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Tibet: Bowing low?

Nothing better illustrates the perils of Brahmanical guile in diplomacy than the damaging controversy created over India?s stand on Tibet, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST

Nothing better illustrates the perils of Brahmanical guile in diplomacy than the damaging controversy created over India’s stand on Tibet. That this controversy should have been avoided is evident from the confusion in India, the concern among Tibetans and the rejoicing in China.

If there is no shift in New Delhi’s position on Tibet, as the PM wants Indians to believe, why did he switch India’s long-standing phrasing on Tibet’s status to the one that Beijing liked?

Vajpayee and his point man, Brajesh Mishra, who micromanaged the China visit, thought that the last minute negotiations in Beijing involved just a clever play of words on their part.They ended up, however, as surprised victims, compelled to undertake damage control.

Official spin led by Vajpayee cannot conceal that this is the first time ever that India, in a signed document, has used the legal word, ‘recognise’, to flatly accept the Chinese-named Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as part of China.It was a dream gift for President Hu Jintao, who made his mark in the Chinese Communist Party as Tibet’s martial law administrator.But for the way he used force since 1989 to suppress Tibetans, brutalising nuns as young as 12, Hu could not have been chosen as Jiang Zemin’s successor.

Sadly, Vajpayee’s objective to showcase his visit as a success took priority over his responsibility to advance India’s long-term interests. But he is not the first PM to be guided by such a narrow vision.Rajiv Gandhi was similarly motivated when he visited Beijing in 1988 in the shadow of a Chinese ultimatum in the eastern sector after the border trouble over Sumdurong Chu.

To secure an empty ‘Declaration of Principles’ and a Chinese-dictated Sikkim-Tibet trade accord, Vajpayee made one-sided concessions and returned home only with Chinese assurances, including on Sikkim, learning neither from Indira Gandhi’s 1972 mistake in believing Z.A. Bhutto’s word at Simla nor from China’s glaring record in continuing hostile actions in the nearly quarter-century India has been discussing peace and friendship with it.Vajpayee knows that if the Chinese break their word as they did after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, when they began supplying missiles to Pakistan and opening a new flank via Myanmar, he would not be held to account in a country where the public memory is extraordinarily short and the debate revolves round generalities and catchy slogans.

Besides yielding on Tibet, Vajpayee agreed to arrange for trade from an Indian state where India’s legal presence is not recognised by China, which went to the extent of embarrassing the still-touring Indian side by repudiating even de facto recognition. He also agreed to a speciously labelled new ‘political’ border-talks mechanism that allows China to buy more time to stonewall on its commitment to present maps showing its version of the full Line of Control.

His spinmeisters are silent on how this mechanism becomes ‘political’ or even different when it involves the same level of Chinese representation as in the border talks of the past 22 years — vice foreign minister — and, on the Indian side, it merely substitutes one unelected official (foreign secretary) with another unelected official (principal secretary/national security adviser).The larger question it raises is whether it is India’s interest (unlike China’s) to continue to hide the lack of progress in the border talks through new labelling — from ‘senior-level’ negotiations to a ‘joint working group’ and a ‘technical group’ to now the appointment of ‘senior envoys’.

On all three issues — Tibet, trade from Sikkim and border — the agreed formulations emerged in eleventh-hour negotiations in Beijing, as indicated by Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha in an interview with Vir Sanghvi (HT, June 27). When the pre-visit negotiations had collapsed due to tough, maximalist Chinese bargaining, what made Vajpayee accede to the very Chinese demands his officials had rejected in New Delhi?

Also, how does it aid Indian interests not to raise core issues, such as Chinese WMD transfers to Pakistan and naval posts in Myanmar?Illustrating India’s insistence on living on hope, Sinha told Sanghvi that Vajpayee sidelined the issue of Sino-Pak nexus because “we feel that if we manage to come closer together, then the proclivity of China to do something that is not in India’s interests will decline”.But is that not the same miscalculation Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao made during their China visits?

Bartering concrete concessions for fond hopes, Vajpayee gave away the trade card on Sikkim — India’s only bargaining power — and put India’s imprimatur on China’s annexation of TAR, the Chinese name for the central Tibetan plateau since 1965.All PMs after Nehru had ‘reiterated’ that Tibet is an ‘autonomous’ region of China.

Now, dropping the key word ‘autonomous’ and switching from ‘reiterates’ to ‘recognises’, Vajpayee signed a formal document that shifts India’s stand in the eyes of international law to: “The Indian side recognises that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India” [emphasis added].This is the first explicit Indian recognition of TAR’s absorption by communist China.Also, by narrowing Tibet to just TAR, the plateau where less than half of the ethnic Tibetans live, is India implicitly conceding the forcible incorporation of Tibet’s large outer territories in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichaun, Gansu and Yunnan?

Vajpayee now wants to have his cake and eat it too.He admits that India’s phraseology on Tibet’s status has changed, but claims there is no change in New Delhi’s stand! More odd is his contention that the phraseology has changed “for the better”.Better for whom?Obviously for the side publicly celebrating.

Having raked up an ill-advised controversy that presents India in an unflattering light among its friends in the neighbourhood — as a country that can potentially sell the interests of its friends in a deal even with an adversary — Vajpayee has had to act as his own spin master.By alluding to the word ‘autonomous’ in the official name TAR, he has claimed his formulation seeks to safeguard Tibet’s autonomy, disingenuously cloaking his switch from Tibet being an autonomous region within China to TAR being a part of China.

If, as Vajpayee insists, this is just a crafty choice of words by India, with exiled Tibetan leaders taken into confidence, he should be doubly concerned, for he has not only given on a platter the phrasing that China wanted but he has also sent a wrong message to it — that he and his team are too clever by half, and cannot be trusted.

Why first appease China on the wording of Tibet’s status and then publicly disclaim any shift?This is not the way good diplomacy is conducted.It only adds to Vajpayee’s unenviable record of denying or masking statements that trigger controversy.

Furthermore, it hardly helps the government’s case to cite Nehru’s 1954 blunder in acknowledging the “Tibet region of China” but to ignore the correction course followed by all subsequent governments. Moreover, as a trade accord whose eight-year term expired decades ago, the 1954 deal not only was initialled in a poisoned atmosphere of intense Chinese pressures, which are not present today, but it also fell short of putting India’s legal stamp on China’s annexation of any part of Tibet.

The official defence of the new formulation also echoes a fatalism that has long underpinned the Indian debate on Tibet.The line of reasoning is that because the original 1954 sin left India with little leverage, Vajpayee has sought to make the best of a bad situation.This is a flawed and dangerous logic.

A nation can always undo a mistake and regain leverage, first by adding ambiguities to its policy and then by gradually finessing and leveraging its position. This is precisely what India needs to do on

Tibet and Taiwan to halt Chinese cartographic aggression against it. But Vajpayee, to the surprise of his well-wishers, has done just the opposite.He gratuitously recorded that India’s “one-China policy remains unaltered”, without making Beijing similarly commit to a one-India policy, and now admits there is no “ambiguity or inconsistency” on India’s Tibet stand.

The Tibet concession would encourage Pakistani intransigence on Kashmir and worsen India’s image problem in a neighbourhood where New Delhi has a record of having betrayed many friends over the years — from Baluchi and Sindhi nationalists in Pakistan to political allies in Sri Lanka and Nepal. It would help strengthen the impression that India respects foes more than friends.

First Published: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST