China had not expected the Narendra Modi government to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh because the spiritual leader is a “sting for bilateral relations” and the event raised questions about a possible change in India’s policy on Tibet.
Beijing reacted angrily to the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit last month to the northeastern state, which it describes as a disputed region and refers to as south Tibet. China said the visit harmed its national interests and could impact negotiations on the long-standing border dispute.
The Chinese government was especially upset by the visit as it has “good relations” with the Modi government and both sides have worked to keep border areas “tranquil and stable”, a senior Chinese official said.
“The Dalai Lama is a sting for bilateral relations,” the official said. The fact that the Dalai Lama was accompanied by senior Indian officials, some of whom spoke about “Arunachal Pradesh sharing a border with Tibet and not China”, had raised questions in Beijing on whether New Delhi was changing its stance on Tibet and the “One-China” policy, the official added.
Despite several protests from China, India allowed the Dalai Lama to go ahead with the visit, saying he had travelled to Arunachal Pradesh six times in the past and there was nothing political about the trip.
However, the Chinese official’s remarks indicated Beijing perceives the Dalai Lama as currently the biggest impediment to better ties as his actions were “increasing mistrust”.
“For India, the Dalai Lama is a very important person but for the Chinese, he’s a very bad guy. He is (India’s ) guest and he should be a religious figure and not get involved in politics against China…This is not about free speech,” the official said.
Despite the hiccups caused by the Dalai Lama, China is keen on moving forward with cooperation with India on key issues such as trade, counter-terrorism and North Korea. “Things may be rocky but the mainstream has not changed,” the official said, referring to the chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping.
Bilateral trade had increased 20% in the first quarter of this year and India’s exports had risen 49% in the same period. There is also a full slate of possible engagements between leaders of the two sides, including on the sidelines of SCO meet in Astana in June, the G20 in Hamburg, the BRICS Summit and the Asean Summit in Manila.
The official brushed aside reports that Beijing had pulled out of a trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of China, India and Russia because of the Dalai Lama issue, saying this was due to busy schedule of foreign minister Wang Yi. There was a possibility, the official said, of the foreign ministers meeting on the margins of the SCO meet.
The official also juxtaposed India’s concerns about becoming part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and China blocking a bid to sanction Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar at the UN Security Council with Beijing’s concerns on the Taiwan issue, the Dalai Lama and the border dispute.
“But we don’t raise these concerns, we want to handle them in closed door meetings and not by going to the media,” the official said, adding it was a “misperception” that China is blocking India’s bid to join the NSG.
The official conceded that China had taken up India’s concerns about Masood Azhar with Pakistan. “We try to facilitate with Pakistan but your (India-Pakistan) relations are so complicated,” the official added.
With India apparently undecided on having any representation at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing during May 14-15, the Chinese official suggested this could lead to a situation where New Delhi would have “no voice” on President Xi’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative to build seven economic corridors.
India’s concerns primarily stem from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of OBOR, as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
“If India doesn’t attend the forum, the Chinese people will ask questions…It will give a feel that you’re not constructive,” the official said. “If you’re absent, you have no voice.”
The official suggested that China’s agreement with Pakistan for the CPEC wouldn’t affect any “future settlement” of the Kashmir issue.