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It's time to rethink the Tibet question

It’s a paradox that India’s foreign policy mandarins have to address. India harbours big power ambitions but is stuck with a strategic doctrine that remains mired in the Third World mindset.

     Print Edition: April 20, 2008

It’s a paradox that India’s foreign policy mandarins have to address. India harbours big power ambitions but is stuck with a strategic doctrine that remains mired in the Third World mindset. How else can one explain the diffident, even servile, Indian reaction to Chinese repression in Tibet?

If this wasn’t galling enough, the authorities in Beijing humiliated India further by summoning our Ambassador, Nirupama Rao, at 2 a.m. to hand over a letter protesting Delhi’s handling of Tibetan protestors in the Indian capital. The Indian response: a postponement of Commerce Minister Kamal Nath’s visit to China. Even here, it was clarified that the delay wasn’t a diplomatic protest; just a rescheduling of the long-scheduled visit to cater to some last-minute changes in his Chinese counterpart’s diary.

Tibet unrest: Time to confront China?
Tibet unrest: Time to confront China?
This comes close on the heels of China’s brazen reiteration of its socalled claims over Arunachal Pradesh and the transgressions of the international border by its armed forces. Significantly, Chinese claims over that state stem from the fact that at some distant point in history, the Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh was part of the Tibetan empire. India has, since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, helped the Chinese case and cause by accepting Beijing’s self-proclaimed rights over Tibet.

Then, China has slowly expanded its influence in South Asia—by stoking insurgency in the North East, arming Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and, of course, helping Pakistan acquire embargoed nuclear and missile technology. It has already built a large naval station in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, barely 20 nautical miles from Andaman and Nicobar, and is building another deep water naval base in Gwadar in Pakistan. Simultaneously, it mouths platitudes about its relations with India and humours New Delhi by speaking the language of cooperation.

Geo-strategic experts call this a policy of “containment and cooperation”. It’s a trap and India is walking in with its eyes open. Foreign policy and the projection of sovereign power are as much about ground realities as about perceptions.

By proving to the world that India is a weak, effete nation that cannot even stand up for its own self-respect, the Chinese leadership is sending across a strong message to the world. At a time when India is trying, after a fashion, to spread its influence in South East and Central Asia—both regions are critical to India’s economic future— this may tilt the regional power balance quite decisively Beijing’s way. India desperately, and immediately, needs a diplomatic tool that can put China on the defensive. The developments in Tibet offer just that opportunity. But for that, the government will have to start thinking like an emerging big power.

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