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China-India relations

For China and India, cooperation is in the interests of both sides

Thorny issues remain between the world’s two most populous nations, such as the presence of the Dalai Lama, but the benefits of friendly relations are very clear

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 12:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 12:56am

The economic benefits from China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, having friendly relations would be enormous. But in the way are three main issues: A decades-old border dispute, Chinese support for India’s arch-rival Pakistan and New Delhi’s backing of the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The latter has put in jeopardy years of negotiations with a visit to the frontier town of Tawang, a pivotal area for Beijing when it comes to Tibetan affairs. It is a provocation that is as incendiary as it is unnecessary.

Tawang is part of the 84,000 sq km eastern Himalayan area disputed by China and India, known to Beijing as Southern Tibet, but to New Delhi, which administers it, as the state of Arunachal Pradesh. It lies to the south of the so-called McMahon Line, the de facto border between the rivals that was secretly drawn up by Tibet and India’s former colonial power, Britain, in 1914. It was a time of internal strife in China and the deal has never been recognised by Beijing. The town is home to a monastery revered in Tibetan Buddhism and is said to be the birthplace of the popular sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. Ordinarily, those would be justification for a spiritual leader of the religion to visit.

Why China, India and the Dalai Lama are pushing the boundaries in Tawang

But the Dalai Lama represents more than his faith, being also a beacon for calls for Tibetan independence. He fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, spending two weeks in Tawang, and now lives in exile in Dharamsala in India’s north. Growing trade and investment links between China and India, and ongoing negotiations on the disputed border, have led New Delhi to tread warily on sensitive issues. But it has cast aside such caution with the Dalai Lama’s visit, calling it an internal and religious matter, but ensuring a political dimension by having the Nobel Peace prize recipient accompanied by the home affairs minister, Kiren Rijiju.

Beijing is understandably angry and has lodged an official objection. Such actions undermine progress and interests, when the two sides should be cooperating to boost economic benefits and resolve disputes.