China is caught in a web of five interlocked rings, as the issue of Tibet puts a big question mark over the Beijing Olympics. There have been protests across the world to cancel the Games, with even the Olympic flame being extinguished twice in Paris by protestors clamouring for a ‘free Tibet’. This turns the old Chinese wisdom about opportunities hiding in every crisis on its head. Beijing’s political masters — who saw the Olympics as an opportunity to announce the arrival of a new, prosperous People’s Republic on the world stage — suddenly have a major crisis on their hands. The dilemma for them is that while they cannot afford to let Tibetans and the supporters of their cause hijack the Games to highlight their plight, they also cannot be seen to be too rough in cracking down on the protestors. So it is this delicate high-wire act that Beijing is now conducting as the guest list for the Olympics opening ceremony gets shorter by the day, leader after international leader sending in regret letters.
In all this flurry of activity — and Beijing’s desperate attempt to show that it’s business as usual — two questions need to be asked. How much impact does any kind of symbolism, whether it is in the form of a Head of State staying away from the opening ceremony or an outright boycott, have on China’s Tibet policy? Also, is India’s quietness to be seen as a matter of realpolitik maturity or a badly camouflaged meekness? The answer to both the questions lies in the simple fact that there are various levels of symbolism by which China can be ‘sent the message’. Also India can calibrate its response to the whole affair. An outright boycott is the ‘worst-case scenario’ but no country has been considering that. By staying away from the inauguration ceremony and making the right noises about China’s treatment of Tibetans — which is what the likes of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have planned to do — one sends out a strong message of disapproval without going the ‘whole hog’.
Our Foreign Ministry seems to be stuck in an ‘on-off’ mode where any criticism, any symbolic act of disapproval is read, not so much by Beijing, but by New Delhi as an act of aggression. Thus, the sad affair of New Delhi having to make a small song and dance about ‘standing up’ to Chinese requests to clamp down on anti-China protestors in India. New Delhi must realise that it can send out a signal that it is unhappy with the Tibetan situation without having to be mortally afraid of a Chinese reaction. Even if we decide to forego morality, it would be silly to jettison common sense that allows engagement with criticism — something that India should be quite aware of having done this kind of thing with Pakistan for years. The opposite of keeping quiet over the issue doesn’t have to be a declaration of hostilities. Perhaps by foregoing its current pusillanimity, India may actually enable the Chinese leadership to actually sit up and take us a little more seriously.