Wrong signals

Print edition : November 07, 1998

The meeting between Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the Dalai Lama has caused further strain in Sino-Indian relations.

A MEETING between Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and the Dalai Lama, in the third week of October has created a controversy. The Tibetan spiritual leader has had meetings with Prime Ministers I.K. Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda. But those meetings took place in an atmoshpere of improving relations with China. Given the strains in Sino-Indian relations since Pokhran-II, China does not see the latest meeting as a routine one. On the Indian side, the Prime Minister's Office issued a brief press release about the meeting.

The Chinese Government reacted strongly to the news. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Beijing: "The meeting ... violated the commitment of the Indian side of not allowing the Dalai Lama to engage in anti-China political activities in India." He said that it had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and expressed his country's "deep resentment and regret". The Dalai Lama, he said, was not merely a religious figure but a political exile who "has engaged in anti-China activities aimed to split the motherland and undermine national harmony."

The Chinese had protested when the Dalai Lama met Gujral and Deve Gowda but the language used then was comparatively mild. It has been the Chinese policy to lodge a protest whenever government officials of any country met the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Government protested against President Bill Clinton's meeting with the Dalai Lama in the office of Vice-President Al Gore when the Dalai Lama visited Washington in 1996.

Official sources in India initially described the Dalai Lama's meeting with Vajpayee as a courtesy call. But in the wake of the Chinese reaction, the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the "reaction of the Chinese side is neither called for nor justified. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been received in his capacity as a revered spiritual and religious personage by successive Indian Prime Ministers." Therefore it was not a violation of any commitment given to China. The Ministry claimed that Tibet was no longer an issue in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Chinese diplomats, however, insist that along with Tibet, Taiwan is of utmost importance to China. They suspect that India, under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government, has once again started playing the Tibet card. This impression, according to them, has been reinforced by certain events. For instance, Defence Minister George Fernandes, an outspoken supporter of the "free Tibet" movement, expressed the view that China was India's potential Threat Number One. Earlier, after assuming office, Fernandes played a role in encouraging Tibetan exiles in Delhi to stage noisy demonstrations.

Chinese officials say that only two countries have extended hospitality to "governments in exile": India, to the "Tibetan government-in-exile" based in Dharmasala and Turkey, to the "Uyghur government-in-exile". They point out that the Turkish Government has opposed any overt display of activism by the Uyghur exiles.

Another reason for China taking umbrage at the Vajpayee-Dalai Lama meeting is its timing. The Dalai Lama is all set for a visit to western Europe and the United States in November, which may turn out to be historic. Indications are that he is on the verge of making important concessions to Beijing at Washington's behest. He is expected to respond positively to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's demand that he recognise Tibet and Taiwan as integral parts of China.

During his visit to China this year, Clinton told Jiang Zemin that the Dalai Lama was a "nice man" whom Zemin should meet. The Chinese authorities are preparing for such a meeting soon. There are reports emanating from Tibetan exile sources that the Dalai Lama will visit Mount Wutai, considered sacred by Buddhists, in the Shanxi province in northern China. Beijing suspects that the present Government in New Delhi is trying to prevail on the Dalai Lama to harden his stance on the issue of recognising China's sovereignty over Tibet. Most of the hardliners in the "Tibetan government-in-exile" are based in India.

After Pokhran-II, especially after the contents of the letter written by Vajpayee to Clinton became public, the Chinese approach towards India has cooled. Chinese suspicions were further strengthened when the Director-General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Gautam Kaul, made the allegation that China has substantially increased its military presence along the border since March. He told the media that Chinese troops were "flexing" their muscles along the 2,115-km long border. Kaul's observations were countered by Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, who said that there were no signs of "unusual activity" along the Sino-Indian border. Beijing had described Kaul's observations as "inaccurate".

There is now a consensus in Beijing that if India uses the Tibet card China should not hesitate to use the "Kashmir" card. "We are as sensitive about Tibet as India is about Kashmir," said a Chinese official. There is also a minority view in the Chinese Government that problem areas such as Punjab and the northeastern region should also be pushed on to the diplomatic frontburner if India continues to play the "Tibet" card. At the same time, Chinese officials feel that the current turbulence in Sino-Indian relations is a passing phase. They quote Jiang Zemin as having told top officials in Beijing recently that he had "immense faith in the great Indian people who believe in peace and stability for the entire region". In this context, the Chinese side has noted President K.R. Narayanan's remarks during his visit to Nepal earlier this year. Narayanan said in Kathmandu that the disputes between the two countries were of a temporary nature.

The Chinese side views the BJP's position on China as "extreme" and that things will improve when secular forces come back to power. Beijing has, meanwhile, responded positively to signals from the Indian side for the resumption of the meetings of the Joint Working Group (JWG). Brajesh Mishra, who is emerging as the de facto External Affairs Minister, said in late October that India did not regard China as its "enemy" and would like to resolve all "substantive problems" through bilateral dialogue. He said that the next JWG meeting would be held in Beijing and that discussions were under way to finalise the dates.

According to diplomatic sources, an experts group from both sides will meet in Beijing on December 17 and on top of the agenda will be Vajpayee's letter to Clinton.

Beijing has also sent another positive signal. It promptly acceded to India's request that a new pilgrim route to Kailash Mansoravar be opened.

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