The Dalai Lama’s visits to the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh routinely provoke protests from the Chinese and threats of dire consequences, only for Sino-Indian relations to lapse into their customary state of relative cordiality afterwards. This latest visit, after a gap of seven years, has provoked a sharper, almost threatening, reaction from China. Mature diplomacy demanded a restrained response from India. Instead, the Indian government has chosen to unnecessarily imbue a purely religious occasion with a provocative political hue.
To be sure, the government is well within its rights to permit the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Indeed, allowing him to visit any other part of India but not Arunachal Pradesh will be tantamount to acknowledging that the state constitutes a disputed territory. Thus, if the Dalai Lama goes to Tawang to offer prayers and religious discourses, then it will be in line with the Indian government’s consistent position to respect him as a religious leader but that he is not permitted to engage in anti-China political activities. This time, however, the Indian government has chosen to depart from this nuanced position by openly associating Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju with the visit, giving it a political colour. Further, the statement by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu that his state shares a boundary with Tibet and not with China runs counter to India having acknowledged that Tibet is a part of China.
Even if there has been justifiable dissatisfaction with recent unfriendly moves by China, whether on the economic corridor through Pakistan, the blocking of India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or the refusal to allow the listing of Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the UN list of terrorists, India needs to tread carefully on the Tibet issue, which has particular sensitivity for China and which had been the factor that precipitated the 1962 India-China war. In foreign relations, it is always wise to think a few moves ahead so as not to lose control of events as they unfold. India-China relations are too important to be allowed to drift into confrontation, which is in neither country’s interest.
Besides, the growing asymmetry in the infrastructure and capabilities of the two sides on the India-China border has been apparent for some time. This asymmetry calls for prudence and preparedness in meeting any military challenge that India may have to deal with if relations continue to deteriorate. There have been occasions in the past when there had been heightened tensions between the two neighbours but these have been overcome through regular engagement between the leaders of the two countries. This factor of stability in the India-China relationship should be activated to put our relations on an even keel and allow cooperation to advance in areas of convergence, including the leveraging of the many economic opportunities that exist between the world’s second-largest economy and the world’s fastest-growing major emerging economy. Finally, a more unpredictable and uncertain world, ushered in by the Donald Trump presidency, also demands that India and China play their respective roles as stable anchors of an emerging international order.