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Season of Coincidences and Change
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Claude Arpi | Date:18 Jul , 2022 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

Do you believe in coincidences?

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama reached Ladakh on July 15.

Two days later, the 16th round of Corps Commander-level meeting between India and China is to be held at Moldo/Chushul, near the Pangong tso (lake). Led by Lt Gen A Sengupta, the Fire and Fury Corps Commander, the Indian side will discuss disengagement from friction points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh with the Chinese commander of the Kashgar Sub-Area Command of the Xinjiang Military District (XMD).

Was it a coincidence, but on July 6, Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the Dalai Lama over the phone on the occasion of his birthday: “Conveyed 87th birthday greetings to His Holiness the Dalai Lama over the phone earlier today. We pray for his long life and good health,” PM Modi tweeted.

We can’t call everything a coincidence, but President Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) two days before the Dalai Lama arrived in Ladakh. According to Xinhua, he inspected a university, an international land port area, a residential community and a museum.

The Dalai Lama in Ladakh

But let us first look at the Tibetan leader’s visit to Ladakh first.

The Chinese are not going to be happy, though they still consider the Union Territory as a ‘disputed territory’ between India and Pakistan and cannot claim it as their as they do for Arunachal Pradesh.

This reminds us the long negotiations for the so-called Panchsheel Agreement in 1954. The discussion was stuck on the issue of Ladakh and more particularly on naming Demchok a landport for the mountainous region.

On April 24, 1954, the Indian Ambassador to China, N. Raghavan, who was himself conducting the talks, informed his Foreign Secretary in Delhi (NR Pillai) that at the suggestion of Zhang Hanfu, the Chinese deputy foreign minister, the plenary sessions on the previous day had been cancelled “he and I carried on informal discussions between 12:00 and 13:00 hours and 19:00 to 23:15 hours.” Raghavan explained that it was ‘royal fight’ from beginning to end: “Zhang took a very recalcitrant attitude but finally gave in on most points,” …except for Demchok.

The Chinese virulently objected to this route been included in the Agreement; they quoted an oral understanding “they would not like in writing even by implication to have any reference to Ladakh.”

For Beijing, the mountainous region was a ‘disputed’ area.

India had taken the stand that Ladakh was part of Indian territory and the route should be mentioned, as its omission would be invidious, but the Chinese remained adamant.

Raghavan finally accepted a compromise which meant that most of the other routes between Ladakh and Western Tibet (particular via Rutok) were abandoned and the trade stopped. This anecdote shows the importance of Ladakh for Beijing (incidentally, the unresolved dispute over Demchok, dates from that day).

The PM’s Birthday Call

With regard to the one-month visit of the Tibetan leader to Leh, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China has so far kept quiet, but Zhao Lijian earlier protested about the Prime Minister’s phone call to the Dalai Lama: “The Indian side also needs to fully understand the anti-China and separatist nature of the 14th Dalai Lama. It needs to abide by its commitments to China on Tibet-related issues, act and speak with prudence and stop using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi immediately answered that it was “a consistent policy of the government to treat the Tibetan spiritual leader as an honoured guest and as a respected religious leader who enjoys a large following in India.”

The fact that the Dalai Lama will stay for a month in Ladakh is definitively a re-assertion of India’s policy vis-à-vis the Tibetan leader.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang and the 16th Round of Talks

Tough low-key, during his visit to Xinjiang, Xi meet with officials of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), an organization intimately linked with the PLA. In the past, through its numerous economic activities the state-owned economic and paramilitary organization has not only built towns, farms and provided land and employment for disbanded military units, but also looked after the re-settlement of Han migrants as part of the infamous campaign of sinicization in Xinjiang.

Xi, who is Chairman of the Central Military Commission also met the top brass of the XMD, including Lt Gen Liu Lin, formerly responsible for the talks in Ladakh and now XMD’s Commander, a rising star in the PLA; they are bound to have discussed the forthcoming round of talks in Moldo/Chushul and the XMD has certainly received instructions from the Big Boss.

The 15th round China-India Corps Commander-Level Meeting had been held at the border meeting point on March 11, while the 14th round had taken place on January 12. Earlier, according to media reports, the PLA had pulled back troops from the Galwan valley, PP-15 (Patrolling Point 15) and Hot Springs in Eastern Ladakh area by 2-2.5 kms; the Indian side has consequently pulled back some of its troops and equipment from these areas.

Today it is doubtful if China will agree to a further disengagement from existing friction points in Depsang plains, Gogra and Demchok, especially a few months before the crucial 20th Congress in Beijing; too much is at stake for Xi Jinping. 

Change in India’s Policy?

Many observers see all this as a signal to China of a change in India’s Tibet policy.

It is true that in the recent weeks, India has hardened its stance; for example the situation in Eastern Ladakh prominently figured in the talks between External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Bali on the sidelines of a conclave of foreign ministers of the G20 nations earlier this month (on July 6, the Dalai Lama’s birthday). During the encounter, Jaishankar strongly conveyed to Wang the need for an early resolution of the outstanding issues in Ladakh.

Back in India, Dr Jaishankar, while attending an interactive session with young voters said that India had explained: “We would like to resolve it on terms that are fair, equitable, mutually agreed upon and do justice to our claims. We can’t resolve it by having one country saying that this is the solution and for us to accept it.” This had been the case in 1954.

Here too, the tone seems to have changed.

The Season of Coincidences and Change

While entering the Season of Coincidences and Change, it is worth mentioning a bill recently introduced in US Congress. According to International Campaign for Tibet, it will be a ‘concrete action’ to resolve China’s decades-long illegal occupation of Tibet by fully recognizing Tibet’s unresolved status and faulting China for violating the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.

The Act “Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict” affirms that Tibet’s legal status remains to be determined under international law, despite more than six decades of China’s illegal occupation and the Chinese government’s disinformation falsely claiming that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times.

If the legislation is passed by the Congress and the Senate, the official US policy will be that Tibetans have the right to self-determination.

Here again, the spokespersons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing are bound to see red and be displeased.

The new policy would not only reject as ‘historically false’ China’s claim that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times, but also “make clear that Tibet includes not only the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region of China but also Tibetan areas of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.”

It is serious implications for the Tibet-India border too.

It will be interesting to see how Delhi will react in case the bill is passed.

Today, there is no doubt that the poet might have been right, “for the times they are a-changin’.”

Interesting times indeed.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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