Salman Haidar, The Statesman | March 30, 2017
New Delhi – Tawang has a very particular place in India-China affairs. When in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and made his way to India the route he chose took him through Tawang where he and his small entourage of fugitives crossed into India, to be received and welcomed with befitting honour. Even without this momentous event, Tawang has occupied a prominent position in the affairs of the India-Tibet border lands: an earlier Dalai Lama, the sixth, belonged to Tawang where he caused a great monastery to be built that exists even today as a place of pilgrimage, and continues to house precious relics of the earlier pontiff. Tawang’s significance is further enhanced by its location on the traditional route from the Tibetan uplands to the plains of Assam. And to underline its strategic significance, this was the path of the invading Chinese army in 1962 whose armed foray into India left an enduring scar.
Since those troubled days, Tawang has been largely quiescent; some bilateral political differences remain unresolved and can flare up, border defences are always alert, but there is no current sense that political differences could be leading towards dangerous confrontation. Both countries have been careful to exercise restraint, and to implement a number of confidence building measures (CBMs) to ensure calm along the border, including mutual withdrawal of advanced forces out of range of each other so as to prevent inadvertent confrontation. By and large, these efforts have worked satisfactorily so that there has been no recrudescence of the tension and warlike gesturing that were once frequently encountered along the eastern border between India and China.
On the ground, much has happened in Tawang after restoration of tranquility and wary resumption of relations: both India and China have put much effort into developing their frontier regions through better infrastructure and closer integration. In India, the State of Arunachal Pradesh (AP) has been established and taken its place among the States of the Indian Union, a development that China has not accepted de jure but has not contested on the ground, and though there have been several Chinese pinpricks to underline is own claims in the area these have not led to any serious confrontation between rival forces. In India, Arunachal Pradesh enjoys the same status as other Indian States. To emphasize its fully established jurisdiction, India recently cleared the way for a visit to AP by the US Ambassador, though this was not well received in Beijing: it was one among quite a few recent developments that have had India and China at odds with each other as they have taken steps to make a more forceful assertion of their respective positions in and around AP.
The Dalai Lama’s visit thus comes at a time when there is some churning on the border and some revival of the border differences between the two countries. In light of Tawang’s historical importance in India-China matters, there is a particular significance in its inclusion in his itinerary. To be taken into account, too, is that Tawang has been inching its way up the ladder of disputed bilateral issues, as a result of steadily strengthening claims from China, which were initially expressed in informal channels and followed up later in more official fashion. As a result of all this background experience, the visit can be expected to arouse a certain amount of controversy. Within Tibet sentiment in favour of the Dalai Lama has never faltered and remains strong today, decades after his flight. He is very well received wherever he travels, which cannot but be a source of concern to China, especially because there are intermittent outbreaks of disorder in Tibet where allegiance to the exiled spiritual leader and what he represents is firmly rooted.
Apart from Tawang, a number of differences between India and China have been under the scanner lately as China has become regionally more active and has developed closer ties with India’s nearest neighbours, but nevertheless the overall relationship between the two countries remains friendly and cooperative. China is India’s largest trading partner and a valued associate in some multilateral forums like the environmental agency, and top-level visits from either side have underlined their shared desire for enhanced cooperation in the future. Thus bilateral relations continue on a steady course but geopolitical factors can pose new challenges at this time of change in international affairs. The Trump Administration in USA is in the process of re-shaping that country’s global commitments, which could have reverberations in many parts of the world, including Asia, which, with China in the van, is already outstripping other regions in economic development.
The broader question is whether, as USA under Mr. Trump reduces its overseas commitments, others will advance to occupy the vacated space and assume a more prominent international role. US retreat could thus become the trigger for a far-reaching geo-political shift, with others, led possibly by China, ready to play a more forward part. Already there are signs of rivalry in the Asian region between China and USA, both major economic and military powers whose interests may drive them in different directions even if USA is on a path to reduce its own external commitments. Chinese activity in the South China Sea, where it is at odds with most of its maritime neighbours, has contributed to some incidents involving contested sovereign claims and rival views on freedom of navigation in the high seas. In some of these matters, especially freedom of navigation, which could affect India’s fast developing merchant fleet, India may be more than an interested bystander and could feel the need to do something to back standing international agreements, which could bring it into disagreement with China, and this in turn could serve the purpose of those who would wish to see some form of collective effort for reducing China’s prominence. There are thus many issues at stake and India-China relations need careful handling.
To return to the Tawang visit, the Dalai Lama himself, despite all the opprobrium he receives from China, is a figure of elevated spiritual stature with universal appeal extending far beyond his Tibetan homeland. Nevertheless, his supporters in Tibet and elsewhere may be concerned to utilize his presence in such a sensitive part of the India-China border as an opportunity for public demonstrations that would serve as a reminder of the situation in Tibet, especially as during the visit the President of India is expected to share the stage with the Dalai Lama at a festival to celebrate the great river Brahmaputra. With these high dignitaries present, India will be stretched to show both its respect for the Dalai Lama and its wish to develop relations with China.
The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.