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Why does China keep seeking reassurances on Tibet?

June 9, 2010

2010-05-31 09:40:00

China has ingrained Tibet so much into its global diplomatic discourse that there is almost no escape for anyone of consequence from taking a position on the dispute, preferably to Beijing's liking.

One way to rationalise senior Chinese leader Jia Quinglin seeking President Patil's reassurance over Tibet is to say that the Chinese just cannot help it. But that rationalisation lacks the finesse of global diplomacy which China is so obviously capable of displaying. It is not as if a tactless host made an uncalled for reference to an honoured guest. It is a deliberate element of Chinese foreign policy to raise Tibet irrespective of with whom it is being done.

Beijing is astute enough to know that in the Indian system of governance, the president is largely a figurehead who has no executive or policy role whatsoever. It is an office that becomes relevant only during times of intractable political or constitutional crises. Otherwise it is mostly about symbolism and ceremony. And yet the Chinese government chose to bring Tibet up with Patil. Why? One explanation is because it can and it must if only to remind its interlocutor that Beijing does not like any view other than the one that concurs with its own world view.

Tibet has become a virtually involuntary reflex of the Chinese policy machine. It is certain that no reference to Tibet on any forum of any consequence will go unchallenged or uncontested by Beijing. At one level the objective behind raising the subject with President Patil would have been to needle India. However, somewhere along the line such an approach betrays a deep-seated defensiveness about having annexed Tibet, even though it was done 60 years ago.

India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had this to say about Jia raising Tibet. 'All issues were raised and spoken about. And they have sought greater understanding. Jia sought, in the course of conversation, India's position on the Tibet issue. He wanted India's reassurance that on India's soil no anti-Chinese activities are allowed to take place. They wanted our reiteration and assurance on this point,' Rao said.

This is a professional and uncontroversial position to take for India but it still does not fully explain why China feels the need to keep bringing it back to all bilateral engagements if in its own mind it is a long settled matter.

If it is Beijing's unshakable conviction that Tibet was historically part of China, why is it that six decades after it incorporated the territory into the country it still feels compelled to seek India's reassurance? And why seek it from someone who has next to no role to play in the matter? A plausible answer is that at best it still remains uncertain about Tibet's cultural and emotional integration into China even though it has managed to complete its territorial integration.

It is hard to comprehend whether China harps on Tibet whenever it can because it does not want the world to forget that it owns it or because deep in its heart it still considers the incorporation tenuous. After all what difference India's position on Tibet can make in material terms for China when there is no prospect of it ever giving up a fourth of the Chinese territory that the ancient land represents? It is even more baffling considering India's frequently stated position that it considers Tibet to be an integral part of China.

Even the Dalai Lama, who for Beijing embodies everything that is repugnant about Tibet, has long eschewed the position that Tibet should be an independent country and maintained it should be an autonomous part of China with control over its cultural, social and historic destiny.

There is no reason for China to be so insecure about Tibet as to feel obliged to raise it with a visitor whose influence in Indian policymaking cannot be understated; unless of course Beijing is still trying to convince itself about the effectiveness of Tibet's assimilation into mainstream China.

(31.05.2010 - Mayank Chhaya is a US-based writer and commentator. He can be contacted at m@mayankchhaya.net )
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