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Editorial: It's a dim sum game

October 22, 2009

Prem Shankar Jha
The Hindustan Times
October 20, 2009

The media have responded to China’s unusually
strong demarche over Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh with a
universal cry of ‘How Dare You’? Such
sanctimonious outrage serves little purpose.
China dares because it is now accepted as the
second most powerful nation in the world and
holds the keys to the US treasury. These are
facts. Railing against them will not serve any useful purpose.

Continuing to do so can, however, push us into
war. Every single action of the Chinese in the
past two years -- from the denial of a visa to an
official from Arunachal Pradesh in 2007 to the
270 incursions across the Line of Actual Control
this year -- has been a carefully calibrated escalation of the border dispute.

The only mystery is their motive. Is the
escalation designed to provoke India into doing
something that will justify the annexation of
Tawang and other parts of the so-called disputed
areas? Or is China using pressure on Arunachal to
pursue an entirely different goal?

The accepted view in Delhi is that after its
phenomenal growth, and the spectacular success of
the Beijing Olympics, China believes that it has
once again become the centre of the world and
will brook no rivals. A small, winnable, war in
the Himalayas -- like the US’s war on Grenada in
1983 and Britain’s in the Falklands in 1982 --
would end the Indian challenge once and for all.

There is, however, a second explanation. But one
needs to look at the world through Beijing’s eyes
to grasp it. These are the eyes of a country
whose electrifying growth has created an
alarming, and so far uncontained, rise in social
discontent. These are the eyes of a country with
no fewer than 56 minorities, the two largest of
which are in open revolt. These are the eyes of a
country that has had no experience of political
accommodation in the past two millennia and does not now know where to start.

All of these anxieties are reflected in its
reaction to its failure to assimilate Tibet. For
this the Chinese hold India responsible because
it has kept the Tibetan cultural and political
identity alive by sheltering the Dalai Lama. This
was the bone of contention that led to the 1962
war. It is almost certainly the real bone of contention today.

After the Sino-Indian rapprochement in 1993,
Beijing was prepared to overlook the presence of
the Dalai Lama in India. But its attitude has
hardened after two recent developments. The first
is the emergence of a younger, restive,
generation of Tibetans-in-exile whom the Dalai
Lama does not really control. The second is
satellite telephony and the internet, which have
enabled these elements to build links with their
counterparts in Tibet, to weave together what
could be the first ‘virtual’ nation in the history of humanity.

The March 2008 uprising in Lhasa, which spread
quickly to towns in three other provinces,
brought Beijing face to face with these changes
for five of the seven organisation that
instigated it had little to do with the Dalai
Lama. Nevertheless since the planning took place
in Dharamsala, Beijing concluded that the Dalai
Lama had given the so-called March ‘plot’ his blessings.

This suspicion turned into certainty when, in the
eighth round of autonomy talks with Beijing in
April 2008, the Dalai Lama continued to insist
that autonomy should be granted not just to the
Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) but to ‘Greater Tibet’.

Faced with this demand the Chinese
representatives, at the April conference, went
ballistic and stormed out. For Greater Tibet
includes TAR and parts of four other Chinese
provinces, and covers one quarter of China’s land
area. By contrast, Kashmir valley, which also has
six million inhabitants, occupies only 0.13 per cent of India’s land area.

Vivisecting China may have been the last thing in
the Dalai Lama’s mind. But an already paranoid
Chinese State could not afford to ignore this
possibility. The escalating tension with India
reflects Beijing’s inability to reconcile India’s
professions of friendship with its willingness to
allow the Dalai Lama to raise such subversive and
‘splitist’ demands from Indian soil.

The resulting confrontation has now acquired a
life of its own and is leading the two countries
towards a war that neither wants. The calibrated
escalation of China’s  demands and actions
suggests that the point of no return will be the
Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in November. Wen
Jiabao’s request for a meeting with Manmohan
Singh in Bangkok should, therefore, be seen as a
last ditch effort to avert war.

Fortunately for India, reversing the escalation
does not require making humiliating concessions.
All that New Delhi needs to do is clear up the
misapprehensions that have taken root in the Chinese leaders’ minds.

India never has, and never will, support the
demand for an autonomous ‘Greater Tibet’. Its
every reference to autonomy so far has been
limited to the TAR. This is a carefully
considered position, for any departure would open
a Pandora’s box within India that New Delhi would never be able to close.

It has not associated itself with the details of
the Dalai Lama’s latest autonomy proposal only
out of an exaggerated respect for China’s
internal sovereignty. But this could easily
change if China were to hint that India could
play a mediator’s role and make the Dalai Lama lower his demands.

Time, however, is running short. The immediate
need is to persuade the Dalai Lama to postpone
his visit to Tawang. This should not prove
difficult for he could hardly be relishing the
prospect of setting the house he has been living
in on fire. A postponement will buy time for the
two countries to clear misunderstandings and
evolve a policy that brings peace to Tibet.

* Prem Shankar Jha is the author of The Twilight
of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War.
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