The events related to Dalai Lama are a signal that needs to be understood. I have tried to piece together if the Government of India’s (GoI’s) reticence of late is a function of certain international understandings and developments. It is not easy to piece together a narrative based on observed actions on this but a few things have to be considered carefully:
1. PRC have time and again protested vehemently about Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh and GoI has not paid heed to any such noise and simply went ahead with it.
2. PRC was vehemently opposing the development projects, especially road and rail links in Arunachal Pradesh; the GoI not only went ahead but doubled the intensity and pace
3. PRC vehemently opposed visit by PM, not only did the PM visit he also toured extensively and made sure a Cabinet Minister was touring the place every month
4. Dalai Lama accorded a traditional and ceremonial welcome in Arunachal Pradesh with full government support
5. There were more than one instance of intense standoff both during visit by Xi and during Modi’s visit to PRC across different theatres and the IA did not back down. On more than one instance, it demonstrated speed and increased ability to bring in force capability to theatre zone and never backed down
6. The CPEC – Not only did the GoI register objections, but acted swiftly to circumvent through Chabahar. GoI also clearly stated that it would not allow CPEC in disputed territory and activated a Balochistan campaign across the world as a message to China on what can happen.
7. Surgical strike inside Myanmar and then on Pakistan clearly demonstrated the willingness and operational capability to strike across border if needed
8. Doklam – This was a test case where India, in a sense, initiated a stand off, by not acting as per established pattern. It was India which went in and stopped construction activity at force. The Chinese did not expect this (since 1950, India only used to take up such protests over border meetings – old Nehru era policy, which it sought to break away from in 1962 disastrously) change of policy. Tried all their tricks bilaterally, trilaterally and internationally. PRC failed in both diplomatic and military fronts to make India budge.
9. China’s Israel – Pakistan has been isolated and is being hounded through a series of well-timed interventions, the latest being the FATF. Whenever Pakistan has tried to break free or tried to inflict high cost, India has publicly punished Pakistan with Surgical Strikes being the latest. In this one fact that needs to be noted, that Indian punishment has been almost always following any act by the Chinese in supporting Pakistan.
10. Well planned series of demonstration of both Theatre Defence and improved arsenal and delivery capability in the nuclear sphere have been made to the Chinese with China specific missile capability.
11. Straight challenge to Chinese assertions to South China Sea area with increased participation and patrolling jointly and bilaterally with nations of the region and coordinating with Indo Pacific powers to provide a strong counter point to China power projections and ambitions
12. On the engagement side too, there has been a lot of activity to build better people to people relationship with China, growing exchange of views and common stance wherever possible such as environmental and trade and investment arrangements; strong pitch for mutual investments in each other’s economy, bringing up and nurturing a financial network to balance the stranglehold of the west on international financial network through initiatives like BRICS Bank
13. Energy is another area where, besides competition for energy sources, there has also been cooperation in terms of Solar energy.
It is in this light, that we can and must evaluate and examine the Dalai Lama celebrations being moved out of Delhi and the governmental “non-endorsement”.
The steps mentioned above have had a deep impact on Chinese governmental positions. Coupled with the internal and international dynamics at play inside China and the tough economic choices it faces, there has been a recalibration of Chinese attitude towards India. Chinese culture and their sense of history does not allow for any overt acceptance of change in policy and acceptance of the reality that India is not a pushover anymore. The concept of “face” will not allow for the same. However, equally important is the innate Chinese penchant for being realistic and practical. It is this aspect, along with the other factors mentioned above, that I believe, that has forced the Chinese government to reach out to India.
1. China, for the first time, started acknowledging that the Indian economy is on a strong path of growth and it called out that India is emerging as a leading power in Asia. In typical back handed fashion, it “advised” India that it should not believe that it can be a power by throwing its weight around.
2. China has time and again, tried to reiterate that it is not opposed to India’s economic growth and development and said it wants to partner with India. It has reiterated its desire to close out difference on border at the earliest.
3. China’s has called for China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to be even renamed and invited India to its On Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and officially went on record to state that any misgivings on this with India can be discussed and solved.
4. Despite bravado and crude threats, it backed down on Doklam and agreed to a practical resolution after its failure to elicit support against India
5. Despite its many attempts to support Pakistan against India, especially on designation of Masood Azhar and Hafeez Saeed as terrorists, it has stopped short of antagonizing India by going too far despite many attempts by Pakistan – latest being its refusal to stall Pakistan entry into grey list at Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
These are real changes in Chinese stand and posture, despite their strenuous attempts to mask it, the same has been acknowledged by India and the rest of the world.
In this context, China perceives that Tibet will reach an inflexion point sometime in the future and the trigger could be the inevitable demise of Dalai Lama at some point. An increasingly powerful and willing India can create tremendous challenges for China, if China tries to harm India through proxy (Pakistan) or directly.
Contrary to the facade of stability, China too has simmering and strong fault lines that can explode. Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the existing disparity of wealth, corruption and tremendous economic improvements that leads to an increasingly aware and demanding population are all there.
Added to this is the generational change in leadership and the new elite power struggles. All this in the context of economic long term issues coming to roost.
This assessment and reality has, I believe, forced China to not only recalibrate its equation with India but also engage discreetly with a powerful Indian government to push through a broad arrangement that allows for the peaceful rise of China as a rival to the US in the world order.
In this recalibration, China may have finally come to the conclusion that it is far better to have a good relationship with India rather than trying to compete or contain India, thereby pushing it away to the US side and making India a rallying point across Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indo-Pacific region for other powers who are wary of China’s ambitious plans.
In my view, this could mean preparing for a post Dalai Lama settlement for Tibet that is supported and endorsed by India. Now only India can make that happen, as it is one country that has the leverage over Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama too would be anxious to see some sort of an arrangement that allows for him a modicum of self-rule in Tibet in his lifetime.
That can happen very well if there is a Sino-Indian detente. If the benefits of such a detente far outweigh a the so called benefits of containing/breaking India with the help of the likes of Pakistan, then China and India have the civilizational maturity to actually make it happen.
It is this logical extension that gives meaning and a reasonable explanation to the “downgrading” of Dalai Lama anniversary and the governmental sponsorship of the same. The indications are that China and India have engaged themselves to recalibrate their relationship and there is some kind of rapprochement planned with regard to Tibet. I am also venturing to guess that this is being done with the Dalai Lama being kept in the loop as is evidenced by the lack of any official disappointment on the GoI stance from the side of the Tibetan Government in Exile.
Rajaram Muthukrishnan is a chartered insurer by qualification with decades of international experience in leadership roles in MNCs. He is actively involved in encouraging social activities that promote an Indic worldview