Dalai Lama caught in Sino-Indian dispute
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - A proposed trip by the Dalai Lama in November to the Indian state
of Arunachal Pradesh, part of which China claims as its territory, has ruffled
feathers in Beijing. The visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader could lead
Sino-Indian relations, already tense over alleged Chinese incursions into
Indian territory, to deteriorate even further in the coming months.
"We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the so-called 'Arunachal Pradesh'," Jiang Yu,
the spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters this week. China
claims around 90,000 square kilometers of territory in India's northeast,
roughly approximating Arunachal Pradesh. It regards the area as "disputed
territory" and refers to it as "Southern Tibet".
With India indicating that it will not buckle to Chinese pressure on the issue
as it has in the past, a war of words and heightened
tension along the nation's frontiers is on the cards. "Arunachal Pradesh is a
part of India and the Dalai Lama is free to go anywhere in India," India's
Minister of External Affairs S M Krishna said on Wednesday.
Arunachal Pradesh is India's eastern-most state. During the 1962 Sino-Indian
border war, China advanced deep into the state, and after briefly occupying it,
withdrew. It has continued to lay claim to the area, expressing this in
increasingly strident language and alleged intrusions in the last couple of
years. It objects to any Indian assertion of sovereignty over Arunachal
India's granting of statehood to Arunachal Pradesh in 1986, which integrated it
more firmly into the Indian Union, sparked violent skirmishes between China and
India at Sumdurong Chu Valley in 1987 and brought the nations to the brink of
another war. More recently, China sought to block India's application for a
US$2.9 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which included
funding for a $60 million water management projects in Arunachal Pradesh,
arguing that it is "disputed territory".
In 2007, an Indian government official from Arunachal was denied a Chinese visa
on the grounds that he was from Chinese territory and therefore didn't need
one. Beijing has protested whenever Indian presidents or prime ministers visit
The entire Sino-Indian frontier is disputed. Besides laying claim to Arunachal,
China occupies some 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin in the
northeastern corner of Jammu and Kashmir, and is holding 5,180 square
kilometers of additional land in Kashmir gifted to it by Pakistan in 1963.
What most angers Beijing is likely that the Dalai Lama will be not just be
visiting Itanagar, the state capital, but Tawang, which is the main bone of
contention between India and China. Indian officials involved in the ongoing
border negotiations with China describe Tawang as "the piece of Indian real
estate that China covets the most in the border dispute".
Tawang is no ordinary "piece of real estate". It nestles in the eastern
Himalayas at an altitude of 3,400 meters. It is home to the 328-year-old Galden
Namgey Lhatse Monastery, Tibetan Buddhism's biggest monastery after the Potala
Palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. This monastery is said to be "a virtual
treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist religion and culture" and is seen by
Tibetans as the repository of perhaps the last remnants of a Tibet which was
later affected by an influx of Han Chinese culture.
It was through Tawang that the Dalai Lama made his escape into India in 1959,
and where he took refuge for about a week in the Galden Namgey Lhatse
Tawang is strategically important. It provides the shortest route from Tibet
into India and connects Tibet with the Brahmaputra Valley in India's northeast.
Indian military officials believe that control over Arunachal - and Tawang in
particular - would enable Chinese forces to militarily overrun the Brahmaputra
Valley and the rest of the northeast. Clearly, memories remain of the 1962
invasion by the Chinese, and the fierce fighting that took place then at
China lays claim to Tawang on behalf of the Tibetans, as a means to win Tibetan
hearts and minds. But the Tibetan exile community here in India is not
impressed. It is not claiming Tawang as Tibetan, let alone Chinese territory.
Although in 2003 the Dalai Lama referred obliquely to Tawang being part of
Tibet, he has acknowledged several times the validity of the McMahon Line as
per the Simla Agreement (under which Tawang is Indian territory) and admitted
more explicitly in 2008 that Arunachal is a part of India.
The Dalai Lama's upcoming visit has prompted officials of his
government-in-exile in India to reiterate - much to Beijing's annoyance -
India's sovereignty over Arunachal.
Indian media has reported increasingly bold Chinese incursions into Indian
territory over the past couple of years. There has been allegations of
incursions not just in Arunachal and Jammu and Kashmir, but also in Sikkim - a
Himalayan kingdom until its merger with India in 1975. The reports have worried
officials as this would indicate that the Chinese were re-opening the conflict
over Sikkim despite virtually acknowledging India's sovereignty over it in
2003. Media have also reported incursions in the middle sector, although the
border there was clarified in 2001 through an exchange of maps.
China appears to be reopening issues that were considered resolved and closed,
an Indian army official based in the northeast told Asia Times Online.
Moreover, Indian media reported in early September Indian army officers' claims
that the Chinese are making deeper forays into Indian territory, claiming that
Chinese soldiers had entered Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, and painted in red
the word "China" on rocks and boulders. The Chinese Foreign ministry rejected
the reports as groundless
Indian ministers and officials have also brushed aside the reports of
incursions, saying they are inevitable in a situation where the border is
fuzzy. But army officers dismiss claims that they are accidental. "It is
intentional and aimed at putting pressure on India to make concessions on the
border that are favorable to China," the army official told Asia Times Online.
He added that "the incursions are linked to their claims over Arunachal, and
The announcement of the Dalai Lama's proposed trip to Arunachal Pradesh has
come a fortnight after his visit to Taiwan, a visit that was "resolutely
opposed" by the Chinese. The Arunachal visit could draw a stronger response.
The question is how far India will go to assert its sovereignty over Arunachal
Pradesh. Will it buckle under Chinese pressure and deny the Dalai Lama
permission to visit, as it has in the past? The Dalai Lama has visited the
state an estimated five times. But a proposed visit by the Tibetan leader late
last year was cancelled as India denied him permission apparently under Chinese
New Delhi has often preferred to tread cautiously when it comes to Arunachal,
to avoid riling Beijing. In February last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
visited Arunachal, where he declared that the state is an integral part of
India. He went up to Kibithoo, which lies near the Line of Actual Control, but
gave Tawang a miss.
Officials in India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) insist that "things are
changing" and that India is getting more assertive in its dealings with the
Chinese. At the Nuclear Suppliers' Group meet in Austria last year when China
sought to block a consensus over the lifting of restrictions on nuclear trade
with India, Delhi conveyed its unhappiness with Beijing through a demarche. On
the issue of the ADB loan too, India fought back and managed to swing the
decision in its favor. There is a "new confidence" in New Delhi, claim MEA
officials, stressing that the Dalai Lama visit "will happen".
Over the past year India has been building infrastructure and strengthening its
defenses along its Himalayan frontier. Airfields have been re-opened in Ladakh.
In June this year, General J J Singh, governor of Arunachal Pradesh and former
chief of army staff, announced the deployment of two army divisions of around
25,000 to 30,000 soldiers each along the Arunachal border with China. The
strength of India's Sukhoi fighter aircraft fleet in the Northeast is being
The enhanced defense at the Sino-Indian border has "no aggressive intent" but
is aimed at "putting in place credible active deterrence against a vastly
better-armed giant neighbor", a Defense Ministry official told this
correspondent in June. This slow but steady improvement in defense preparedness
could also be contributing to India's "new confidence" in dealing with China.
Whether New Delhi is indeed confident enough to stand up to Chinese pressure
will become evident in November. The Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal will be an
important test case.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in