The cancellation of visa of Dolkun Isa, secretary of the World Uyghur Congress, wishing to attend a conference at Dharamsala organised by the US-based group, Initiatives for China, alternatively called Citizen Power for China, which Dr Yang Jianli heads, raised a furore in India on social media and television. He is a former Berkeley University student who returned to China to join student protests at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989. Escaping the clampdown, he turned activist for bringing, as his group proclaims, a "peaceful transition to democracy in China through truth, understanding, citizen power and cooperative action".
Thus, Isa's visa is but a small part of a larger move underway, clearly with the Indian government's blessing, as no such conference can be held without Ministries of Home and External Affairs approving it. The US connection of the group and the eclectic mix of invitees from diverse regions and minority religions of China, as indeed its venue adjoining the Tibetan government-in-exile, raise interesting questions.
The visa cancellation was initially explained by government sources as due to a red corner notice against him. Then a more credible explanation was presented that he had misstated the purpose of visit as tourism, when he was really attending a conference. However, Isa lives in Germany and the same red corner notice, generated on Chinese request by Interpol, is being treated as mere harassment of a dissident. The US, too, had allowed him to visit prior to the Nuclear Security Summit last month to receive an award, even though Chinese President Xi Jinping was to attend the only one-on-one meeting with President Barak Obama on the sidelines of the event. Perhaps those calibrating a new forward policy on China here felt that Isa's visa was too provocative.
What then is this new China policy, which encompasses India warming up to Chinese dissidents with strong US connections? A historical perspective will be useful. It is now generally accepted that in 1954 when India concluded the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence with China, thereby recognising Chinese control of Tibet, India should have made the settlement of border issues a precondition as the Sino-Indian border was merely the erstwhile Indian border with Tibet. Instead, as the Chinese began to suppress Tibetan culture, India was drawn into Tibetan affairs due to historical and religious links with the land. India giving refuge to Dalai Lama in 1959 set the stage for the eventual spill-over of Chinese distrust into actual war in 1962. India erred in being unprepared militarily to back its cartographic claims and to stymie China from embarrassing India internationally by inflicting a military defeat. Nehru, who had projected India way beyond its military-economic strength, was never the dominant statesman after 1962.
Since then, China has used surrogates like Pakistan to stymie India and constrain it to South Asia. The Sino-Pakistan border settlement in disputed Kashmir in 1963, with Pakistan ceding Sakshgam Valley to China, was the start of their strategic convergence. China could not help Pakistan much in the India-Pakistan war in 1971 as it was engrossed in the debilitating Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 and ran almost till Mao's death in 1976. Separately, it kept up clandestine help to separatist groups in India's north-east to drain the Indian army's resources.
Other than hosting the Dalai Lama, under conditions that constrain him from actions that may upset China, India, post-1962, has avoided baiting China by espousing human rights or democracy that are the essence of modern India. But numerous factors are now driving a re-think in India on reacting differently to Chinese provocations like PLA presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the Sino-Pak economic corridor via the same disputed area, and finally vetoing the listing by UNSC's Counter Terror Committee of Pakistani terror masterminds like Maulana Masood Azhar.
Firstly India, today, has a nationalistic government under an assertive leader, much like leaders in China, Japan and Russia. US may be next, were Donald Trump to beat the odds and win. As economic power shifts to Asia, China will find that countries like India have new strategic options as big powers who indulged China during its rise, now perceive it as a threat to international order and security. Its surrogates like Pakistan and DPR of Korea cause regional instability, their irresponsible behaviour protected by weapons of mass destruction, obtained courtesy Chinese transfer of technologies clandestinely.
Secondly, China faces serious economic and demographic challenges. Some estimates are that by 2050 its share of global production may not exceed 20 per cent, when the US and EU will have around 17 per cent each. India may be 7 per cent, with Japan at 5 per cent. Thus in the Indo-Pacific region, a convergence between India, Japan and the US would total 29 per cent, way ahead of China. Similarly, a combination of EU, the US and Japan will be 39 per cent, again exceeding China's. The Dharamsala conference may be leaves in the breeze, but India may have begun repositioning as the counter-point to China in Asia, amplifying the voice of freedom and human rights.
The danger is of China adopting counter-measures. However, if India plays its cards right, then India of 2016 is different from Nehru's India of 1960s. From nonalignment, it is transitioning to multi-alignment, or what can also be called quasi-alliances, or overlapping partnerships. The only danger is from emerging trade blocs like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) being led by the US, or the Chinese One Belt One Road underpinning their constructs like Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The challenge thus is to build up the soft power weapon while not irritating the Chinese enough to have them slam the door on India in economic blocs.
India is emerging as a classic swing power in Asia. Analogous to the 19th century balance of power game where Germany - a rising power - successfully hedged among five European powers, that is, Austria, Britain, France, Germany and Russia, as long as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's steady hand held the reins. After him, Germany tumbled into two devastating world wars. Hopefully, the strong leaders guiding Asia's rising and established powers, coincidently also five, that is, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US, will be like Bismarck, and not his successors.
The author is former ambassador to the UAE and Iran, and former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs