East Asia Forum | When religion and politics mix: the Dalai Lama and India-China ties

When religion and politics mix: the Dalai Lama and India-China ties

The 81-year-old monk’s Tawang monastery visit is likely to be a thorny issue in relations between the two countries, considering their boundary dispute over this district

April 5, 2017 5:40 PM (UTC+8)
Xi Jinping's China is casting a keen eye on Tibet and its spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Photo: Reuters and Wikimedia Commons
Xi Jinping's China is casting a keen eye on Tibet and its spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Photo: Reuters and Wikimedia Commons

Amid loud protest from Beijing, the Dalai Lama is slated to visit Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from April 5 to 7. The visit follows a public meeting with the president of India in December 2016 — the first in some 60 years — and a mid-March address at a major Buddhist conference in the state of Bihar, where the Dalai Lama shared the stage with India’s minister of culture.

Beijing’s vigorous condemnation of the visit presages a fresh round of tensions in the India-China relationship.

The Chinese have been trying to portray Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh as the central issues in the India-China boundary dispute. In doing so, they are trying to repudiate a significant clause of a landmark 2005 bilateral treaty.

The clause states that “settled populations” in each country’s border areas would not be disturbed in the process of reaching a boundary settlement. China considers Tawang part of southern Tibet, but India insists that it is one of 16 administrative districts of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tawang_Monastery_(Tibetan_Buddhist)
Tawang Monastery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Vikramjit Kakati

Tawang, with India’s largest Buddhist monastery and a population of roughly 11,000 at last count, is as “settled” as they come. This Chinese volte-face, related to continued challenges to their legitimacy in Tibet, may be one reason why boundary negotiations have not made real progress in recent years. Self-immolations in Tibetan areas in China continue, with the latest reported in March. Regaining Tawang — the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama — is seen as important to the Chinese government in its battle against the present 14th Dalai Lama.

In 2008, to Beijing’s displeasure, the Dalai Lama acknowledged the legitimacy of the colonial-era McMahon Line between today’s Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Added to this are Chinese worries about whether or not the Dalai Lama will “reincarnate,” that is, find his successor. If he does so in non-Chinese controlled territory, or even not at all as he has sometimes declared, it will likely ensure a continued challenge to Chinese authority in Tibet.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a speech during the Namami Brahmaputra Festival on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, India, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a speech during the Namami Brahmaputra Festival on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, India earliet this month. Photo: Reuters

The Dalai Lama last visited Tawang in November 2009. So the current visit, hosted by yet another Indian central government minister Kiren Rijiju, himself a Buddhist and from Arunachal, is not entirely a novelty.

And yet there are indications that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is trying to sell the Indian public a certain sense of muscularity in its China policy.

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi first signaled a combative approach vis-à-vis China by inviting both the Tibetan Sikyong – the prime minister equivalent of the Central Tibetan Administration – and the Taiwanese representative in New Delhi to his swearing-in in May 2014.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi on Sunday. --Photo/REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

Still, India’s very real lack of economic capacity ensures that a “Tibet card,” if it exists, is an entirely notional one. While India tries to use Buddhist soft power as a diplomatic tool, one need only look at how quickly the Mongolians regretted their welcome of the Dalai Lama in November 2016. That the Indian ambassador to Mongolia met with him should highlight India’s involvement in the visit. Beijing responded by reading Ulaanbaatar the riot act and imposing an economic blockade.

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The original map in the Simla Accord signed in 1914. The line in red is the McMahon line. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When the Mongolian ambassador asked India to raise its voice against China’s unilateral action, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman declared in a media briefing that the ambassador’s comment had been misconstrued. India would commit only to supporting Mongolia through its “monetary crisis,” with a US$1 billion credit line announced during Modi’s visit in May 2015, the spokesman confirmed. Mongolia decided to apologize to China the month after the visit.

There are other contradictions on the Indian side. Well over half of India’s Buddhists are converts from India’s lowest Dalit or “untouchable” castes. These neo-Buddhists, who have adopted a mix of the major Buddhist schools and view religion as a means for political and social emancipation, have little-to-no visibility in India’s Dalai Lama-driven Buddhist showcase and public diplomacy.

Even those Buddhists following Tibetan variants along India’s frontier areas are largely ignored, Kiren Rijiju being one exception, in India’s majoritarian electoral politics.

To return to geopolitics, the Dalai Lama issue foregrounds, among other issues, New Delhi’s increasing engagements with China’s rivals. These include the United States — the previous US ambassador visited Tawang in October 2016 — Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a promising, if also troubled, bilateral economic relationship. The scale of India’s demand for infrastructure development and manufacturing investments can only be met by China.

Many Indians are unhappy at what they perceive as China’s consistently anti-India policies. Examples include China’s continued blocking of attempts at the UN to sanction Pakistani terrorists, and its refusal to support India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Many perceive India’s decision to officially embrace the Dalai Lama as a long overdue response to Chinese unfriendliness.

The real question is whether Indian policymakers are adequately prepared for the next stage of Chinese reactions.

Jabin T. Jacob is Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter at @JabinJacobT.

The article first appeared on East Asia Forum. You can read it here.

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