Eleven months after the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh led to a steep slide in bilateral ties with China in 2017 and a two-and-half month standoff at Doklam, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s note to skip functions of the Tibetan leadership in exile is a reflection of India’s cautious approach towards Beijing as it embarks on the task of mending fences with its northern neighbour.
The Foreign Secretary’s note to Cabinet Secretary P K Sinha on February 22, came a day before he flew down to Beijing and held talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, and called on Foreign Minister Wang and State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
This was the first bilateral stand-alone visit by the Indian Foreign Secretary after a year then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar had visited Beijing in February last year. Many believe that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh from April 4 to 12 last year had provoked Beijing to take diplomatic and military moves that impacted the relationship adversely through much of 2017. Gokhale was India’s ambassador to Beijing in 2017, and had been consistently dealing with China’s hardening of position on all major issues confronting the two countries.
For Gokhale to take this position of non-participation in events of the Tibetan government-in-exile, New Delhi has a precedent — there was no government-level participation in their “50 years of exile” events in 2009, when they had celebrated the “Thank You India” campaign. In fact, Gokhale was Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs in 2009.
While New Delhi had consistently maintained that the Dalai Lama had travelled six times before and was a revered religious leader, who is deeply respected as such by the Indian people, and no additional colour should be ascribed to his religious and spiritual activities and visits to various states of India, Beijing had reacted sharply and had perceived his visit to Arunachal Pradesh as giving him political and official backing — since Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, as well as Minister of State (Home) Kiren Rijiju, had received him there.
China, which portrays the Dalai Lama as a separatist “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and fumes over India keeping him as an honoured guest, had then cancelled Foreign Minister Wang’s visit to India for a trilateral meeting in April. Beijing had then stopped sharing hydrological data on Brahmaputra from mid-May, which was followed by the standoff in Doklam from mid-June. The border standoff was resolved only in August end, just ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Xiamen in China for the BRICS summit in October.
Though Modi met President Xi Jinping twice during that period — in June during the SCO summit and again in Xiamen during the BRICS summit — and they agreed to “not let differences become disputes”, there was little progress in normalising the strained ties.
Gokhale’s visit to Beijing last month was aimed at laying the roadmap for the coming year, including discussions on visits by respective foreign ministers and other officials.
From New Delhi, three China hands are at work: Gokhale, who has spent a better part of his career dealing with China, having served in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei; Indian envoy Gautam Bambawale who was Joint Secretary (East Asia) from December 2009 to July 2014, and had succeded Gokhale as Joint Secretary as well as Indian ambassador to China; and, Pranay Verma, currently Joint Secretary (East Asia), and the official Chinese translator in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
Sources said that Modi’s scheduled visit to Qingdao in China in June this year for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit is a key marker, and New Delhi is keen to reset the relationship.
At the talks held by the Foreign Secretary, the two sides decided to build on “the convergences between them” and address differences on the basis of “mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations”. The Chinese side said it hoped India would handle sensitive issues “prudently”.
In fact, Gokhale was in Beijing on the day China lifted its objections to grey-listing of Pakistan with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over terror financing, in a major achievement for Delhi.
Last Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on Gokhale’s visit, saying the two sides should enhance strategic mutual trust and accelerate common development in line with the political consensus of the leaders of the two countries.
“We hope that the Indian side will handle sensitive issues prudently and work with China to promote the sound development of China-India relations,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said. Both Wang and Yang had visited New Delhi to kickstart the bilateral dialogue after the 10-week standoff at Doklam.
New Delhi now wants to seize the opportunity to reset the relationship, as President Xi moves to consolidate his power – from collective leadership to single-man rule.
Though differences between New Delhi and Beijing remain on a variety of issues, the two sides have once again agreed to work together, and do not wish to see the Tibetan issue emerging as an irritant again.