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Posted at: Apr 15, 2017, 12:57 AM; last updated: Apr 15, 2017, 12:57 AM (IST)

Dalai Lama in Tawang: What next

The visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tawang and the Bangladesh Prime Minister's visit are part of Modi's scrimmage to preserve India's regional primacy that is not playing out well. The Modi government is now struggling to keep the strongman mask intact for domestic consumption.
Dalai Lama in Tawang: What next
UNHOLY MESS: Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrives to deliver a sermon in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh. Reuters

ARUNACHAL Pradesh, the furthermost state from mainland India, features in the news only on two occasions. One, when its ideologically fickle legislators bend to the political wind blowing in Delhi and, two, when the China factor comes into play. This time it is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on one of his rare visits to Arunachal Pradesh, that is providing fodder to the media.

Bangladesh too swims into national consciousness when a new government recalibrates its ties with New Delhi or if friendly overtures by Beijing get too sugary to bear.

Last week, both events took place simultaneously. The Dalai Lama made his seventh visit to Arunachal Pradesh in the six decades he has lived here in exile. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked the extra mile by receiving Sheikh Hasina at the airport. Both illustrate the twin challenges — maintaining vibrant economic ties and keeping the neighbourhood sanitised — that Modi is trying to juggle while keeping the strongman mask intact for domestic consumption. 

However, beneath the bravado, the sifting sands of international politics are becoming tough to navigate. China is examining both developments closely. India's publicisation of the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh, deliberately announced three months in advance, preceded by the feting of a US Ambassador in Tawang may have prompted one of its senior leaders, once closely involved in border talks and therefore acquainted with all its intricacies, to reopen a settled issue. 

He has suggested that as part of an overall border settlement, India hand over to China portions of Arunachal Pradesh. These are the Buddhist-dominated areas that are especially agog over Dalai Lama's visit. This stance by the retired official clearly goes against the painfully agreed upon Article VII of "Political Parameters and Agreed Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Border Question."  These agreed to "safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas." 

The defence framework agreement with Bangladesh advertises desperation after China opened another front by transferring used submarines in its navy. Then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was forced to shelve his preoccupation with Goa politics and make an air dash to Dhaka five days after China handed over the submarines to Bangladesh. Shortly thereafter, a training team of the Indian Navy landed in Bangladesh to elbow out Chinese sailors from sailing in sensitive areas of the Bay of Bengal under the pretext of acquainting Bangladeshi submariners with the intricacy of handling underwater boats.   

Why did the Chinese offer the submarine bait to Bangladesh whose only two neighbours are the over-friendly India and a militarily-underequipped Myanmar? One reason is that a civil nuclear plant and submarines are Sheikh Hasina's efforts to portray herself as the builder of a modern Bangladesh. The second is that Bangladesh is also a crucial geopolitical location for a branch line of China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) Project. Called the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) corridor, it has already won Bangladesh a $24 billion credit offer from China. But the Chinese vision is competing against another economic corridor being underwritten by India, the US and its regional allies, chiefly Japan. 

The Prime Minister's core adviser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh nominee Ram Madhav, is convinced that the squaring up to China and its activities in the region are the inevitable stumbling blocks on India's path to greatness and world status. If only it was that simple.

The Indian strategy during the UPA decade was to insert itself in the South China Sea dispute to buy insurance from Chinese adventurism on the border. At the same time, the South Block took care to schedule summit meetings at frequent intervals to clear the air as well as keep communication channels open to eliminate all chances of a border flare-up turning ugly. In order to avoid giving the impression of India having moved into the American orbit, the UPA hung back from inking three military agreements with the Pentagon. The US was nevertheless kept interested in the India story with prospects of setting up nuclear plants and lucrative contracts for military. The Modi government has been struggling to maintain this balance. It paid the cost for inviting a US President to grace the Republic Day parade: India had to sign a military agreement that would permit US warships to replenish from Indian ports with minimal red tape. New Delhi was also compelled to spell out a position on South China Sea closely mirroring the American stance. As if to underscore this tilt, an American admiral let it be known that the US and India were sharing intelligence on the movement of Chinese naval ships. But once the government changed in the US, all these initiatives are up for a review. India had to be content with its National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary having conversations with their counterparts.

In contrast, to the assurance of a Trump-Modi interaction later in the year, the US President hosted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for a rare two days at his private top-end vacationing club. The spin from the South Block is that NSA Ajit Doval was able to convey Indian concerns about Pakistan and China during his interactions. The evidence is thin. True, the new American NSA, H R McMaster, will be here. But South Block should be concerned that all its previous battles to delink India from Afghanistan and Pakistan have been rolled back. His schedule lists all three countries, indicating India will again have to work hard to de-hyphenate itself from the other two. 

The White House's hesitant tango with Russia, which is locked in a close energy relationship with China, is another dissuading factor in plumping for the Indian corner in case of a Sino-India security-related fracas. As compared to previous occasions, Moscow might be unwilling to play mediator after China rebuffed an attempt to arrange for a Russia-India-China  meeting of defence ministers.

New Delhi would be aware of this predicament. This is the reason for India embracing the Russo-Chinese stance on all developments in the Middle East in a BRICS joint communique released earlier in the week. This also explains the invitation to all 10 ASEAN heads of government for next year's Republic Day parade.


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