A recent meeting between India’s President Pranab Mukherjee and Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has evoked sharp reactions from China’s state-controlled media, which has urged India to not to use the Dalai Lama as ‘retaliatory card’ against China.

“India should draw some lessons from the recent interactions between Beijing and US President-elect Donald Trump over Taiwan… Trump has met China’s restrained but pertinent countermeasures, and must have understood that China’s bottom line – sovereign integrity and national unity – is untouchable. Even the US would have to think twice before it messes with China on such sensitive problems, so what makes India so confident that it could manage,” an editorial in Global Times newspaper, considered to the stooge of the Chinese Communist Party, reacted to the Dec 11 meeting at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama as a separatist who it says is waging a freedom movement in Tibet against Chinese authorities.

However, for India, Beijing’s concerns about the Dalai Lama presents with enormous opportunities that could be tapped into to resolve some of China’s long standing disputes with India.

1. Gives India diplomatic leverage

“New Delhi has long held the Dalai Lama issue as leverage that it can use against China,” read the Global Times opinion.

  • At least two major separatist movements are brewing in China, which considers its internal cohesion as a major challenge facing the country. The demographic make up of the world’s most populous country comprises of 55 ethic minority groups, which account for 8 percent of its  population.
  • In the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang, the local population is growing increasingly bittern toward Beijing’s rule. Forced disappearances of political dissidents are reportedly common in this part of China, with nearly 450 deaths also reported in the restive region in 2014. In  Tibet, there is growing resentment against Chinese rule too. Over 138 monks having set themselves on fire as symbol of protest against Beijing’s rule since 2009. The resource rich region of Tibet was invaded and annexed by China in 1950. The Dalai Lama is seen as symbol of Tibetan freedom struggle, and has lived in India since 1959 after fleeing persecution at the hands of authorities.
  • The budding superpower has history of civil strife that has shaped its insecure worldview. The Chinese civil ,between 1927 and 1950, for control  of the government left nearly two million people dead. It culminated with the currently ruling Communist Party coming to power.

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  • Any reference to Tibet or Taiwan by other countries, therefore, touches a raw nerve in Beijing.
  • As for India, it could strike a quid pro quo deal in which New Delhi helps Beijing negotiate with the Dalai Lama over Tibet, in return for China’s approval on India’s entry into the NSG and the UN Security Council as a permanent member.

2. Building bridge with Mongolia

  • The Dalai Lama enjoys a good following in the predominantly Buddhist country of Mongolia, China’s northern neighbor. Beijing has long considered Mongolia, where Buddhists make up 53 percent of the population, its own backyard and is also the resources-rich country’s largest trading partner.  The relations between Mongolia ad China got strained when the small country hosted the Dalai Lama in November.
  • After being hit by tariffs on cargo trucks crossing China-Mongolia border as payback for indulging the Tibetan monk, Mongolia turned to India for help and asked it to pursue the Narendra Modi government’s last year’s pledge to extend a $1 billion credit line to the country. There were shrill calls in Chinese media which termed the prospect of India-Mongolia partnership as a “harebrained idea”. This was construed as a sign of increasing unease in Beijing about its smaller neighbours coming together with India to counter China’s ‘bullying ways’. India already has in recent years stepped up its defense cooperation with Vietnam, whose control of some disputed islands in the South China Sea is contested by Beijing.

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  • Mongolia finally crumbled to the Chinese pressure tactics. It stated that it won’t host the Dalai Lama again and respect the One China rule. The landlocked country, however, displayed a brief desire to find common ground with India over One China, an idea that Indian govt may consider pursing in the future.
  • India, under its present government, is already engaging with East Asian countries bordering China, which foreign policy experts view as part of New Delhi’s gameplan to counter China’s increasing economic and military heft in the region. India’s ‘Act East’ policy also enjoys the blessing of the United States, with Washington’s ambassador to India Richard Verma having recently made a trip to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China disputes as its own territory.

3. Make China uneasy about India’s commitment on Tibet

  • US President elect Donald Trump’s recent questioning of the One China Policy, a view that endorses the country of Taiwan as part of China, rattled the Chinese authorities, leave alone the country’s jingoist media.

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  • The Chinese foreign ministry said in response to reports of Trump’s phone conversation with Taiwan’s president that the ‘One China’ principle was the ‘political foundation’ of US-China relations. “We urge the relevant side in the US to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy, abide by the pledges in the three joint China-US communiques, and handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-U.S. relationship.”
  • In case of India, it is the question of Arunachal Pradesh and India sheltering the Dalai Lama that challenges the notion of One China.
  • A recent article in US-based Foreign Policy magazine said that India has been more assertive on issues such as Arunachcal Pradesh and Tibet since 2010, more so since Modi’s ruling BJP came to power in 2014. The Dalai Lama was recently given permission to visit the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in Jan 2017.  China considers the Himalayan state as its own territory and calls it South Tibet, and allowing a ‘separatist’ to travel there was like a double whammy for China.

India’s evolving stand over the years

  • Bharatiya Janata Party MP Subramanian Party notes that two Indian Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Behari Vajpayee, reportedly signed a written document stating India’s consent to the ‘One China’ rule.
  • Swamy believes that India can’t go back on its treaty obligations recognising the One China principle but can press Beijing to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as part of India.
  • The MP had in 2015 called on the Narendra Modi government to overhaul India’s policy toward China in the wake of Beijing opposing India’s bid urging the UN to question Islamabad for not acting against Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, a Pakistan-based terrorist believed to have played a key role in carrying out 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.
  • Swamy said, “If Jawaharlal Nehru hadn’t recognised the One China Policy back in 1954, we might have had more control in our negotiations with Beijing.”
  • However, India’s official position on the One China rule has been more or less vague since 2010. “For India to agree on a one-China policy, China should reaffirm a one-India policy,” India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj reportedly reacted to a question days before President Xi Jingping was scheduled to visit India for his first meeting with Narendra Modi.

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