A sacrificial lamb

2009-11-12Asia Times

BEIJING - The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, recently visited Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, a move that has re-ignited the dispute between China and India over this contested border area.

The area is divided into three parts: western, central and eastern. The central portion is the least contentious and bilateral talks have registered the highest level of agreement here. The western and the eastern parts are troublesome. The western part is occupied by the Chinese but claimed by the Indians; the eastern part, conversely, is occupied by the Indians but claimed by the Chinese. In theory, the two sides could swap claims - the Indians could recognize the Chinese occupied territory in the west and the Chinese could do the same with the Indians in the east.

However, things are more complicated in reality. In the west, China holds an area of Kashmir leased to Beijing by Pakistan (part of the Tibetan plateau known as Aksai Chin), something that strengthens the Pakistani claim to Kashmir and involves the generally thorny issue of Kashmir, a divided territory that has caused decades of wars and friction between India and Pakistan.

A China-India agreement in that area would weaken the Pakistani hand in the region and with India, and would betray decades of bilateral friendship. Furthermore, China-Pakistan ties are important and useful to help find a solution to the Afghanistan problem. Still, China might not be totally opposed to the idea of swapping recognition in order to improve bilateral ties.

The issue of Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat similar. The region is historically part of Tibet, held by India after independence in 1947. It was largely occupied by advancing Chinese troops in 1962 after the defeat of the Indian army in the war of that year. Yet the Chinese withdrew after the victory without occupying new territory. That proves that China has no real appetite for Arunachal Pradesh, otherwise it would have held it then.

Still that episode has also deeply marked bilateral relations. The Chinese do not take seriously the prospects of the Indian threat - they beat the Indians during one of the worst times of Chinese history, right after the huge catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, which killed over 30 million people and left hundreds of millions starving. The Indians conversely felt bitterly stung by that defeat, which proved the reality of the Chinese threat to India and reinforced the feeling of being encircled and besieged by China in the north and Pakistan (China's friend) to the west.

The Indian sense of siege was boosted in later years as Myanmar tilted towards China, while the Chinese sense of superiority over India was also underscored by looking at India's fractious domestic political, religious and social controversies. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims, conflicts between Hindus and Christians and the spread of radical neo-Maoist guerillas in impoverished tribal areas gave Beijing the idea that India was too fragile internally to be a real strategic competitor to China. The real issue for Beijing is not how to prevail over New Delhi, but how to prevent India from falling apart.

This knotty and sensitive border predicament is further complicated by the Dalai Lama's recognition of the Indian claim over Tawang, home of the largest Buddhist monastery in India. On the face of it, this "cession" by the Dalai Lama looks like the Pakistani lease of a section of Kashmir to China; however, it is somewhat different and more delicate.

First, it introduces an issue of territoriality that could have helped bring China and the Dalai Lama together. For instance, Beijing and Taipei control different islands of the South China Sea, yet Taipei, like Beijing, claims the whole area. In other words, the two governments have issues with each other but no difference about territorial claims in the South China Sea - something that reinforces a sense of unity.

On the issue of Tawang, however, the Dalai Lama and Beijing hold different views - and that worsens the Tibet issue. Moreover, some Chinese feel that there are Indians trying to play the Dalai Lama card against Beijing, and the Dalai Lama's "cession" of Tawang to New Delhi reinforces the Dalai Lama's claim of political power over all of Tibet. It is just like the Chinese holding a portion Kashmir, which reinforces the Pakistani claim over all of Kashmir, including the part administered by India.

If the geography of the issue is then so intricate, the real redefinition of the China-India border requires broad yet separate solutions: one on Kashmir between China and India that includes Pakistan, and another on Arunachal Pradesh between China and India that includes Tibet.

In this puzzle, the weak element is that Tibet is not an independent state, like Pakistan; ii is an autonomous region of China. Thus, at least in theory, everybody would like to see a solution to the Kashmir issue, which could also help create a solution in Afghanistan and stabilize Pakistan - but the same is not true in Arunachal Pradesh.

On what grounds does the Dalai Lama recognize India's sovereignty over Tawang? Is the Dalai Lama the recognized political ruler of Tibet? Is Tibet his to give in whole or in part to India or anybody else? The answers to these questions are, to say the least, highly controversial. Therefore, the Dalai Lama's role in Tawang can't be as politically strong as Pakistan's role in Kashmir, and this is true also for the Indians, who never disputed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and thus can't politically use the Dalai Lama's concession of Tawang to India.

Certainly, the Dalai Lama's involvement in the China-India border issue could enhance his political profile by placing him in the middle of possibly the most sensitive territorial issue in the world - one between the two global demographic superpowers.

Then, the politically incorrect topic - the one thing that is hard to discuss because of the Dalai Lama's international stature - is that the Dalai Lama's involvement in Arunachal Pradesh further confuses the Indian border issue with China; and India knows that solving the border issue (something it is very keen on doing) also means further undermining the Dalai Lama's political aspirations in Tibet.

While in the short term the Dalai Lama's involvement may help India's hand, in the long term, for a solution to the border issue, the Dalai Lama will have to be removed from this political equation. The same is even truer for the Dalai Lama. For him, getting in the middle of this thorny issue may earn him some short-term gains. In the medium- and long-term, however, it weakens his position with China, India and the international community, as nobody will seriously support his political claim and thus his cession of Tawang or part of Tibet.

For China, the political position best fitting its interests is the one it appears to be taking now, after some hesitation: to downplay the role of the Dalai Lama in India and brush aside his moves as irrelevant and unimportant in order to put down his political value in any China-India border bargains. This bargaining would take years in normal times, but the present American necessity to find a quick political solution in Afghanistan - involving also Pakistan, India and China - could press all relevant parties to get their act together on many problems, including border disputes.

In his imminent visit to Beijing, United States President Barack Obama will talk to the Chinese of their possible involvement in Afghanistan, and both parties will be fully aware that this involves also the issue of Pakistan, India, Kashmir and thus the whole China-Indian frontier.

Meanwhile, this whole game, in the end, might further harm the Dalai Lama's cause so that - short of an unlikely break in hostilities between China and India - he could be sooner or later squeezed and sacrificed on the altar of a grand Asian reconciliation starting from Afghanistan. (2009-11-12 Asia Times)


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