The Tawang test

China’s statement that it is “gravely concerned” over the government’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang monastery in early April, and that it would “seriously damage” bilateral ties, is unwarranted. It is also an unacceptable escalation of rhetoric over an issue that India and China have engaged with each other on , including during the visit by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to Beijing. The controversy over the Tawang area goes back to the Shimla meet of 1914, when the Chinese representatives just initialled, and didn’t sign, a trilateral agreement with British India and Tibet. Later, in 1959, when the current Dalai Lama fled Tibet, he came into India through Tawang. He has not visited Arunachal Pradesh since 2009, when he retraced his 1959 journey. On that occasion too, his itinerary had evoked threats from Beijing, but eventually bilateral concerns outweighed them. The Chinese government would do well to not allow tensions with India over the issue of Arunachal Pradesh to spill into other spheres of engagement, and perhaps to also recall its own talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama that broke down after nine rounds in 2010 when it seeks to castigate him and New Delhi for their engagement. Beijing’s objections over access for the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader to a religious shrine obviously cannot be allowed to intimidate India into restricting his free movement.


At the same time, New Delhi must calibrate its moves to avoid misperceptions that it is indulging in political power-play. Recent developments, such as visits to Tawang by American diplomats including the U.S. Ambassador, and an official dinner at the U.S. Embassy attended by a Minister and leader of the “Tibetan government in exile” based in Dharamshala, could be interpreted as messages aimed at China, even if they did not signify any policy change. Beijing has been touchy about visiting delegations from Taiwan and the grant of visas to those it perceives as dissident activists. Pinpricks cannot substitute for policy and New Delhi should keep its focus on the major issues between the two countries. The bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership and having Masood Azhar placed on the UN terrorists’ list have occupied much of the bilateral canvas, while the larger issue of the boundary resolution hasn’t been addressed adequately. Statements last week from former Chinese special envoy Dai Bingguo, who suggested that flexibility from India over the “eastern boundary” in Arunachal Pradesh could yield flexibility from China over “other areas”, that is, the western boundary in J&K, are significant. If the statements are an indication that the 20th round of talks between the special representatives expected this year will see an opening for progress, then that is a more worthwhile goal for New Delhi and Beijing to be preoccupied with.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2022 9:53:54 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/the-tawang-test/article59781400.ece