Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses followers at the Buyant Ukhaa sport palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters/B. Rentsendor
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses followers at the Buyant Ukhaa sport palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo: Reuters/B. Rentsendor

Earlier this week, the Indian government hinted at new thinking in its China policies – to use the Dalai Lama to cause discomfort to Beijing and compel it to compromise with New Delhi.

The India-China relations have been steadily on a downhill slide during the three year-period under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. New Delhi tried every trick in its repertoire to “pressure” China – even inviting Uighur, Falung Gong and Tibetan separatists to India. India’s grievance boils down to three things.

One, China should not block India’s campaign to isolate Pakistan and blacklist it as the “mother ship” of terrorism; two, China should recognize the South Asian region and Indian Ocean as India’s “sphere of influence” and roll back its regional presence; three, China should actively support India’s big-power aspirations.

But China has its self-interests and a “principled” world view of its own. India’s diplomatic ploys so far to cause annoyance to China and make it bend – even wading into the choppy waters of South China Sea and ganging up with Japan – not only do not seem to have brought the desired result, but probably proved counter-productive. China perceptibly ‘hardened’ its stance and put India ties on the back burner.

This week’s media leak signals that the Modi government is now readying the “Tibet card” to be played against China. “Highly placed sources” in the government have been quoted as saying that Modi government intends to henceforth regard Dalai Lama as an “asset, not a liability”.

The awkward formulation does no good to the image of the Tibetan leader, who is after all a Nobel laureate. The Indian bureaucrat probably meant to underscore that Modi government intends to rev up Tibetan activities in India “even if it bothers Beijing”.

The calculation seems to be that such a policy trajectory is “certain to draw international attention” to the Tibetan issue. The Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who is reportedly a follower of Dalai Lama, seems willing to play his part in the Indian diplomacy to awaken international opinion against China’s policies in Tibet.

In sum, the Dalai Lama’s high visibility is about to form the newest template of India’s China policies.

The big question is whether Beijing will now be shaken out of its stance of benign indifference and step get down on its knees and make amends for vetoing the latter’s efforts to get the Pakistani militant leader Masood Azhar included in the UN Security Council’s watch list on global terrorists and/or rein in Beijing’s proactive diplomacy in South Asia and Indian Ocean, and, most certainly, abandon Chinese objections to India’s admission as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which New Delhi regards as a status symbol.

Will the Dalai Lama route work? It seems a very remote possibility. China is not known to blink under pressure tactic. Tibet is also a core issue for China, which is non-negotiable.

Besides, in political terms, China’s diplomatic support to Pakistan is multi-faceted and the US$50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor makes Beijing a stakeholder in the strategic sweepstakes devolving upon Pakistan’s security and stability.

Simply put, the Chinese veto on Masood Azhar needs to be seen in a larger context. As a leading German regional expert on South Asia put it recently,

“New Delhi wants the global powers to impose sanctions on Pakistan. If the international community declares Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, it would help India to justify its military action against militants on Pakistani soil and legitimize cross-border operations.”

Plainly put, China cannot be expected to throw Pakistan under the bus. If anything, China is systematically promoting Pakistan’s integration into a new regionals security format that also includes Russia.

It is preposterous on the part of the Indian government to expect China (or Russia) to be party to any process aimed at isolating Pakistan – leave alone imposing Pakistan or to legitimize military actions against Pakistan under international law and UN Charter – when that country is about to be admitted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

So, what can be done to reboot the “Tibet card”? New Delhi already played its trump card 4-5 years ago by ending the long-standing practice of affirming during bilateral exchanges with Beijing that Tibet formed a part of China.

But Beijing refused to raise dust. Now, things can of course change if India were to revert to the fifties’ policies to allow the CIA to use its territory to destabilize China (which, ironically, had triggered the upheaval in Tibet that sent Dalai Lama packing to India.)

But do not expect a replay. Donald Trump is unlikely to be interested in such pioneering work to promote democracy and human rights. And without the CIA, this will have to be an audacious solo act by the Modi government.

Interestingly, this week’s media report disclosed that Dalai Lama traveled in a government car with “darkened windows and no personal aide” to meet Modi.

Equally, the report mentioned that India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar began secretly wearing a Buddhist rosary under his vest ever since a diplomatic assignment in China – insinuating that he is a closet sympathiser of Tibetan separatist cause.

Of course, from tomorrow onward, if the Dalai Lama were to begin driving to Modi’s official residence in an open convertible or if India’s Foreign Secretary were to openly espouse the Tibetan cause, it would be a signal that Indian policies are shifting gear.

But then, it is a risky enterprise because somewhere in the hazy future lies China’s “red line” and no one in the Modi government can be sure where an intended taunt may end up being perceived in Beijing as a hostile act demanding retribution.

Indeed, Modi government always has a fall-back option – the Dalai Lama can be put back in the car with “darkened windows” and the Buddhist rosary can be shoved under the vest once again.

The bottom line is that the Modi government doesn’t seem to have a clue to how to annoy China and shake Beijing out of its studied indifference.

Consequently, Modi government’s “muscular diplomacy” is beating its wings in the void in vain.

Neither China nor Pakistan seems impressed that the Modi government is in hostile mode. Both prefer not to cooperate with India.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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