India Spurns the Dalai Lama’s Celebration, Worried About China
McLEOD GANJ, India — An original song of thanks to India had been rehearsed, and a stadium in New Delhi had been reserved for a celebratory rally — all a gesture of gratitude from the Dalai Lama and his followers for India’s role in sheltering them after a Chinese crackdown on rebellious Tibetans 60 years ago.
Instead, the planned “Thank You India” celebrations, set for this coming weekend, set off apprehension in New Delhi and embarrassment among Tibetans.
A directive from India’s foreign secretary urged officials to discard their invitations, and it was blunt in saying the timing of the events coincided with a “sensitive time” for New Delhi’s relations with Beijing. A series of high-level meetings between Indian and Chinese officials are being billed in India as an attempt to smooth over an increasingly tense relationship.
Invitations to top officials were withdrawn, and the event was moved from a stadium in the capital to the secluded northern town of McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama’s temple and the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. A scheduled interfaith prayer in New Delhi was flatly canceled rather than moved, given the lack of other religious representatives in McLeod Ganj.
“In Delhi, we approached many dignitaries and invited them,” said Sonam Dagpo, a spokesman for Tibet’s government in exile and the chief organizer for the planned events. “But the foreign secretary’s notice says very clearly that Indian officials shouldn’t attend. So why continue? It’s futile.”
The canceled events underline India’s struggle to both court and counterbalance China, an increasingly difficult feat given China’s recent willingness to flex its military growth.
India has continued to host the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan Buddhist exiles even though China condemns them as dangerous separatists. But the Indian government has also sought at times to rein in the religious leader at crucial moments in the relationship with China, and this is certainly one of them.
India is trying to encourage trade ties and Chinese investments while playing catch-up to modernize its military, worried about China’s rapidly expanding forces and its growing influence all around India in South Asia.
China has made deep inroads with New Delhi’s traditional allies and neighbors, building seaports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, increasing trade and political ties with Nepal, and sending warships to the East Indian Ocean during a state of emergency in the Maldives.
“Giving in to China on the Tibetan community in exile is largely symbolic,” said Jonathan Holslag, professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels. “But it does mark India’s weakening compared to China. China is rapidly modernizing its military presence, and India cannot follow.”
When Beijing increased its annual defense budget in March to $175 billion, it dwarfed the $45 billion New Delhi had announced just weeks before. India’s army chief complained that the disparity “dashed our hopes” of modernization.
The coming talks with China cited by the Indian foreign secretary’s directive will be the highest-level meetings since the two countries engaged in a military standoff last year, after China expanded an unpaved road in a contested sliver of territory in the Himalayas.
The dispute was resolved in August, but Indian and Chinese troops threw rocks and chest bumped each other in a clash that some fear could flare up again. India’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may be particularly concerned about that possibility given that he faces an election next year.
Over the next few months, India’s defense and foreign ministers will meet with their Chinese counterparts ahead of a meeting between Mr. Modi and President Xi Jinping in June. The main topics on the agenda are trade and border disputes, according to Western diplomats in New Delhi.
Tibet’s government in exile found out about New Delhi’s anxiety over its planned celebrations only when a local newspaper reported that government officials had been ordered to stay away.
A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, said his government had not changed its stance on the Dalai Lama, saying, “His Holiness is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India.”
That came to be an issue last year, after the Dalai Lama visited a province in northern India, another territory disputed by China, which had demanded that India prevent the Buddhist leader from visiting.
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But generally, analysts say it is clear that India has been more cautious with China about the Dalai Lama and other issues.
“This is not appeasement. China’s relative bargaining positions have improved across the board,” said C. Raja Mohan, the director of Carnegie India, a branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The main objective is to manage the relationship while avoiding a confrontation but leaving space for India to progress, catch up and increase its bargaining position.”
On the economic front, India’s efforts to keep meeting ambitious growth targets has kept it relying on trade with China. But the country also faces a $51 billion trade deficit with Beijing, leaving New Delhi with less bargaining power.
“India’s growing reluctance to engage with the Tibetans in exile is due to its growing economic weakness,” said Mr. Holslag, of the Free University of Brussels.
“Modi assumes that Chinese investment will be critical to realize his plans to develop India’s infrastructure and industry, and thus to increase his chance to win the next elections,” he said. “This is really key: Indians want jobs, not a confrontation with China.”
Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.
Maria Abi-Habib is a South Asia correspondent based in New Delhi. Follow her on Twitter: @abihabib.