New moves of an encircler
Just as China is seeking to extend its annexation of Tibet to India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, it is seeking to extend its containment of India to the Dalai Lama. And to contain the Dalai Lama, it brazenly demands India’s cooperation.
Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, December 4, 2011
As geopolitical rivals, India and China face each other over a highly disputed border. The inviolability of virtually the entire 4,057 km border — one of the longest in the world — has been called into question by China’s increasing cross-frontier military incursions and its calculated refusal to mutually draw a fully agreed line of control along the Himalayas.
The amount of Indian land China occupies or openly covets tops 135,000 square kilometres, or approximately the size of Costa Rica. China currently has unresolved land and sea border disputes with 11 other neighbours. But in comparison with China’s territorial disputes with other neighbours now or even in the past, its land disputes with India stand out for their sheer size and importance.
Beijing’s last-minute postponement of a scheduled round of border talks constitutes no real loss for New Delhi because China has used these 30-year-long negotiations to keep India engaged while blocking any real progress. Even as Beijing has since 2006 provocatively revived its claim to Arunachal Pradesh and concurrently stepped up cross-border forays in all sectors, New Delhi has stayed locked in these fruitless talks.
Let’s be clear: These talks, constituting the longest and the most-barren process between any two nations post-World War II, have only aided the Chinese strategy to mount more military pressure while working to hem in India behind the cover of engagement.
For example, by deploying several thousand troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways, China has clearly signalled its intent to squeeze India on Jammu and Kashmir. The military pressure China has built up on Arunachal may just be tactical. The plain fact is that India’s vulnerability in J&K has been heightened by the new Chinese military encirclement.
To help undermine the Dalai Lama’s role, Beijing is now exerting pressure on India to deny the Tibetan leader any kind of public platform. The recent diplomatic spat, as the Chinese foreign ministry has acknowledged, was not just about the Dalai Lama’s address to a religious conference that overlapped with the now-scrapped talks. Rather, Beijing brashly insists that India not provide him a public platform of “any form.”
Beijing draws encouragement from its success in bringing India’s Tibet stance in full alignment with the Chinese line. In 2003, the aging and ailing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee surrendered India’s last remaining leverage on Tibet when he formally recognized the cartographically dismembered Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” In recent years, even as Beijing has mocked India’s territorial integrity, New Delhi has not sought to subtly add some flexibility to its Tibet stance.
In fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s climbdown in first suspending bilateral defence exchanges and then meekly resuming them has only emboldened Beijing. India froze defence exchanges in response to Beijing’s stapled-visa policy on J&K and its refusal to allow the Northern Command chief to head an Indian military delegation to China. Yet Singh personally delivered a two-in-one concession to Beijing earlier this year, agreeing to resume defence talks by delinking them from the stapled-visa issue and dropping the Northern Command chief as the Indian military team’s leader.
Even in the latest dust-up, where was the need for the Indian President to first agree to inaugurate the international Buddhist conference and then chicken out even after the Chinese had cancelled the scheduled border talks? The Prime Minister too backed out from the conference, where he was to be the “guest of honour.”
Just as Beijing compelled New Delhi to climb down on the defence talks, it is likely to drive a hard bargain on the border talks, even though their indefinite suspension can only help bare the actions of the encircler, which wishes to expand its 1951 Tibet annexation to Arunachal.
China has upped the ante on the Dalai Lama because it recognizes that he remains a major strategic asset for India. By asking New Delhi to go beyond denying him a political platform to denying him even a religious platform, it is seeking to extend its containment of India to the Dalai Lama. And it wants India’s help in this endeavour.
Actually, China has embarked on a larger strategy to cement its rule on an increasingly restive Tibet by bringing Tibetan Buddhism under the tight control of an atheist state. From its capture of the Panchen Lama institution to its decree to control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any senior lama who passes away, Beijing is acting long term. It is also waiting to install its own marionette as the next Dalai Lama when the present incumbent dies. Only India can foil this broader strategy — and it must for the sake of its own interests.
The writer is a strategic analyst.