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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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China’s Charm Offensive

China’s tech giant, is not the only setback Beijing is likely to suffer

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The Dalai Lama, now 84, speaks little but when he does, policymakers on both sides of the McMahon line that separates India and China listen. Last month, in a wide-ranging interview with the Hindustan Times, the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since he fled Tibet in 1959, said: “My body is Tibetan but spiritually I am Indian.” 

The Dalai Lama is anathema to the Chinese leadership which considers him a renegade and a lightning rod for the global movement for Tibet’s independence from China. He is also the principal reason why India-China relations have been rocky for nearly six decades. But things are changing. The Dalai Lama has become more concilatory towards Beijing. China though erupts with anger whenever a foreign leader meets the Dalai Lama. Former United States President Barack Obama incurred Chinese wrath when he hosted the Dalai Lama in the White House. 

The Dalai Lama himself downplays the controversial issue of his successor about which China is especially sensitive. As he said in his interview: “I made it clear as early as in 1969 that it was up to the Tibetan people to decide whether the very institution of Dalai Lama should continue or not. They will decide. I have no concern. Since the 5th Dalai Lama, the (person holding the) title was the head of both temporal and spiritual affairs. Since 2001, I have proudly, voluntarily and happily given up the political role. We have already achieved elected political leadership (centralised Tibetian Administration in Dharamshala) and they carry their full responsibility about our temporal affairs. I have totally retired since 2011. So my thinking is more liberal than Chinese thinking which is more orthodox.” 

And yet the Dalai Lama added a comment about the succession planning that will not please the Chinese: “It should be decided in a free country, not in Tibet, where there is no freedom. Tibet has never been part of China and this even some Chinese historians admit.” 

What about India-China relations in the future? The Dalai Lama has sage advice: “People ask me about the future of India and China relations. I say that neither India nor China has the capability to destroy each other. They have to live happily side by side with minor irritants. One must remember that there are around 400 million Chinese Buddhists who are inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, which in turn derives majority of its strength from the Nalanda traditions.” 

While United States Donald President Trump hasn’t been particularly hospitable to the Dalai Lama, his hardball tactics with Beijing on trade have spawned China’s recent charm offensive with India. During his visit to India late last month, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi declared effusively after talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj: “India-China relations have reached a new historical stage…it reflects a personal commitment of our leaders, and this is a major initiative in the history of India-China relations. “ 

Wang proposed setting up Confucius Institutes in India to deepen cultural ties between the two countries. Confucius Institutes globally have been regarded as centres of Chinese propaganda. The FBI has called them “collectors” of intelligence which is why Swaraj was non-commital about Wang’s proposal. Despite mutual suspicious and antagonisms over border issues and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through PoK, China is making a determined effort to improve relations with India. The Trump administration’s tough stand on trade has rattled China. If matters are not resolved within the 90-day deadline set by Trump, the tariff war could worsen, hurting China’s already slowing economy. 

Beijing’s aggressive mindset that led to the Doklam standoff has discernibly softened. It wants to build bridges with India to counter the growing US-India strategic and military partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing is also playing a waiting game, running down the clock on the Trump administration. However, following the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis, a relative dove, hawks like National Security Advisor (NSA) John Bolton are likely to keep up the pressure on Beijing. 

China has already been forced to make several concessions. It has not only lowered duties on US cars but begun to buy American soyabeans which has delighted Trump’s conservative farmer base. Beijing has unusually held its peace despite a provocative move by Trump to sign a bill into law that pressurises China to open up Tibet to American visitors as a reciprocal condition allowing Chinese to visit the US. 

China may be forced to eat more humble pie. The worldwide quasi-ban on Huawei, China’s tech giant, is not the only setback Beijing is likely to suffer. Amidst the pummeling it is receiving from Washington, China needs all the friends it can get. For India, this is a generational opportunity to alter the dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship which for decades has tilted in Beijing’s favour. 

In such paradigm shifts, history is a good teacher. Recently declassified documents released by the US state department reveal that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping convinced the US to give military and economic aid to Pakistan in return for Islamabad’s help to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That decision, taken by the Jimmy Carter administration, led to over three decades of US aid to Pakistan, allowing Islamabad to develop its factories of jihad. 

Deng was the villain then. He hyphenated Pakistan with India. This is what he told US interlocutors, according to the declassified documents: “With regard to the question of South Asia, there is no other way except giving aid to Pakistan. It has always been our view that the US policy giving more attention to India than Pakistan is not an appropriate policy.”

As a chastened China ramps up its charm offensive with India, New Delhi should use the opportunity to establish itself as the pivot between the world’s two largest economies. But it must remember that the Deng doctrine of using Pakistan to slow India’s rise is also the cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s strategy. China has only hit the pause button. The pause, history tells us, will not last indefinitely.

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