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Tibet Issue – China’s Spat over Advani remarks; Broader Implications

How is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) evaluating the very recent stand on the Tibet issue, taken by the Indian opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders Mr L.K.Advani and Mr George Fernandez? There is no official statement in this regard from Beijing so far, but from what has been commented upon by the authoritative analysts in the PRC, contours of emerging Chinese perceptions, having implications for future Sino-Indian ties, are becoming visible.

The “Global Times” (in Chinese, an affiliate of the People’s Daily, 1 April 2008) carried an interview with Professor Sun Shihai, a known South Asia expert and Deputy Director of the well-connected Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Colonel Dai Xu of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Setting the background to the interview, the journal pointed to Mr Advani’s reported statement that things have changed as his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, does not accept China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh , that the Indian government’s step of cancelling the meeting of Indian Vice-President with the Dalai Lama is unjustified and that India should not be scared of China. On what Mr Fernandez said, its spotlight was on the leader’s observation that India has sold out to China, description of the Vajpayee Government’s agreement over Tibet as part of China as a “sin” and appeal to India to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Professor Sun, in his response, felt that the two Indian opposition leaders represent the ‘hawkish’ factions in India; irrespective of the question whether their views reflect ‘geo-politics’ or ‘election politics’, their aim is to play the “ Tibet Card”, in consonance with the cry of certain groups in the country about the “so-called suppression of peaceful demonstrations in China”. He then went on to say that such “discordant voices” have exposed the faces of the two as “politicians” and that in any case, they cannot hide the main current of Indian public opinion, which stands in strong condemnation of violence in Tibet and Tibet independence activities.

Both Professor Sun and Colonel Dai Xu of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force have told the Global Times that the Tibet issue will have no impact on Sino-Indian ties. The latter, specifically referring to some Indian press reports alleging that the Chinese troops have been intruding into the Pangong Tso area of Ladakh since January 2008, more than 10 times so far, compared such despatches to “episodes in a novel without any factual basis”. Connecting the press reports to the ‘rightist tendencies’ of certain Indian circles, Col.Dai Xu pointed out that allegations of intrusions had even merited denials of the Indian Defence Ministry in order to make records straight; the Indian Defence and Foreign Ministers had themselves viewed such allegations in the context of the Sino-Indian perceptional differences on the Line of Actual Control.

“Global Times’ is a paper intended to brief the Chinese population about international affairs and it is not surprising that as per the need of the hour, it has made an effort to assure the readers within the country that the public in India is supportive of Beijing’s stand on the Tibet issue; the reality however is that the opposite is true, with all political parties excepting the Left and the media in India, generally remaining critical of Beijing’s high-handedness in Tibet. What is coming out clear is that the views of Chinese scholars are a part of the ongoing urgently required domestic propaganda about happenings in Tibet.

The Chinese criticisms against Mr Advani’s statements seem to mark a trend, which may have implications for future Sino-Indian relations. China, which looks satisfied with India’s handling of Tibet protestors, has reasons to feel uneasy with New Delhi’s failure to share its views that the Dalai Lama is the instigator of Tibet unrest. India’s External Affairs Minister has on the other hand spoken highly of the spiritual eminence of the exiled leader, while in Washington. New Delhi’s appeal for a dialogue between all those involved stands in contrast to Beijing’s conditional dialogue approach. The PRC may also not be happy over India’s willingness to officially discuss Tibet issue, considered purely China’s internal affairs, with the US. Adding to such a situation comes now the attack on the Indian main opposition, which means that the Indian political spectrum, minus the Left, has come to occupy the wrong side of Chinese reckoning about the Tibet issue.

The focus may need a shift to the traditional strategic culture of China and its applicability to the case of ties with India, independent of whichever political party is in power in the latter. China’s current strategy demands maintenance of peace in the world and periphery to suit to its modernisation needs. The PRC has accordingly evolved a path based on its “peaceful development” with a “ win- win” relation internationally. Simultaneously, imperatives relating to national sovereignty have emerged as stronger motivations for Beijing. Taiwan and Tibet are clear cases in this regard. On its part, India, as its economy and global status grows, has come under compulsions to adopt a proactive foreign policy course, aimed at seeking linkages abroad, with an eye on much needed resources for the country’s development. New Delhi’s Look East policy is an example. A competition between China and India for power and influence in this process appears inevitable. To their credit, in the national interests of each, they have been able to make serious efforts to improve bilateral ties, especially in economy and trade.

At the same time, a host of core concerns including the boundary question continue to confront the two nations. The Tibet unrest has added complications to such situation. The Chinese Premier has himself acknowledged that Tibet issue is sensitive one in bilateral ties It can not escape attention of both China and India that the Tibet issue and the Sino-Indian border problem are linked to each other; the Chinese border claim vis-à-vis India is based on their perceived territorial loss as a result of the 1914 British India-Tibet boundary treaty. In the current context, the happenings in Tibet can be seen as having placed China in a rather weaker position at the ongoing border talks. Also, they are expected to lead to some additional burden to China by way of deploying more troops in Tibet, which India may find difficult to ignore. A seemingly disloyal Tibetan population, not conducive to defence operations in Tibet, could become another negative factor for Beijing. Overall, the troubles in Tibet may further strengthen Beijing’s resolve to keep the Sino-Indian border talks prolonged. Stability in Tibet in real sense is expected to elude China for quite some time to come; this coupled with the chances of protracted border negotiations, may cast a shadow on Sino-Indian ties, which are otherwise undergoing a dynamic transformation in the economic field. Beijing may prefer to adopt a line of “ shelving the disputes, while seeking common development” in its border policy vis-à-vis New Delhi, similar to what it is already doing in respect of other cases like the South China Sea islands dispute. A key question will however be whether such a line would be acceptable to India.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India, Email: )

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