Indo-China relations and the Dalai Lama


For a government that is extremely tough on leaks, a report in the daily Indian Express was particularly unusual in that it quoted from a letter from Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. The letter requested the Cabinet Secretary to send a classified circular to all layers of the government not to accept any invite from the Dalai Lama to celebrate sixty years of exile in India. Many feel that this directive has far reaching implications not just for the India-China relationship, but also the Tibetan Buddhist movement for autonomy.  

Gokhale sent this letter to the Cabinet Secretary on the day he was traveling to Beijing to seal an agreement with the Chinese. The agreement was on giving up their opposition to a US sponsored resolution placing Pakistan in the grey list of countries involved in funding terrorism. China, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, had opposed the US resolution to consign Pakistan to the list, but later after some interesting footwork by intermediaries including on the Indian side, China and other countries relented. For this support, contours of the quid pro quo seem to be visible: help China become the Vice President of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and stop the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile for the past 59 years, from enjoying the indulgence of the Indian state. 

There are more than a 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India at Dharamshala, and a settlement near Bengaluru. Their presence is a constant reminder to the world and the Chinese government about the circumstances in which they left their Himalayan homeland. In 1959, Chinese troops occupied Lhasa, which led to a young Dalai Lama, aged 23, accompanied by 80,000 supporters seeking asylum in India. 

The Chinese have called Tibetan Buddhists and their leader the Dalai Lama, “splittist” and an enemy of the state. Over many years the Chinese have been routinely conveying their strong resentment towards any country or organization that extends hospitality to the exiled leader. In the past, countries never paid much attention to the Beijing’s requests, but now it is a different story. With the economic rise of China, nations that include the United States are more willing to respect its sensitivities. There are now very few world leaders that meet the Dalai Lama.

The Indian Foreign Secretary in his letter mentioned the Chinese sensitivities and how Indian officials should stay away from any event organized by the exiled Tibetans.

India tried to boost its profile as the only country in Asia ready to stand up to the Chinese enlargement when it refused to attend and become a member of the Belt and Road Initiative conference (BRI) last year, claiming it undermined the national sovereignty of participating countries. Later, its troops had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Chinese troops in a third country. After showing resistance to Chinese big power ambitions in the region, it is interesting how New Delhi has had a rethink on its policy to the extent that it is willing to give up the political and strategic leverage it has over Beijing.  

The strategic community in Delhi has been wondering what China will give India in return for not pursuing a policy that has upset them all these years. Besides increased investment in India’s cash strapped economy, the other options range from settling the border dispute on an “as is where is basis”- which means preserving the territorial status quo. The Chinese may also offer to realign the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to take care of Indian sensitivities. There is a lack of clarity about what is likely to be discussed between the two Asian giants that fought a war in 1962, but what is being planned is a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the next few months.

China would be negotiating from a position of strength as in the past couple of years it has eaten into India’s arc of influence in South Asia. Earlier China stayed away from interfering in India’s neighborhood, but in the last few years it has aggressively moved to build ports, roads and railway networks to give meaning to its connectivity project. India has resented this enlargement and cautioned its neighbors that these large loans extended at high interest rates could compromise the sovereignty of recipient countries. The manner in which Sri Lanka lost the ownership of its Hambantota port after it failed to repay its debt is given as an example by India. India’s persuasions have not worked, however, as even Afghanistan is considering joining the CPEC.

Even in terms of dealing with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist movement in India, China has not done too badly. It has succeeded in creating a wedge in the exile community with a vocal group asking questions about the fate of the movement. Last year the Dalai Lama sent his close associate, Samdong Rinpoche to China. His trip fueled serious speculation about the Dalai Lama’s future plans and whether he was planning to return to Tibet after 60 years. Sources close to him deny this possibility, but agree that the exile community has reached a dead-end when it comes to pursuing their demand for autonomy from China. 

Since the Dalai Lama mythically walked through the clouds in Tibet to reach India’s Dharamshala, China has become a world power, and with no inhibitions about its territorial ambitions. Tibetans living in India who were persecuted when they returned to their homeland, are now finding life easier there. The Chinese government is also at pains to convey this message. 

More and more Tibetans are getting visas to return to China. There is a worry in the leadership of the exile community that if their numbers dwindle in India then their movement would lose meaning. What needs to be seen now is in which direction Indo-China relations are heading.

Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer based in Delhi. He is also the Editor of the publication in India “Hard News.”