Dragon’s Crucial Gesture

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Prem Shankar JhaPrem Shankar Jha 
Senior Journalist

FOUR WEEKS have passed since Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao met at Hua Hin, in Thailand, and almost no one outside the government has the faintest idea of what actually happened during that meeting. Minutes after it ended, an Indian spokesman told the media that neither of the two issues on which attention had been focussed for the past two weeks, the war of words over the status of Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama’s impending visit to Tawang, came up for discussion during the talks. The Chinese were equally reticent. China Daily’s first posting on the web, barely half an hour after the meeting ended, was equally anodyne: “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh here on Saturday to discuss bilateral ties and issues of common concern.” On what these issues were, it said not a single word. Two days later the Global Times, the English version of the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Peoples’ Daily, was equally cryptic: “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh agreed on Saturday in Hua Hin to gradually narrow differences on border issues between the two countries. The two sides agreed to continue talks, with the aim of incrementally removing the barriers to a solution that was fair and acceptable to both sides”.

Sore point China has been uneasy about the Dalai Lama keeping the Tibetan issue alive from Indian soil
Sore point China has been uneasy about the Dalai Lama keeping the Tibetan issue alive from Indian soil
Photo: AFP

So was the meeting only about atmospherics? Did the two leaders discuss nothing of importance? Hungry for something to report, the Indian TV channels concluded from the spokesman’s statement that Manmohan Singh had ‘hung tough’ on both issues and the Chinese had ‘taken it’. Singh strengthened this impression when he said at a press conference the day after the meeting that he had indeed touched upon China’s plans for power projects on the Brahmaputra and made it clear that the Dalai Lama was an honoured guest in India.

As the days passed, a more nuanced interpretation has gradually emerged. Overreaction in the Indian media to various Chinese actions in recent months that could scarcely be called friendly, had created a mounting hysteria in both countries that had begun to threaten peace between them. This prompted Premier Wen Jiabao to propose a meeting with Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the APEC conference in Hua Hin, to clear the air.

The meeting was an unqualified success. The first hint of this was Premier Wen Jiabao’s explicit reference to ‘border issues’ and his reiteration that China wants a solution that is fair and acceptable to both sides. This was many leagues distant from the increasingly strident claims to the ‘disputed region’ of ‘Southern Tibet’ with which the Chinese media and think tanks had been regaling their public in recent months. The change was underlined by the complete absence of any of these and other such references in the two media dispatches mentioned above. But the clinching proof is the complete calm that has descended over the Himalayan region and the sudden cessation of unfriendly references to India on Chinese websites. In sum we are back where we were in 2005, on an overgrown but still visible path to peace. To say that this was a diplomatic triumph would be an understatement.

Three weeks after Hua Hin it is possible to reconstruct why India-China relations went into reverse gear. The issue was always Tibet. China has made no secret of its continuing unease over the Dalai Lama’s presence in India and the way in which he has been able to keep the Tibetan issue alive from Indian soil. Indeed, every hostile action, from the 1962 border war to its handing over of the trigger mechanism of the atom bomb to Pakistan, can be traced back to its resentment of the way in which India has made it possible for Tibetans in exile to keep their identity alive. But the two countries’ relations improved steadily from Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 till Wen Jiabao’s visit to Delhi in 2005. Wen’s visit, in fact, marked a high point because Beijing used it to signal its acceptance of Sikkim as an integral part of India.

Media overreaction to Chinese actions had begun to threaten peace between the two countries

The first step back may have been taken, inadvertently, by New Delhi. In December 2005, the MEA upgraded the level of the liaison officer for contacts with the Dalai Lama’s office from an under secretary to a director. This came close on the heels of a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Foreign Secretary in November 2005 and was followed by another in February 2006. New Delhi may have wanted nothing more than to keep itself better informed about the Dalai Lama’s talks with Beijing and to signal its continuing support for him against a growing challenge to his authority within the Tibetan community. But Beijing interpreted this as a step towards the de facto recognition of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. It signalled its displeasure by getting its ambassador in Delhi to remind India of its claims to Arunachal Pradesh just three days before President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in December 2006.

The deterioration of Sino-Indian relations accelerated sharply after the March 2008 uprising in Tibet. China accused seven Tibetan groups of having instigated it after a meeting in Delhi in December 2007, followed by one in March 2008, days before it began. But, by then, Beijing was in search of a scapegoat for its failure to assimilate Tibet. Its choice of India was made easier by a meeting between the Indian Foreign Secretary and the Dalai Lama that had taken place in February 2008.

Beijing responded to the March uprising with actions and statements aimed at India that could only be described as threatening. By August this year, media and think tank reactions in the two countries had begun to lock them on a course that led to war.

Singh had discussed Tibet and the Dalai Lama with Wen while they were sitting side by side at dinner

At Hua Hin, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh succeeded in reversing this trend, but he did not do this by ‘hanging tough’. Notwithstanding what the Indian spokesman told the media immediately after their meeting was over, it is clear that the two prime ministers did discuss Tibet. When asked pointedly at his press conference on Sunday, October 25, whether he had discussed the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, he said that it had not been raised at the delegation-level talks. He did not say that Tibet had not come up during the 30-minute one-to-one talks with Wen Jiabao that followed. In fact Manmohan Singh gave the game away when he said that he had discussed Tibet and the Dalai Lama with Wen when they were sitting side by side at dinner. That state dinner occurred eight hours after their meeting. It is inconceivable that either prime minister would have raised so serious a subject in such an informal and public venue if they had not already discussed it earlier. Singh’s remark revealed they had not only done so but had achieved a sufficient degree of ease with each other over the subject to be able to also touch upon the potentially explosive issue of the harnessing of the Brahmaputra.

What could Singh have said that put the Chinese premier so much at ease? We will never know for sure, but subsequent developments give us a fairly good idea of what it might have been. On the one hand Delhi has done all it can to keep the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang a purely local and religious event, and deprive it of any political significance. It has done this by preventing foreign nationals (including journalists) from visiting Tawang, by denying them restricted area passes for Arunachal Pradesh. It has also been extremely strict in issuing inner line passes to Indians. This may not entirely prevent the descent of outsiders on Tawang, because a number of passes were issued several weeks ahead of time. But Delhi has left Beijing in no doubt about its intentions. It now remains to be seen how China will react to the visit itself. It would be wise not to take its understanding for granted, for no matter what impressions Wen Jiabao may have taken back with him, there are hawks in Beijing also, and no dearth of paranoia over Tibet.

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