The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was in Arunachal Pradesh recently, which has greatly ruffled China’s feathers. Any reference to Arunachal Pradesh (‘Southern Tibet’ as China prefers to call it), in context or out of context, has the effect of raising temperatures in Beijing. The prolonged stay of His Holiness in the Tawang Monastery was, hence, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The mild-mannered Dalai Lama spoke with unusual candour during his visit to Arunachal Pradesh, seeming to be at times even obliquely critical of China, something he had previously avoided. All these years, he had displayed remarkable restraint, despite constant Chinese provocations. On this occasion, his statements should, therefore, have come as a surprise to China.
Choice of words
Nothing that the Dalai Lama said during his visit can even be remotely viewed as accusatory of China, but the words he employed — “I’ve long forgiven China’s Communist Government for occupying Tibet”; we support a ‘One China policy’, “all we want is the right to preserve our culture, language and identity”; “the 1.4 billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality (of Tibet)”, “once they know the reality they will be able to judge”, “until now there has been only one-sided, wrong information” — had the effect of a whiplash and was bound to irk China. What should have provoked the Chinese even more is that at one point, reacting to Chinese objections to his Arunachal Pradesh visit, the Dalai Lama said, “I am the messenger of ancient Indian thoughts and values. I thank the Government of India for the support.”
So far, China’s reactions have been on predictable lines, though perhaps more incendiary than in the past. Beijing has issued a series of warnings, viz., that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh would cause “deep damage” to Sino-Indian ties, that New Delhi would need to make ‘a choice’ in its dealings with the Tibetan spiritual leader, that India had breached its commitment on the Tibet issue, taking particular umbrage at the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s statement that the State did not share its borders with China but with Tibet and asking India to stick to its ‘political pledges’ and not hurt China-India relations.
Official démarches were couched in still more intemperate language. Some were in the nature of a threat, that the visit would escalate disputes in the border area, fuel tensions between the two countries, impinge on China’s major concerns and core interests, territory and sovereignty, and thus damage India-China relations. Chinese official media and the Chinese Communist Party, in turn, stepped up pressure on the Chinese government to take action against India. The China Daily observed that “if New Delhi chooses to play dirty… Beijing should not hesitate to answer blows with blows”. Chinese official spokespersons have rounded off this kind of diatribe by affirming that issues concerning Tibet have a bearing on China’s “core interests”.
China’s verbal outbursts on this occasion do not conform to type, even where they relate to the Dalai Lama. For China, a visit by the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, including a sojourn in the Tawang Monastery, one of the holiest of Tibetan Buddhism, is no ordinary matter. As it is, China has certain deep-seated concerns about increasing political instability in areas such as Tibet, apart from the happenings in Xinjiang as well as other security problems. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang at this time could, hence, look like a provocation.
Very recently, China had floated the idea of an Integrated National Security Concept, reflecting the extent of its prevailing insecurities. This has introduced certain ‘redlines’, that China would never compromise its legitimate rights and interests, or sacrifice its “core national interests”. On more than one occasion during the current exchanges, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons had referred to issues concerning Tibet (and Southern Tibet) as having a direct bearing on China’s “core interests”.
Current China-India exchanges, hence, need to be examined from the purview of both international relations as well as the domestic situation prevailing in China. It must not be overlooked that the that Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 occurred soon after China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, in which a large number of Chinese perished, and the Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet and taking sanctuary in India. In 1962, Beijing had masked its intentions skilfully, while India, in the absence of any major overt action by China, was lulled into a false sense of complacency.
We need to ensure that there is no repetition of lack of vigil on our part. In 1959-60, the Dalai Lama had not quite attained the same international stature that he currently enjoys as the most revered symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, China was even then willing to risk a conflict with India, then the undisputed leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, angered by the grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama. The stakes for China are, if anything, greater today, as it seeks to emerge as a global leader. China would like to ensure that its ‘rear’ remains quiescent, rather than troubled, so as to devote its energies to attain its goals.
The Tawang factor
Indian commentators keep referring from time to time to the fact that China had shifted its stand on Tawang. This may be true, but there is little doubt about the centrality of Tawang (the birth place of the sixth Dalai Lama) in China’s scheme of things for this region. During several rounds of discussions on the Sino-Indian border, my counterpart as the Chinese Special Representative for boundary talks, Dai Bingguo, made it amply clear to me that Tawang was non-negotiable. In 2005, China signed an Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question (Dai Bingguo and I were the signatories) which stipulated that areas with settled populations would not be affected in any exchange. Even before the ink was dry, China began to dissimulate as far as Tawang was concerned, even though Tawang is the most ‘Indianised’ place in the entire Northeast. All this leaves little scope for compromise with regard to areas like Tawang.
Understanding the way the Chinese mind works is important. It tends to be eclectic, contextual and relational, leaning towards systemic content and history. Chinese thinking tends to be convoluted and its methodology obtuse. Chinese assertiveness is often rooted in strategic insecurity and a perceived sensitivity to domestic tensions. China constantly flaunts its ‘exceptionalism’ and its ‘uniqueness’. Chinese exceptionalism tends today to be largely historical and revivalist. A combination of Mao’s utopianism and Deng Xiaoping’s realism has left China in a kind of philosophical vacuum. It has led to an excess of nationalism and nationalistic fervour, making China’s objectives clear-cut.
China’s policymakers are cautious by temperament but are known to take risks. They are skilled at morphing the gains favoured by each past civilisation and adjusting these to modern conditions. They prefer attrition to forceful intervention, a protracted campaign to gain a relative advantage.
Currently, China has jettisoned the Guiding Principles laid down by Deng Xiaoping, “coolly observe..., hide your capacities, bide your time”. Buoyed by its military muscle, and with a defence budget of $151.5 billion (2017) which is much larger than that of all other nations with the exception of the U.S., China is no longer willing to remain a status quo power, or play by existing rules governing the international order. India must realise this, and avoid being caught unawares.
The OBOR outlier
As it is, China is constantly seeking ways to isolate India. It is engaged in building advantageous power relations, acquiring bases and strengthening ties with countries across Asia, Africa and beyond. China’s latest One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative signifies its new outreach, extending from the eastern extremity of Asia to Europe — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor represents its most significant strategic aspect — and has the backing of most countries in the region. India is an outlier in this respect, and perhaps the only major Asian nation that has not yet endorsed the concept. If as China anticipates that OBOR has the potential to alter the status quo across the region with most nations accepting a long-term commitment to China, India could find itself friendless in Asia and beyond.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal