On the 86th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a new precedent by making a first-ever public announcement by tweeting: “Spoke on phone to His Holiness the @DalaiLama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday. We wish him a long and healthy life.” In reciprocation, the Tibetan religious leader called himself the “longest guest” of India which he sees as “home.” Indian leaders unofficially conveyed their wishes; however, Modi’s official wish to the highest religious leader of Tibet who is in exile is not just symbolic but of great significance given its political and diplomatic undertone.
Tibet lies at the heart of the discord in India-China relations given its political and strategic significance—as exemplified by the fact that, during the 1962 conflict, Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, acknowledged that “the conflict was not about the boundary or territory but about Tibet.” China’s contention against India over Tibet is generated against New Delhi’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala—who Beijing perceives to be subversive and splittist. The Tibetan independence force adds to Beijing’s insecurities over what it calls the “three evils”—separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Wherein, China perceives the Tibet independence force as a serious challenge to its internal security and social stability. While strategically, Tibet is central to the India-China boundary dispute. For India, its security is interlinked to the survival of Tibet as a buffer state; while for China, control over Tibet is significant for its border stability with India. For instance, China’s heavy infrastructure build-up in Tibet in terms of railroads, airports, and highways is to seek advantage against India on the border. Any action by India concerns China given the priority it attaches to Tibet in its national security calculus, which is directly linked to its boundary and territorial dispute with India and aggravated by a challenge to China’s sovereignty claims from the pro-Tibet independence forces.
In this regard, Modi’s call to Dalai Lama signified New Delhi’s political posturing—an indirect messaging to Beijing, just as China does with its “all-weather friend” Pakistan. For China, India’s hosting of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan population in exile is a cause of persistent worry as in Beijing’s view it is a “dagger aimed [by India] at China’s southern underbelly.”
Taking a departure from the past, Modi’s call to the Tibetan spiritual leader on July 6 represented a firm sounding to Beijing. What is noteworthy is that New Delhi did not make any form of congratulatory exchanges to Beijing on the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1. India’s action can be read under two contexts. First, the CCP’s 100th anniversary wherein Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued a warning statement by suggesting: “We [China] will never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate China. Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” Second, the 70th anniversary of the “17-article/points agreement” signed between Beijing and Lhasa on May 23, 1951—that in Chinese view led to the “peaceful liberation of Tibet.” In commemoration of this, China released a white paper on “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development, and Prosperity”—reasserting China’s military and administrative control over Tibet, the selection of the next Dalai Lama, and the border stability. On the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama, China maintains that the next Dalai Lama should be selected with Beijing’s nod—as China did in selecting the Panchen Lama, the second-highest Tibetan religious leader. However, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people have consistently opposed Beijing’s policy.
Under these pretexts, New Delhi’s calibrated step forward only shows that India deliberately wants China to know—if Beijing means business, so does New Delhi! That is, India is not ready to be the only one to “respect sensitivities,” if China fails to do so. While India has maintained its diplomatic stance on “One China Policy,” China has failed to acknowledge India’s sensitivities in terms of the border, the Kashmir issue, and now the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. For instance, Beijing objected to India’s abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution by calling it New Delhi’s “unilateral” attempt to change the status quo in Ladakh. Besides, the CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan that defies India’s sovereignty along the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). So if China does not care, then why should India care about China’s sensitivities? As the onus lies on both sides, if China continues to interfere in India’s internal matters, India too will play its cards wisely. More precisely, India’s action prompts an understanding that New Delhi will never fear any pressure from Beijing.
On balance, this demonstrates that unless the Chinese regime changes its attitude, India will continue to stand tall—not just militarily, but politically and diplomatically.
Dr. Amrita Jash is a research fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. She has been a Pavate Fellow at the Department of POLIS, University of Cambridge. She holds a Ph.D. in Chinese studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University and authored the book “The Concept of Active Defence in China’s Military Strategy” (Pentagon Press, 2021). She can be reached on Twitter @amritajash.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.