Dalai Lama in Tawang: Religion and Politics in Play in India–China Relations

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Amid loud protest from Beijing, the Dalai Lama is slated to visit Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from 5–7 April. The visit follows a public meeting with the president of India in December 2016 — the first in some 60 years — and a mid-March address at a major Buddhist conference in the state of Bihar, where the Dalai Lama shared the stage with India’s minister of culture.

Beijing’s vigorous condemnation of the visit presages a fresh round of tensions in the India–China relationship.

The Chinese have been trying to portray Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh as the central issues in the India–China boundary dispute. In doing so, they are trying to repudiate a significant clause of a landmark 2005 bilateral treaty. The clause states that ‘settled populations’ in each country’s border areas would not be disturbed in the process of reaching a boundary settlement.

Tawang, with India’s largest Buddhist monastery and a population of roughly 11,000 at last count, is as ‘settled’ as they come. This Chinese volte-face, related to continued challenges to their legitimacy in Tibet, may be one reason why boundary negotiations have not made real progress in recent years. Self-immolations in Tibetan areas in China continue, with the latest reported in March. Regaining Tawang — the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama — is seen as important to the Chinese government in its battle against the present 14th Dalai Lama.

In 2008, to Beijing’s displeasure, the Dalai Lama acknowledged the legitimacy of the colonial-era McMahon Line between today’s Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Added to this are Chinese worries about whether or not the Dalai Lama will ‘reincarnate’, that is, find his successor. If he does so in non-Chinese controlled territory, or even not at all as he has sometimes declared, it will likely ensure a continued challenge to Chinese authority in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama last visited Tawang in November 2009. So the current visit, hosted by yet another Indian central government minister Kiren Rijiju, himself a Buddhist and from Arunachal, is not entirely a novelty.

And yet there are indications that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is trying to sell the Indian public a certain sense of muscularity in its China policy.

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi first signalled a combative approach vis-à-vis China by inviting both the Tibetan Sikyong — the prime minister equivalent of the Central Tibetan Administration — and the Taiwanese representative in New Delhi to his swearing-in in May 2014.

Still, India’s very real lack of economic capacity ensures that a ‘Tibet card’, if it exists, is an entirely notional one. While India tries to use Buddhist soft power as a diplomatic tool, one need only look at how quickly the Mongolians regretted their welcome of the Dalai Lama in November 2016. That the Indian ambassador to Mongolia met with him should highlight India’s involvement in the visit. Beijing responded by reading Ulaanbaatar the riot act and imposing an economic blockade.

When the Mongolian ambassador asked India to raise its voice against China’s unilateral action, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson declared in a media briefing that the ambassador’s comment had been misconstrued. India would commit only to supporting Mongolia through its ‘monetary crisis’, with a US$1 billion credit line announced during Modi’s visit in May 2015, the spokesperson confirmed. Mongolia decided to apologise to China the month after the visit.

There are other contradictions on the Indian side. Well over half of India’s Buddhists are converts from India’s lowest Dalit or ‘untouchable’ castes. These neo-Buddhists, who have adopted a mix of the major Buddhist schools and view religion as a means for political and social emancipation, have little-to-no visibility in India’s Dalai Lama-driven Buddhist showcase and public diplomacy. Even those Buddhists following Tibetan variants along India’s frontier areas are largely ignored, Kiren Rijiju being one exception, in India’s majoritarian electoral politics.

To return to geopolitics, the Dalai Lama issue foregrounds, among other issues, New Delhi’s increasing engagements with China’s rivals. These include the United States — the previous US ambassador visited Tawang in October 2016 — Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a promising, if also troubled, bilateral economic relationship. The scale of India’s demand for infrastructure development and manufacturing investments can only be met by China.

Many Indians are unhappy at what they perceive as China’s consistently anti-India policies. Examples include China’s continued blocking of attempts at the UN to sanction Pakistani terrorists, and its refusal to support India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Many perceive India’s decision to officially embrace the Dalai Lama as a long overdue response to Chinese unfriendliness. The real question is whether Indian policymakers are adequately prepared for the next stage of Chinese reactions.

This article was originally published in the East Asia Forum, 5 April 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *