stake to needle each other to the point of destabilising the entire region.