The media have responded to China’s unusually strong demarche over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh with a universal cry of ‘How Dare You’? Such sanctimonious outrage serves little purpose. China dares because it is now accepted as the second most powerful nation in the world and holds the keys to the US treasury. These are facts. Railing against them will not serve any useful purpose.
Continuing to do so can, however, push us into war. Every single action of the Chinese in the past two years — from the denial of a visa to an official from Arunachal Pradesh in 2007 to the 270 incursions across the Line of Actual Control this year — has been a carefully calibrated escalation of the border dispute.
The only mystery is their motive. Is the escalation designed to provoke India into doing something that will justify the annexation of Tawang and other parts of the so-called disputed areas? Or is China using pressure on Arunachal to pursue an entirely different goal?
The accepted view in Delhi is that after its phenomenal growth, and the spectacular success of the Beijing Olympics, China believes that it has once again become the centre of the world and will brook no rivals. A small, winnable, war in the Himalayas — like the US’s war on Grenada in 1983 and Britain’s in the Falklands in 1982 — would end the Indian challenge once and for all.
There is, however, a second explanation. But one needs to look at the world through Beijing’s eyes to grasp it. These are the eyes of a country whose electrifying growth has created an alarming, and so far uncontained, rise in social discontent. These are the eyes of a country with no fewer than 56 minorities, the two largest of which are in open revolt. These are the eyes of a country that has had no experience of political accommodation in the past two millennia and does not now know where to start.
All of these anxieties are reflected in its reaction to its failure to assimilate Tibet. For this the Chinese hold India responsible because it has kept the Tibetan cultural and political identity alive by sheltering the Dalai Lama. This was the bone of contention that led to the 1962 war. It is almost certainly the real bone of contention today.
After the Sino-Indian rapprochement in 1993, Beijing was prepared to overlook the presence of the Dalai Lama in India. But its attitude has hardened after two recent developments. The first is the emergence of a younger, restive, generation of Tibetans-in-exile whom the Dalai Lama does not really control. The second is satellite telephony and the internet, which have enabled these elements to build links with their counterparts in Tibet, to weave together what could be the first ‘virtual’ nation in the history of humanity.
The March 2008 uprising in Lhasa, which spread quickly to towns in three other provinces, brought Beijing face to face with these changes for five of the seven organisation that instigated it had little to do with the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless since the planning took place in Dharamsala, Beijing concluded that the Dalai Lama had given the so-called March ‘plot’ his blessings.
This suspicion turned into certainty when, in the eighth round of autonomy talks with Beijing in April 2008, the Dalai Lama continued to insist that autonomy should be granted not just to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) but to ‘Greater Tibet’.
Faced with this demand the Chinese representatives, at the April conference, went ballistic and stormed out. For Greater Tibet includes TAR and parts of four other Chinese provinces, and covers one quarter of China’s land area. By contrast, Kashmir valley, which also has six million inhabitants, occupies only 0.13 per cent of India’s land area.
Vivisecting China may have been the last thing in the Dalai Lama’s mind. But an already paranoid Chinese State could not afford to ignore this possibility. The escalating tension with India reflects Beijing’s inability to reconcile India’s professions of friendship with its willingness to allow the Dalai Lama to raise such subversive and ‘splitist’ demands from Indian soil.
The resulting confrontation has now acquired a life of its own and is leading the two countries towards a war that neither wants. The calibrated escalation of China’s demands and actions suggests that the point of no return will be the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in November. Wen Jiabao’s request for a meeting with Manmohan Singh in Bangkok should, therefore, be seen as a last ditch effort to avert war.
Fortunately for India, reversing the escalation does not require making humiliating concessions. All that New Delhi needs to do is clear up the misapprehensions that have taken root in the Chinese leaders’ minds.
India never has, and never will, support the demand for an autonomous ‘Greater Tibet’. Its every reference to autonomy so far has been limited to the TAR. This is a carefully considered position, for any departure would open a Pandora’s box within India that New Delhi would never be able to close.
It has not associated itself with the details of the Dalai Lama’s latest autonomy proposal only out of an exaggerated respect for China’s internal sovereignty. But this could easily change if China were to hint that India could play a mediator’s role and make the Dalai Lama lower his demands.
Time, however, is running short. The immediate need is to persuade the Dalai Lama to postpone his visit to Tawang. This should not prove difficult for he could hardly be relishing the prospect of setting the house he has been living in on fire. A postponement will buy time for the two countries to clear misunderstandings and evolve a policy that brings peace to Tibet.
Prem Shankar Jha is the author of The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War.