Chinese reaction to the Dalai Lama visit to Tawang this time varied in tone and tenor from previous occasions. There are reasons for that
Global Times, one of the most influential media organs in China, carried a provocative editorial on India last week in which it asked the rhetorical question: Is India capable of withstanding a “geopolitical” onslaught from an economically and militarily stronger China?
“With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India’s peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India’s turbulent northern state borders China, if China engages in a geopolitical game with India, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?” it asked mockingly.
The provocation was the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama’s visit was purely religious and spiritual. He has himself clarified that the visit was a routine one like the ones he had undertaken to that state on six earlier occasions. He restricts himself to preaching and sermons most of the time during such visits and occasionally participates in other events. Even in such secular programmes, the Dalai Lama’s discourses are usually on universal wisdom and the greatness of the ancient Indian knowledge systems, etc. He hardly raises political issues, much less the happenings in Tibet or China.
Yet, every time he has visited Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese media has reacted. Even the visits of other Indian leaders have attracted the umbrage of the Chinese. Whether it was President Pratibha Patil’s visit or that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh subsequently, they attracted criticism of varying degrees from the Chinese side. The Indian side also routinely rubbished the criticism as unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of our country.
But there is a difference in the Chinese reaction this time round. It was more aggressive; almost bordering on an open threat. It not only talked about the superior military and economic strength of China, but also issued a veiled warning about the situation in J&K.
One important reason could be the tussle over who the next Dalai Lama would be. The Chinese have already installed their own Panchen Lama, who is regarded as next only to the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is at an advanced age. As per the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, indications about the next Dalai Lama would be left behind by the present one. The 14th Dalai Lama has so far not given any clear indication about the next one. He has fleetingly made statements like “the next Dalai Lama could be a woman” or “the Tibetans have to decide about the future of this institution of Dalai Lama”.
But the Chinese seem to have their own worries about the matter. They seem to especially suspect that the Holiness might choose someone from India, or even from Arunachal Pradesh, as his successor, thus leaving the movement for Tibetan independence with another leader. There were occasional suggestions that China is contemplating declaring the next Dalai Lama, which have been rubbished by the Holiness himself. He has categorically stated that China can’t do another Panchen Lama with the Dalai Lama.
The other reason could be its territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh. Here, it needs to be mentioned that Chinese territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh are of recent origin. During the 1962 war, Chinese troops had annexed half of what used to be called NEFA in those days. Their troops had reached up to Tezpur. New Delhi had almost concluded that Assam fell to them. Nehru infamously delivered a radio address to the people of Assam, bidding farewell to them.
But then the Chinese side announced unilateral ceasefire on November 21, 1962. Surprisingly, they decided to stay put in the areas they had annexed in the western sector in Ladakh, but withdrew to the pre-1962 positions in the eastern sector. Thus, instead of annexing Assam, the Chinese troops vacated all of western Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang. This decision of Mao became controversial in China; many believed that Mao was wrong.
Arunachal Pradesh became disputed in Chinese eyes only after the formal joining of Sikkim in the Indian Union in 1975. The Chinese side started raising the status of Arunachal Pradesh regularly since 1978. They have invented claims as far-fetched and fantastic as the Chinese people having the graves of their forefathers in Arunachal Pradesh and they would wish to have that territory as part of their motherland.
But the Chinese reaction in 2017 is markedly different in tone from previous occasions. I am reminded of the term “Finlandisation”, coined by the German political scientist Richard Lowenthal in 1961. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Finland chose to follow a policy of not standing up to the Soviet Union militarily or economically, even while the country had remained a part of Allied Western Europe. “Finlandisation” has become a pejorative of sorts that entails a gloomy prospect of a future “when West European nations may discover themselves militarily surrounded, economically beleaguered and psychologically isolated, having to draw the consequences”, as Walter Hahn put it.
The Indian response thus far has been on the lines of Finlandisation, a classic example narrated by a senior Indian columnist recently: “In 2009, largely unnoticed by the Indian media, China and India had drifted close to war over the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit to open a hospital in Tawang town. Conflict was averted when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh readily acceded to a request by Premier Wen Jiabao at an APEC meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, to keep the international media out of Tawang and prevent it from giving the visit international significance.”
Probably the Chinese feel that India is coming out of this Finlandisation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and hence, the serious warning.