When religion and politics mix: the Dalai Lama and India–China relations

5 April 2017 / Author: Jabin T. Jacob, ICS / East Asia Forum

Amid loud protest from Beijing, the Dalai Lama is slated to visit Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh from 5–7 April. The visit follows a public meeting with the president of India in December 2016 — the first in some 60 years — and a mid-March address at a major Buddhist conference in the state of Bihar, where the Dalai Lama shared the stage with India’s minister of culture.

Beijing’s vigorous condemnation of the visit presages a fresh round of tensions in the India–China relationship.

The Chinese have been trying to portray Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh as the central issues in the India–China boundary dispute. In doing so, they are trying to repudiate a significant clause of a landmark 2005 bilateral treaty. The clause states that ‘settled populations’ in each country’s border areas would not be disturbed in the process of reaching a boundary settlement.

Tawang, with India’s largest Buddhist monastery and a population of roughly 11,000 at last count, is as ‘settled’ as they come. This Chinese volte-face, related to continued challenges to their legitimacy in Tibet, may be one reason why boundary negotiations have not made real progress in recent years. Self-immolations in Tibetan areas in China continue, with the latest reported in March. Regaining Tawang — the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama — is seen as important to the Chinese government in its battle against the present 14th Dalai Lama.

In 2008, to Beijing’s displeasure, the Dalai Lama acknowledged the legitimacy of the colonial-era McMahon Line between today’s Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Added to this are Chinese worries about whether or not the Dalai Lama will ‘reincarnate’, that is, find his successor. If he does so in non-Chinese controlled territory, or even not at all as he has sometimes declared, it will likely ensure a continued challenge to Chinese authority in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama last visited Tawang in November 2009. So the current visit, hosted by yet another Indian central government minister Kiren Rijiju, himself a Buddhist and from Arunachal, is not entirely a novelty.

And yet there are indications that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is trying to sell the Indian public a certain sense of muscularity in its China policy.

The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi first signalled a combative approach vis-à-vis China by inviting both the Tibetan Sikyong — the prime minister equivalent of the Central Tibetan Administration — and the Taiwanese representative in New Delhi to his swearing-in in May 2014. Read more…



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