October 19, 2005

The Dalai Dilemma

Unless India shores up its governance, it can make no progress against a country like China. This was evident in Wen Jiabao's visit to Bangalore last year. India was on the defensive while China was doing all the prowling. Shame on India and its politicians.
The Dalai Dilemma
Even as India makes concessions on Tibet to China, Beijing shows no signs of reciprocating. It instead adopts an aggressive border strategy and puts off the opening of the Nathula route.

By Saurabh Shukla
KEY TO THE KINGDOM: The Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya. India's reluctance to play the Dalai Lama card has given China an upper hand, limiting India's options.
Pirated CDs from China flooding the Indian markets may be reinventing the "Hindi Chini bhai bhai" slogan but on this side of the Great Wall geopolitical considerations are guiding the turnaround in the India-China relationship. Beneath the bonhomie and engagement, concerns are growing over the manner in which China's aggressive border strategy is threatening Indian strategic interests.
This brings into question the trade-off on Tibet during the Beijing visit of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. Experts feel that India has failed to leverage the Dalai Lama as a diplomatic asset. Hosting the spiritual leader and the Tibetan government in exile had always been a diplomatic advantage for Delhi vis-à-vis Beijing. "The Indian strategy should be to use the Tibetan government in exile as a bargaining chip," says strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney. While South Block maintains that its policy towards the Dalai Lama remains unchanged, the facts point to a different story.
Rather than playing up the Tibet issue, policy makers in Delhi have been extra careful not to hurt Chinese sensitivities-when the Dalai Lama met Manmohan Singh after he took over as prime minister, their pictures were not released. While Delhi may have gone on the back foot on the Dalai Lama, hoping for a rapprochement between him and the Chinese, Beijing has not reciprocated these sensitivities. A recent example is the outburst by the Chinese consul-general in Kolkata on the 1962 war.
Strategically too, China's ambitious plans in Tibet do not augur well for India. The construction of the railway line from Golmud in China's Qinghai province to Lhasa is going on at a fast pace, all-weather roads are coming up near the Indian territory and an oil pipeline is being laid across Tibet. All this gives China strategic advantage in a crisis situation.
Close on the heels of such development activities in Tibet comes Beijing's decision to put off the opening of the trade route through Nathula in Sikkim. The opening up of the pass would have implied an explicit recognition by China that Sikkim is a part of India. The route was scheduled to be opened on October 1 for a one-month trial. While the Sikkim Government had made all preparations for this, China backed out, saying it would be better to open it in the next trading season.
Sources in the Foreign Office insist that there is no hidden agenda, but China watchers believe that Beijing calculates its moves well in advance and may not keep its word. Officially, China has never acknowledged Sikkim as an inalienable part of India, except for changing the colour in its official map. Now putting off border trade through Nathula raises suspicions about its intentions.
India's dialogue on border issues too is mired in problems with the Chinese proving to be tough nuts to crack. According to sources, special interlocutors, who met in Beijing last week to thrash out a framework agreement, failed to make any progress. Beijing wants India to concede on Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls "disputed", and yield some ground in Ladakh, on the area it already controls.

In fact, Beijing's reluctance to exchange maps in the western sector is because of its inability to accommodate Indian claims over the part of the PoK ceded to China. "The problem is that we haven't been able to agree on a line of control, besides our respective claims are way apart. For instance, in eastern sector we claim that the Chinese have taken 90,000 sq km of our territory," explains a source. Now the two nations have postponed the matter till 2007.
China may no longer be dubbed as the enemy No. 1 in war-room briefings in South Block but concerns are rising in some quarters. In an extensive report prepared last year, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had recommended urgent upgrading of infrastructure, including border roads, helipads and hydropower projects, in Arunachal Pradesh to take on the Chinese challenge. However, India's response has been slow. "We are trying to improve the infrastructure on our side but our response has not been quick," admits an official.
On the other hand, China is extensively constructing roads in the border region and even in the areas India claims belong to it. Besides their use in mobilising troops in a war situation, the road and rail links will help China in reinforcing its claims over the contested areas when Delhi and Beijing get to brass tacks of border demarcation. US-based strategic analyst Ashley Tellis, in a recent paper Understanding the Challenges of Nuclear Stability in South Asia, points to the deployment of Chinese CSS-5 missiles for regional targeting. This supports reports that China has deployed ballistic missiles in Tibet. Many analysts believe that even China's strategic ties with Pakistan-which has helped Islamabad in its missile and nuclear programme-aims at encirclement of India.
Another sore point is China's collaboration with Nepal. Sources say Beijing recently opened a letter of credit to sell arms to Kathmandu. This would ease the pressure India is trying to build on Nepal through its arms embargo to restore democracy in that country. Beijing has also embarked on a plan of an auto train link between Kathmandu and Tibet. This coupled with Beijing's turnaround on the support to India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council raises doubts about Beijing's assurances.
A prudent strategy for India will be to use its growing relationship with the US, with Tibet and Taiwan thrown in as force multipliers, to counterbalance China. India must engage with the mindset of a robust power and not that of the vanquished of the 1962 war.

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