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New Delhi's delicate dance over Tibet

As Beijing grows stronger, India shows China respect but will not abandon Dalai Lama

| India

Commemoration of 60 years of exile in India by the Dalai Lama and his followers has highlighted a big dilemma for New Delhi -- how to remain hospitable to its guests in the face of China's growing power and assertiveness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been criticized for curbing some of the resident Tibetan refugees' more strident anti-China public demonstrations and displays.

But the truth is that, even though New Delhi is militarily and economically weaker than Beijing, it is playing a difficult hand well. While some Tibetans' calls for independence seem doomed, India's interests lie in seeking an autonomous Tibet within China. It is not just a matter of principled support for the Dalai Lama but also of enhancing India's own security on its long borders with China.

The Dalai Lama's stardom and his advocacy for nonviolence has captured the international imagination for decades. But for India, Tibet is much more than a humanitarian or cultural issue. The Chinese-controlled region's strategic location between India and the Chinese heartlands and its position as the origin of three major rivers that flow into India, mean that Tibet has a geopolitical dimension that New Delhi publicly downplays but privately frets about.

By virtue of hosting around 120,000 Tibetan refugees and supporting the Tibetan "government-in-exile" headquartered in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala, India is the keeper of the flame of Tibetan identity outside Tibet itself, which is under tight Chinese Communist control.

Had it not been for India's continuing generosity in hosting the Dalai Lama and his fleeing followers when they escaped the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) invasion of 1959, there would be no "Tibet cause" left today.

Without the Tibetans in India there would be little of their global identity campaign that focuses on what they see as the cultural genocide in their lost homeland. The 6 million Tibetans in Tibet live under tight restrictions and have been overwhelmed by the deliberate controlled immigration inflow of as many as 7.5 million Han Chinese settlers.

Official claims in India that the presence of the Tibetan refugees does not pose a political threat to Chinese sovereignty in Tibet belies the reality that New Delhi has granted freedom to the Dalai Lama's Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to carry out international outreach. For instance, the sobering figure of 153 Tibetan monks who have died committing self-immolation in Chinese-controlled Tibet since 2009 is circulated worldwide only due to the CTA's efforts.

It is in recognition of India's pivotal role in the Tibetan cause that the Dalai Lama and his followers are organizing a year-long "Thank You India" campaign in 2018.

But India is treading carefully in light of China's growing strength and the military pressure China is exerting along the 4,057km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating the two countries.

New Delhi is restraining the political actions of the Tibetan refugees as a confidence-building concession to China.

Accusations that India is politically "abandoning" Tibetans and bowing to Beijing have been thrown around for years. They reflect historical anxiety among radical Tibetan activists and their sympathizers that China is gobbling up Tibet while India watches helplessly.

These apprehensions have increased as China has grown stronger and last year exerted its military muscle at Doklam, a point in the Himalayas where India, China and tiny Bhutan meet. India emerged successful from this nerve-wracking standoff and forced Chinese troops to pull back from encroaching on Bhutanese territory. But New Delhi expects the better-equipped Chinese forces to stage more such incidents to embarrass India.

Modi's government has adopted a two-pronged strategy to handle China after Doklam. First, it is conveying to the Tibetan refugees to tone down overt anti-China campaigns. Notably, it shifted the venue of the "Thank You India" flagship event from New Delhi to Dharamsala and urged senior Indian officials to avoid participating at "a very sensitive time" in India-China relations. The only high-level figures who attended were the Culture Minister and a leader of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Secondly, Modi is ramping up India's military defenses across the disputed line of actual control (LAC). India's troop density along vulnerable stretches has risen as has deployment of advanced tanks, missiles and fighter jets. The aim is to not alarm the Chinese -- including through confrontation over Tibet -- while seeking parity with China on the military front.

After Doklam, Modi is also seeking to mend fences with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Indian prime minister is eager to avoid any Chinese strategic surprises that might harm him politically before next year's general election. Since the disastrous Sino-Indian war of 1962, Indian leaders know that failure in handling China intelligently can be their political grave.

New Delhi's critics lament that India's current desire to soften the anti-China slant of Tibetan refugees is an acknowledgement that it has a weak hand. The unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump's strategy toward China is adding to India's sense that it must reorganize its game plan toward China as per the changing international power equations. If Trump has no coherent plan or coalition to counterbalance China, New Delhi will look to avoid direct collisions with Beijing.

Yet, Modi is not totally silencing Tibetan refugees in the way neighboring Nepal (which hosts over 20,000 Tibetans) has done at China's behest. As a nationalist politician, Modi does not wish to be painted as an appeaser. His government has clarified that India's commitment to the "One China principle" (recognizing Tibet as well as Taiwan as a part of China) is conditional upon Beijing not threatening India's territorial integrity.

Modi is also aware that the Dalai Lama is now 82 years old and that when he passes away Beijing can declare his successor from within Tibet and accelerate the region's assimilation into China. India will lose whatever little leverage it has on Tibet's destiny if it does not work with the Dalai Lama on anointing his successor. China has already usurped the traditional Tibetan functions of naming and nurturing the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa (the heads of two other major spiritual centers of Tibetan Buddhism alongside the Dalai Lama). Naming the next Dalai Lama will likely create a fresh tug-of-war between New Delhi and Beijing.

India is rightly not giving up on Tibet until there is -- at a minimum -- genuine autonomy inside China. No barter deal, whereby China finally settles the border disputes in return for India eschewing the Dalai Lama, is conceivable. An autonomous, if not free Tibet, would be a powerful bolster for New Delhi's security, acting as a political buffer which reduces tension between the Indian and Chinese militaries. While India currently has little influence on how China governs Tibet, it ideally wants to be a stakeholder in a final settlement of the whole problem. Modi's mix of diplomatic caution and military preparedness may eventually ensure such leverage.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His most recent book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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