Saturday, April 5, 2008

Mentality of retreat -- Kanwal Sibal

Mentality of retreat

Kanwal Sibal

Without doubt we have to manage our relations with China sensibly. The disparity of power between us cannot be ignored. China occupies or lays claims to sizeable chunks of our territory and has the military resources to back its position. China has previously supported insurgencies in India; continuing unrest in the North-East gives it opportunity to do so clandestinely in the future. China's support to Pakistan presents a continuing political and military challenge to us, which we try to counter by broadening our engagement with it. Our burgeoning trade relationship with China now weighs in our decision-making. Improved relations with China also give a better balance to our foreign policy.

We abandoned the Tibetan cause decades ago, initially as a result of political calculation. We neutralised the Dalai Lama politically by giving him asylum on the understanding that he would not engage in any political activity on Indian soil. We thought this would remove him as an obstacle in reaching a border settlement with China. The 1962 military debacle, the occupation by the Chinese of large tracts of our territory since and their politically offensive claims on Arunachal Pradesh added the element of fear of China to our policy of distancing ourselves from the Dalai Lama.

Surprisingly, the person the Chinese revile and, possibly, fear, is of no use to us for putting some counter-pressure on them when they make their egregious claims to Arunachal Pradesh or continue to parry moves to make meaningful progress on the border issue. The Chinese Ambassador has again said to the Press, disingenuously, that the resolution of the border issue will take time as it has to be to the satisfaction of both sides.

What will satisfy China? The transfer of Arunachal Pradesh to China in whole or in part? Tawang? The message is that China can wait until India is ready to make additional territorial concessions. In the meantime, China does not even want to map the Line of Actual Control, an exercise it ended unilaterally after it began. This way it can keep the border issue alive and use the unsettled situation on the ground to nibble more territory and keep us under military pressure.

While there is every reason to be prudent in dealing with China, there is little reason to imprudently give up the few options we have in the unrealistic hope of earning its goodwill. There is a difference between being cautious and being weak. By being cautious problems are avoided; by being weak problems are actually invited. The top Chinese leadership has the impression that we are cowards and run away from a confrontation, which explains the Chinese behaviour towards us.

If China calculates that it can publicly lay claims to Arunachal Pradesh and endlessly delay any real progress in border discussions without seriously affecting bilateral ties, why cannot India reason similarly with regard to issues of sensitivity to the Chinese? China has created political space for it to not only disregard but also actually offend deep Indian sensibilities on the territorial and other questions, without compromising improved relations with India.

Why are we afraid to create similar space for ourselves that will allow us to reach out to the Dalai Lama politically and allow the Tibetans to stage peaceful demonstrations in India without affecting our friendly ties with China? If the Chinese believe their position on Arunachal Pradesh is not subject to the test of friendship, let us assume democratic India granting the right of peaceful protest to the Tibetans is not incompatible with our desire to improve relations with China.

The Chinese want us to stop demonstrations by the Tibetans. We are yielding to that pressure by allowing the Chinese Ambassador high-level political access. Why give him an opportunity to denounce the Dalai Lama to our face at such level? More so in the wake of the discourtesy shown out to our Ambassador in Beijing with the motive of browbeating us politically.

We are obliged to avoid any disruption of the passage of the Olympic torch through Delhi anyway. So why be seen as doing this under Chinese pressure? We have to be careful not to create precedents that will rebound on us in the future. Instead of opening up options for the Tibetans in circumstances in which we could justify our position, we are closing them even more.

The understanding on political activity by the Dalai Lama was not between India and China. It was between the Dalai Lama and us. True, by including this in our joint documents with China, we have made ourselves answerable to China. But with China - only to mention recent cases - not adhering to its agreement with us on delineating the LAC and still not showing Sikkim as part of India in its official maps, we should not feel overburdened by one-sided obligations towards it.

With China maintaining a rigid position on the border, organically linked to the Tibetan issue, why should we do China's bidding on the rights Tibetans should enjoy as residents of a democratic country like India? China may not tolerate dissent in its own country, but their political norms cannot be transferred to Tibetans in India.

In practice sport is not immune from politics. It is the authoritarian regimes that most view sport as a means of doing politics. During the Cold War the Communist regimes, through sporting success, wanted to prove the superiority of their system. The Chinese wanted the Olympics in Beijing for reasons of political prestige.

China's intention to take the Olympic torch to Tibet is to get the endorsement of the international community for their policies in Tibet and their position that Tibet is an integral part of China. The Olympic torch is a symbol of peace; the other famous torch is a symbol of liberty. The symbolism of the torch sits ill with China's repression of Tibet.

Those in India who see no moral problem in running with the Olympic torch destined for Tibet and China are not giving due weight to the strong political and humanitarian case of the Tibetans who live among us and share our values. The Dalai Lama is an embodiment of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi's message of non-violence. He is a product of our traditions.

Tibet is not a distant problem for us. It is vitally linked to our own future as a secure nation and an equal of others. Governmental decisions may require cognisance of several factors. Civil society, though, does not have similar constraints. It can reject the establishment line. Let it reject it in this case and not disavow the Tibetan cause.

-- The writer is a former Foreign Secretary.

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