Indian Decade

India Annoys China. Again

Nirupama Rao’s meeting with the Dalai Lama will have annoyed China. It’s tit-for-tat.

Last week, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao visited Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh and met the Dalai Lama and top officials of his government in exile for over an hour.

As expected in these kinds of situations, neither the Ministry of External Affairs nor the Dalai Lama’s office provided any details about what was discussed. But Tibetan sources said privately the Dalai Lama’s security arrangements and the welfare of Tibetan refugees in India came up for discussion at the meeting, which was also attended by the Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The Rao-Dalai Lama meeting has huge political and diplomatic significance as it happened days after three important developments: National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s July 3-6 visit to China; reports of Beijing’s decision to construct a railway line to Xinjiang passing through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir; and China’s decision to sell two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan for its Chasma atomic complex. (Interestingly, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was in China for a July 6-11 visit when Rao called on the Dalai Lama).

India is, as others have said here, miffed that China has declared its intention to sell two nuclear reactors to Pakistan and construct a railway line traversing crossing the Gilgit-Baltistan area as both issues have grave implications for India’s security. But at the same time, there’s nothing much India can do as China and Pakistan are well within their rights to conduct their bilateral relations as they see fit.

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It’s against this backdrop that Rao’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and his top aides in Dharamsala should be seen—it’s an open secret that Chinese officials squirm every time an Indian official or minister lends his or her ear to the Dalai Lama. India has therefore made a not very subtle point to China.

There’s a tit-for-tat element to bilateral relations. If China needles India on Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, visas or water issues, India can tick off Beijing by upgrading its ties with the Dalai Lama. And if China should choose to give support to anti-Indian insurgents in the north-east and the Naxalites, then India too can open a channel with the Munich-based World Uighur Congress or start giving stapled visas to travellers from Tibet and Xinjiang as China has done with Kashmir.

But both countries are rapidly rising powers and shouldn’t indulge in diplomatic sabre rattling. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is spot on when he says that there’s enough space in the world to accommodate both India and China. This understanding should be the template for Sino-Indian ties.