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Tibet card in hand, Delhi strikes

New Delhi, Dec. 19: The harder India looks back at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit last week, the more it is convinced it was right to frontally play the Tibet card and omit its affirmation of “One China” from the joint communiqué.

The shift in the Indian position, though slight and barely consequential on Tibet’s “integration” into China, is pointed and predates the message in the communiqué issued at the end of Wen’s visit.

It began to be articulated firmly at the Russia-India-China ministerial summit in Wuhan mid-November when external affairs minister S.M. Krishna equated Kashmir and Tibet and made a case for respecting Indian and Chinese sensitivities on these regions.

Krishna has enuncitated that position several times since then, most lately just days before Wen’s arrival in India.

The message to China has become increasingly unambiguous: if you want New Delhi to sustain its view that Tibet is an integral part of China, stop needling it on Kashmir. It is as a consequence of New Delhi’s understanding that China was not backing off from provocations on Kashmir, most often in cahoots with Pakistan, that the “One China” reference — part of at least three previous summit communiqués before this one — was dropped.

Also dropped from the joint communiqué were three critical paragraphs on account of persistent differences on nitty-gritty issues that defeated efforts of diplomats who tried hard to produce something concrete to show for. These related to the boundary dispute, water and defence cooperation. All fell off the bilateral table because the to-and-fro of bargaining just would not measure up to a balance.

The Chinese, for instance, were keen on a redefined mechanism for resolving the border dispute. The Indian sought firm guarantees on their upstream water projects — the core of this is hectic dam-building activity by the Chinese in the Brahmaputra’s upper basin whose strategic and environmental implications worry India — as quid pro quo.

The Chinese offered nothing more than “general assurances” and the Indians stopped bothering with a new border mechanism.

The third section that eluded endorsement was on the resumption of defence ties, suspended by India after Lt Gen. Jaswal was denied entry to China this summer. The Chinese were keen, but they weren’t prepared to address Indian concerns on terrorism, which stems from Pakistan.

The Indians met Chinese silence on terror and Pakistan with abject silence on resuming defence ties; the paragraph, ready and inserted into the joint communiqué, was scrapped at the last minute as negotiations refused to make headway.

South Block may now be reckoning with the diminished returns of the Wen visit but the atmospherics ahead of his arrival had probably foretold the negative dynamics.

A clear clue to what lay ahead was the decision of the ministry of external affairs (MEA), backed in full measure by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), to attend the ceremony to award Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize.

“We were aware it would annoy the Chinese,” said an official, “but we did not want to be slotted with the pathetic group of nations that made a point of boycotting the ceremony and we definitely wanted to send Beijing a message.”

Sources in government suggest that India is not averse to leveraging the Dalai Lama, as and when the need arises, to test the Chinese. Clearly views are divided on to what degree, or whether at all, India should “encourage” or wink at refugee Tibetan activity from Indian soil but as one official said, “we are holding the Dalai Lama card in active mode as opposed to passive mode”.

New Delhi’s unfolding calibration on Tibet comes in response to Chinese needling on a range of issues from handing out stapled visas to Kashmiris to the denial of a visa to Lt Gen. B.S. Jaswal (who was to lead annual defence talks with his Chinese counterpart) to notable enhancement of its civil and military activity in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

What has also now come to light is that the Chinese have suddenly, and without notice, taken off nearly 1,500km off from their calculation of the Sino-Indian border.

The import of that move — enshrined in a recent report of the official Chinese news agency Xinhua which put the length the border at 2,000km as opposed to the 3500km long frontier — is that China no longer considers its contiguity along Kashmir and PoK as a border with India.

This is another, and typically Chinese, manner of suggesting to India that Beijing is currently in fuller endorsement of the Pakistani position on Kashmir and PoK. It is also the kind of “volatile irritant” that has left the Indian establishment a little baffled.

Indeed, questions are being asked on why the Wen visit went ahead at all if its end result amounted to a setback rather than improvement in ties.

It is apparent it was pushed by Chinese eagerness, if not insistence.

Wen sought a visit at late as the East Asia Summit at Hanoi in October and the only explanation Indians could really put on it was that he wanted to make a trip so he would not stick out at the only P-5 leader not to have made an India visit during 2010.

Officials concede that they barely had time to prepare “at least for anything constructive or result-oriented”.

And given the prickly issues that have consistently cropped up between India and China this year, there is a faint sense of relief the visit was limited to being a “diplomatic bungle” rather than a “public disaster”, the kind of which the Agra Indo-Pak summit was.

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