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Chinese Premier's Visit: Tibet remains the core issue

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • May 31, 2013

    Li Keqiang’s visit to India raises a pertinent question whether his visit suggests a change in China’s strategy towards India or it is a mere continuation of the old one. Clearly in Beijing’s perspective, the core irritant in India-China relations is the Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue. This remains the central concern for the new leadership as well. Therefore, Li’s visit to India is not to be seen in terms of upgrading India-China relations but addressing the Chinese concerns in the region emanating from the Tibet issue.

    To tackle the Tibet issue, the existing strategy of the Chinese leadership has been two- fold: internally, it devised the minority policy to weave the Tibetans into the idea of a Chinese nation and adopted the Western development strategy to integrate the economically backward periphery with the China core. Externally, it made Tibet the primary focus in dealing with the neighbouring countries, India and Nepal where substantial number of Tibetans have taken refuge from the Chinese Communist government. Consequently, the Indian government has been forced to acquiesce to the Chinese demands that New Delhi should not allow any anti-Chinese Tibetan protests in its soil and also significantly, it should control its media from “irresponsible” dissemination of news on India-China relations. With Nepal, China has sought the same assurances of not allowing its soil for any kind of anti-Chinese activities. Further till 2010, Beijing has carried out talks with the Tibetan Government in Exile hoping to compel the Dalai Lama to accept the singular reality that Tibet has always been a part of China.

    Besides diplomatic and political means, the Chinese leadership following Deng Xiaoping’s principle has insisted on India since the 1980s to keep aside the border problem (which is India’s core concern) and focus on building economic linkages. India-China trade has thus spiraled and targeted to achieve $100billion by 2015. Thus far, China’s primary strategy has been to keep politics separate in its relations with India and solely focus on the economic issues.

    Apparently, this strategy though has been working well, has failed to produce the desired result. The 2008 Tibetan protests, followed by the Dalai Lama’s devolution of power indicated to the Chinese that the Tibet issue instead of becoming obscure is gaining strength. The 117 self-immolations further revealed the hollowness of its strategy of economic development. With India, while China has succeeded in keeping economic and political issues separate, it failed to force India give up the Tibet card. Arguably, China has realized that it cannot handle the Tibet question without the cooperation of the Indian government which shelters the Dalai Lama and 1, 20, 000 Tibetan refugees.

    China has thus, apparently fine-tuned the existing strategy of economic engagement as the means to achieve stability in Tibet. Of course it still means keeping politics and economics separate and therefore according no space for any discussion on Tibet with India or with the Dalai Lama. Like its predecessors, the new leadership also believes in not reviving the talks with the exiled Tibetan government in Dharamsala. However, it is increasingly floating the idea of forming a trilateral cooperation involving India-Nepal-China. This economic trilateral bridge is all the more essential when Chinese trade with the Western world is shrinking following the Euro-zone crisis that would certainly hit its Western development strategy, the key strategy to tame the restive Tibet. Incidentally, in 2012, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Yang Houlan said that “China is pushing its ‘Develop West Strategy’ and South Asia represents one of the main overseas investment opportunities. Nepal could provide China the much needed overland channel to South Asia.” The idea of trilateralism got further fillip when between April 27 and 30, 2013 Nepal’s Maoist leader, Pushpkamal Dahal Prachanda visited India right after concluding his China tour on April 20 and raised the issue of trilateral cooperation. Evidently, China is increasingly viewing its relations with India and Nepal and its Tibetan problem as an integrated issue and is therefore, seeking a regional solution in terms of economic trilateral integration.

    Trilateralism would evidently help to address the Tibetan question in cognizance of the Indian government by primarily binding India, Nepal and China in a strong web of economic interdependency. Clearly, this benign Chinese strategy is likely to dilute India’s Tibet card. Further, it would enable China to expand its influence in South Asia, marginalizing India’s preeminent position in the subcontinent. More critically, it would buttress China’s rightful entry to a full membership of the SAARC by virtue of its contribution in promoting economic regionalism in South Asia.

    Further, by choosing India as the first leg of his foreign tour since assuming premiership, and by stating to “forge a new type of great power relationship”, Li Keqiang has evidently sought to dilute New Delhi’s keenness to join Beijing’s archenemy, the US. More than that, it wants to impress upon India that it is a great country at par with the West and hence Beijing’s interest in reaching out to it. However, it tries to woo India not by endorsing India’s membership in the United Nations Security Council or by diluting its all-weather relationship with Pakistan but merely by focusing on deeper economic ties with India, including opportunities for FTA. In fact, the Joint Statement signed on May 20, 2013, dwells in great detail on financial and economic linkages from paragraph six to eleven while other issues find mentioned in the latter paragraphs, including the border issue, a core issue for India, in the twenty- fourth paragraph. This overwhelming economic focus is tuned to serve Chinese interests in handling the Tibet issue as well as eroding India’s influence in the South Asian region.

    The Joint Statement also for the first time highlights setting up of “India-China high-level media forum.” One wonders if it has anything to do with taming the Indian media as previously the Chinese government blamed the Indian media for their reportage detrimental to India-China relations. This would allow the Indian government to play into Chinese hands and weaken the Indian media from emerging into an alternative watchdog on Chinese activities.

    Li’s visit to India is thus not meant to usher in any change in India-China relations but to address merely China’s concerns in Tibet and bolster its influence in South Asia. To do this, Beijing seeks not to treat New Delhi in bilateral terms but place India-China relations in a regional perspective. It is thus, primarily focused on fine-tuning economic engagement with the region. Hence, the Joint Statement highlights the Nathula border trade in the sixteenth paragraph and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) sub-regional efforts in the seventeenth paragraph.

    Li’s visit is in no way intended to offer solution to the vexed issue of border incursion. Little wonder thus, his entourage comprised largely of bankers, business groups, senior development officials and infrastructure executives. Also, Li is now attentive to India’s concerns on trade imbalance. Strangely, however, while the Joint Statement points out in the ninth paragraph that “the Indian side welcomed Chinese enterprises to invest in India and participate in India’s infrastructure development,” no reciprocal Chinese assurances for allowing Indian companies to operate in the Chinese market finds exclusive mention in the statement. In sum, even in the economic sphere India-China relations remains skewed. This has happened because Li came to pursue China’s national interest and not to enrich India-China bilateral ties.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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