India is in the midst of a delicate diplomatic dance with China. The last thing policymakers in New Delhi wanted was for Tibet to return to the global stage – and by extension the Indian mountain hamlet of McLeod Ganj that is home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile.
But the protests that erupted in Lhasa following the March 10 anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet were hard to ignore. The Dalai Lama was quick to react to the violence, gathering a new wave of international support that has disrupted the Olympic torch’s journey around the world.
India found itself, officially, mildly on the side of China as the Olympic torch spent an unventful, but well policed, day in the country in mid-April.
The Dalai Lama is a “guest” in India and should not do anything that has a “negative impact on Indo-Sino relations,” Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters. His simple plea sidestepped decades of bitter history between India and China. It looked to the future, showing why Tibet is the elephant in the room when the two sides engage.
India needs Chinese support in the 42-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group as it moves to complete a deal with the US to sign a safeguard agreement on some of its nuclear plants. The hope is that this will end the current ban on sales of nuclear power equipment.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who sees the nuclear deal as vital to energy security, met President Hu Jintao earlier this year to seek at least tacit support from the China – also one of the five permanent UN Security Council members. The leaders also pledged anew to double trade to US$40 billion by 2010 and to try and settle a long-festering border row that brought them to war in 1962.
For both countries, 1962 is a watershed for post-war and post-colonial relations.
When the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas in 1959 after the failed uprising, it put a frost on ties between the two countries previously described by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, as Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China as brothers). Although the mauling India suffered in the subsequent war still rankles with New Delhi’s security establishment, the economic liberalization of the 1990s promised to take bilateral relations in a new direction.
However, mistrust still runs deep. Mukherjee’s recent efforts to tone down statements from McLeod Ganj were seen domestically as a sign of weakness, especially after New Delhi’s envoy to Beijing received a 2am summons over Tibetan protests at the Chinese embassy in India.
Meanwhile, India’s opposition parties are turning China into a political hot potato ahead of elections due in early 2009. They complain of Beijing scooping up the country’s iron ore reserves and pushing India around on the disputed border by encroaching into new areas. Editorials have taken note.
“In the past few months India has stomached every Chinese insult,” columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote in the Times of India on April 6. “India has become the prisoner of an unequal relationship.”
India is playing catch-up with China economically and in the race to secure new markets and commodity streams. In April, New Delhi hosted its first-ever summit with African nations to ensure its long-standing ties to the continent are not eclipsed by China. And through deals such as Tata Motors’s acquisition of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands, India has shown the potential to work as a counterweight to China in Asia. The competition may even prove a boon for their economies.
Then there are the 110,000 Tibetan exiles in India. They represent a litmus test for both sides.
Many Indians are happy and proud that the Dalai Lama has made his home at McLeod Ganj and support his stance on human rights and autonomy. Mukherjee and Singh, however, see little value in confronting China over Tibet. Rather, they recognize the region as part of China, as they delicately try step into the future.
The domestic response to the unrest in Tibet – a general condemnation of Beijing’s crackdown both in print and in actual protest – suggests that the realpolitik of India’s leadership is not a winning political formula. The electorate – like an elephant – remembers there is more to this bilateral relationship than trade.