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The Tawang monastery has been at the centre of controversy
The Tawang monastery has been at the centre of controversy

The Union government representatives will meet the Dalai Lama when he visits Arunachal Pradesh in April, officials said, despite a warning from China that it would damage bilateral ties. India said the Tibetan spiritual leader will make a religious trip to Arunachal Pradesh next month, and as a secular democracy it would not stop him from travelling to any part of the country.

A trip by the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regard as a dangerous separatist, would ratchet up tensions at a time when India is at odds with China on strategic and security issues amid Beijing’s growing ties with Pakistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is raising its public engagement with the Tibetan leader, a change from earlier governments’ reluctance to anger Beijing by sharing a public platform with him.

“It’s a behavioural change you are seeing. India is more assertive,” Kiren Rijiju, Union minister of state for home affairs, told Reuters in an interview.

Rijiju, who is from Arunachal and is PM Modi’s point man on Tibetan issues, said he would meet the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the Buddhist Tawang monastery after an eight-year interval.

“He is going there as a religious leader, there is no reason to stop him. His devotees are demanding he should come, what harm can he do? He is a lama.”

The Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday the Dalai Lama’s trip would cause serious damage to India-China ties, and warned New Delhi not to provide him a platform for anti-China activities.

“The Dalai clique has for a long time carried out anti-China separatist activities and on the issue of the China-India border has a history of disgraceful performances,” spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

Visits of the Dalai Lama are initiated months, if not years in advance, and approval for the April 4-13 trip predates recent dis-agreements between the neighbours.

But the decision to go ahead at a time of strained relations signals Modi’s readiness to use diplomatic tools at a time when China’s economic and political clout across South Asia is growing.

China is helping to fund a new trade corridor across Pakistan and has also invested in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, raising fears of strategic encirclement.

Last month, a Taiwanese parliamentary delegation visited Delhi, angering Beijing, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of China.

In December, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at his official residence with other Nobel prize winners, the first public meeting with an Indian head of state in 60 years.

Some officials said India’s approach to the Tibetan issue remained cautious, reflecting a gradual evolution in policy rather than a sudden shift, and Modi appears reluctant to go too far for fear of upsetting its large northern neighbour.

India’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar , was in Beijing last week on a visit that analysts said was aimed at stabilising relations between the world’s most populous countries.

That said, Modi’s desire to pursue a more assertive foreign policy since his election in 2014 was quickly felt in contacts with China.

“These meetings were happening before. Now it is public,” Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in the Indian town of Dharamsala, said in an interview. “I notice a tangible shift. With all the Chinese investments in all the neighbouring countries, that has generated debate within India,” he said.

The chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh met the Dalai Lama in New Delhi in October and officially invited him to visit the state. On the Dalai Lama’s last visit in 2009, the state’s chief minister met him. This time he will be joined by Union minister Rijiju, a move the Chinese may see as giving the trip an official imprimatur.

India has also criticised Beijing for stone-walling its request to add the head of a banned Pakistani militant group to a UN Security Council blacklist.

Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said New Delhi appeared to have been surprised by China’s inflexibility since Modi came to power, fuelling distrust in the Indian security establishment.

“India does feel that the cards are stacked against it and that it should retain and play the cards that it does have,” he said. “The Dalai Lama and Tibetan exile community is clearly one of those cards.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state media warned on Monday that New Delhi is deliberately risking confrontation with Beijing by allowing Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit Arunachal Pradesh in the coming weeks, adding that there will be “severe consequences” in bilateral ties if the visit was allowed.

Lashing out at India, the state media comment piece said the 81-year-old was no “spiritual leader” but a separatist. The Chinese government has earlier called him “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and blamed him for inciting self-immolations in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and neighbouring provinces.

The ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) last week said Beijing was “gravely concerned” about the planned visit of the Dalai Lama to the northeastern Indian state, which it claims is disputed and part of south Tibet, in the coming weeks.

It will cause “serious damage” to Sino-India ties, Geng Shuang, MFA spokesperson said at a press briefing on Friday. “China is strongly opposed to Dalai visiting disputed areas,” he said.

“China is gravely concerned over such information. China’s position on eastern section of China India border dispute is consistent and clear. The Dalai-clique has long been engaging in anti-China separatist activities and its record on the border question is not that good,” he said.

The nationalistic tabloid, Global Times, picked up from where Geng had stopped last week. “These Indian officials apparently didn’t realize, or deliberately ignored, the severe consequences the Dalai Lama’s trip would bring. The 14th Dalai Lama is by no means a spiritual leader but a Tibetan separatist. Allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the disputed area will inevitably trigger confrontation, undermine the stability of the region and sour Sino-Indian relations,” the newspaper said in the comment piece.

At the same time, the Indian government is mistaken about the how important the Dalai Lama is as a “strategic asset” – his importance in that context has diminished but China continues to be determined to safeguard its “core” interests.

“For a long time, some Indians have considered the Dalai Lama as a strategic asset. They believe that India could gain many benefits by using the Dalai issue as leverage. For instance, making an issue of the Dalai Lama could serve as a diplomatic tool to deal with China’s growing economic and political influence in South Asia,” the article said.

“However, they overestimate the political value of the Dalai Lama and his group while miscalculating China’s determination to safeguard its core interests,” it added. The visit will disrupt the momentum in good bilateral ties, which saw a boost during last month’s strategic dialogue, the article said.

“The good momentum for the bilateral relationship in recent years shouldn’t be disrupted. In future, there is great potential for the two countries to tap into cooperation,” it said.

The Dalai Lama with John Oliver
The Dalai Lama with John Oliver

On Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry traded a new round of barbs with the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan spiritual leader’s interview with U.S.-based comedian John Oliver.

The Dalai Lama said hardline Chinese officials have parts of their brains missing in an interview with Oliver for his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The Dalai Lama also reiterated he could be the last Dalai Lama in line, ending the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual succession process that the Chinese government worked to supplant.