02.01.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On another border incident and the 14th Dalai Lama factor in China-India relations

On December 9 this year, there was an incident between groups of soldiers from both countries at a section of the Sino-Indian border, seemingly insignificant in scale and consequence. This assessment can be used with confidence, at least in relation to the direct participants. This is to the credit of both sides, as it demonstrates the necessary level of training and discipline, as well as the ability to keep emotions within certain limits in conditions of, as they say in such cases, “a high degree of uncertainty”.

Meanwhile, the latter is present both in the situation along the entire length of the Sino-Indian borderland of some four thousand kilometers, and in relations between the two Asian giants in general. The most recent incident (so far, it seems) has not affected the established nature of bilateral relations as negatively as the previous one in the summer of 2020 in the other zone, from which the sides are still struggling to recover. However, measures taken since then in nearly two dozen meetings of high-ranking military delegations have apparently helped to keep this latest incident within the aforementioned “framework”.

An outside observer of China-India relations, which are gradually moving to the center of all Indo-Pacific processes, has to pick his or her words when marking the scene of the latest incident. In Indian media terms, it happened in the borderland of Tawang district in the western state of Arunachal Pradesh. In China, if the last two words are used at all, they are inevitably accompanied by “so called”. As in the PRC, the territory of the said Indian state is designated as “South Tibet, which was annexed in the early 20th century” through the efforts of a certain official of the “British India” administration. He then drew the (also “so called”) “McMahon line” on the map.

However, even after independence in 1947, India has been involved in conflicts of varying intensity with the PRC. One of the main consequences of these has been the aggravation of territorial claims along several sections of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This is the name given to what now separates the two largest world powers, and what in the vast majority of other cases of state neighborhood is defined by the word “border”. The current LAC cannot be transformed into such a border, despite the constant declaration (over at least the last two decades) of the desire to do just that, as well as the numerous bilateral negotiations on the subject.

Again, the failure has haunted the parties mainly because there are several zones of mutual territorial claims, totaling about 140,000 square kilometers, along the entire length of the LAC. Of these, Arunachal Pradesh/South Tibet accounts for about two-thirds. Depending on the circumstances in any of these “zones”, there are incidents with different implications for bilateral relations.

Clashes between border patrols using fists and common “improvised materials”, as happened in the Tawang area, can also be caused by accidental causes. But the answer to the question of why it happened at this moment and in this place may also include a far from random component.

The latest incident is notable not only because it took place in an area of the most extensive territorial disputes, but also for the fact that Tawang is home to a 17th-century monastery that is revered as a major shrine in Tibetan Buddhism. For this reason, the current spiritual leader of world Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama, periodically visits Tawang. In 1959, after the suppression of a separatist rebellion in Tibet, he fled to neighboring India, making an intermediate stop in Tawang.

However, his permanent base then became Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, adjacent to what is now the “Tibet Autonomous Region” of the PRC. The so-called “Tibetan Parliament and Government in Exile” are based in Dharamshala. The current Supreme Lama himself, according to him, has not been involved in politics for some ten years now, having concentrated entirely on the spiritual guidance of his co-religionists.

It is a dubious assertion in itself, since in any kind of individual activity it is impossible to completely disconnect from the problems of the world around us. All the more so when it comes to such an important figure as the 14th Dalai Lama, all of whose movements are under the scrutiny of Beijing. His trips to Tawang (i.e. 2,000 km away from Dharamshala) have invariably prompted demarches by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to its Indian counterparts. Since, according to the official position of the former, the “leader of the Tibetan separatists” is visiting “Chinese territory”, with the assistance of the latter. That is, these latter are suspected of not just providing refuge to Tibetan fugitives, but actually encouraging their various “separatist activities”.

Such suspicions, at least, are not always well grounded. For example, during Xi Jinping’s working visit to India in October 2019, when another cycle of positivity in bilateral relations (launched a year earlier in Wuhan) was at its peak, Indian police brutally cracked down on attempts at anti-China actions by “Tibetans in exile”. Those arrived at the venue of the meeting of the two leaders, i.e. in the resort town of Mamallapuram near Chennai.

But in less than a year, China-India relations have plummeted to almost their lowest level since they were established. And today the parties are making efforts to restore them in some way.

The 14th Dalai Lama’s plans to visit Taiwan, as he himself said during a visit by a delegation from the island’s Chamber of Commerce to his residence in Dharamshala on December 14, could prove to be another serious test for China-India relations. This delegation was in India at the time, as they say, on “core” business. By the way, both of these facts seem remarkable.

During the meeting, the host said a lot of things that are not in favor of his alleged retreat from current international politics. This was undoubtedly the case during his previous trip to Taiwan 13 years ago, which had been conducted under the same pretext of the need to provide spiritual guidance to the island’s Buddhists. The latter had then been severely affected by a series of devastating earthquakes which had plagued residents of both Taiwan and neighboring provinces of China for several years.

However, such explanations of the reasons for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the island even then, i.e. when the state of relations between China and India was much more favorable than today, did not prevent a diplomatic demarche by the former towards the latter. The consequences for bilateral relations would be much more serious if such a trip were to take place in our time. Although one could take into account the delicacy of the situation of the current Indian government, which has only inherited the problem that arose long before it due to the very fact of a large Tibetan diaspora headed by its spiritual leader being on its territory.

With regard to the conflict under discussion in Tawang, no such “delicacy” is shown by some of the leaders of the opposition party of the Indian National Congress, who have accused the government of Narendra Modi (who heads the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) of not doing enough to counter “Chinese aggression”. The response was that it was during the reign of the Indian National Congress (“led by the Nehru-Gandhi clan who lost the 1962 war”) that India suffered territorial losses.

It is about several tens of thousands of square kilometers of territory in the former principality of Ladakh, where the penultimate incident took place two years ago, and which, again, had a particularly damaging impact on China-India relations. Nearby (in Uttarkhand), the annual joint exercise of elite units of the Indian and US armed forces was held in late November with a clear anti-Chinese message. The Tawang incident occurred almost immediately afterwards. Although it may just be a series of unrelated events. All the more so as they are separated geographically by thousands of kilometers.

In general, however, the nature of the incident in Tawang reflects quite accurately the current precarious state of relations between the two major Asian powers. Again, it is unlikely to be a reason to interrupt the process (already very cautious) of bringing this relationship out of the slump it found itself in two years ago.

But the very possibility of China-India relations reaching a “pre-Ladakh” level is hardly even remotely foreseeable.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.