By Dr Bawa Singh
China conceived its 'Neighbourhood Policy’ in 2007 to assure neighbours regarding its peaceful intentions -- seeking no hegemony, playing of power politics, interfering in internal affairs and imposition of its ideology on other countries are the important objectives of policy. However, seeing the Chinese reaction on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia in December 2016, it seems that China does not believe in pursuing its own neighbourhood policy in spirit and substance in the context of its small neighbour.
Tibet has long remained as one the most crucial issues of Chinese foreign policy in general and the neighbourhood policy in particular. In 1949, Tibet was taken over by China. The Tibetan leaders were compelled to sign a treaty known as the Seventeen Point Agreement (SPA), dictated by China in 1951. The agreement guaranteed the autonomy and respect of Buddhist religion along with the establishment of Chinese civil and military headquarters at Lhasa, capital of Tibet.
Being communist, China controlled the freedom of religion, speech, and press of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama had met Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong (1945-1976) in 1954 in an effort to sort out these issues and urged him to honour the SPA.
In the face of Chinese obduracy, the Dalai Lama consistently fought for Tibet's autonomy and China took a tough stand against him. Consequently, he fled to India in 1959 and has since been living in India with 100,000 Tibetan refugees and their government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama has been perceived by Beijing as a separatist leader. Therefore, the Chinese leadership wanted that the neighbouring countries should follow the ‘One China Policy’ as well as not hosting the Dalai Lama.
Given the high percentage of Tibetan Buddhism followers in Mongolia, the Dalai Lama has been held in very high esteem there as a spiritual leader. He paid his first visit to Mongolia in 1979, and the seventh visit was in 2002.
In November 2016, once again he was invited by the Mongolia-based Gadan ThekchenLing Monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery and the centre of Buddhist learning in Mongolia. He gave his teachings in the Buddhist congregations and participated in a conference on Buddhism and Science followed by a public discourse on November 23-24.
Over the next two days, he conferred the Bhikshuka ordination and the Hayagriva initiation. On November 28, the Dalai Lama flew back to India via Japan. During his stay in Mongolia, the Tibetan spiritual leader had openly complained about and criticised the Chinese attempts to disrupt his travel arrangements.
Hosting/meeting the Dalai Lama has been perceived by China as a challenge to its ‘One China Policy.' Deeming the Dalai Lama as a problem for its unity and sovereignty, China asked Mongolia to forbid his visit. In this regard, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a press briefing: “Do not allow the Dalai Lama to visit. Do not support or facilitate the separatist activities of the Dalai clique.”
In Chinese perception, the Dalai Lama is a separatist, not a religious figure. The Chinese government and public discourses have been disapproving of his alleged separatist deeds. Hosting him by any country also implies the endorsement of his separatist acts which is not acceptable to the Chinese leadership. China has expressed its anger against those countries that have hosted the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The Tibetan rights groups and exiles have always been accusing China of trampling upon the religious and cultural rights of the Tibetan people. The visit of the Dalai Lama has been termed by Mongolia as a purely religious visit with no political strings attached to it.
Mongolia has been pressing China for a $4.2 billion assistance to overcome its economic crisis and recession.
After Mongolia's hosting the Dalai Lama, China has severely punished it for not toeing its line. China imposed new tariffs on commodity shipments between China and Mongolia. A transportation blockade has been forcing Mongolian truck drivers to wait for long on the border in minus 20 degrees Celsius temperature.
In this backdrop, there is the possibility of a humanitarian crisis due to blockage of essential commodities. The most serious concern is the cancellation of a meeting regarding loan negotiations related to a coalfield railway line, copper plant, and coal gasification.
The incident has also cast a dark shadow over Mongolian Prime Minister Jargaltulgyn Erdenebat's planned visit to China next year. However, it has been argued that Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not confirm the imposition of new border tariffs due to Dalai Lama's visit, rather he pretended to be unaware of the situation.
In the matter of land connectivity, Mongolia has been hoping that the proposed New Silk Road under China's ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative would pass through its territory. Now it is also expected that this project may be hampered due to the suddenly emerged hostile relations. Mongolia’s economic dependence on China, due to the recent “enforcement measures”, could result in grave consequences not only for Mongolia but also for the region.
Due to the sensitivities of China, Mongolia could hardly expect diplomatic or economic assistance from any quarter. Against these concerns on the part of China, Mongolia has been pursuing the ‘Third Neighbour Policy’. Under this policy, Mongolia has been reaching out to friendly European countries in general and the US, Japan, Korea and India in particular.
In this critical situation, Mongolian Ambassador to India Gonchig Ganbold urged: “India should come out with clear support against the difficulties that have been imposed on Mongolia by China.” He also pointed out that it is a “kind of blockade-like situation” imposed by China. It was “an over-reaction” to the Dalai Lama’s religious visit, despite Ulaanbaatar's assurance of the ‘One China Policy', the envoy maintained.
In the backdrop of such hegemonic and monopolistic countermoves, Mongolia has urged India to support it against China’s blockade moves. China has reacted to this step in very jaundiced language -- as expected by the Indian establishment. The Chinese official mouthpiece Global Times dubbed Mongolia's seeking help from India as "politically harebrained”. Mongolia was also warned to avoid such dangerous geopolitical games and be prepared for dire consequences otherwise.
India as a regional power should give a fitting reply to this emerging geopolitical great game. In this critical condition, it is worth mentioning that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said: “As a close friend of Mongolia, which regards India as its ‘third neighbour’ and ‘spiritual neighbour', we are ready to work with the Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty.”
India has also given a signal of being sympathetic to the Mongolian people in the present difficult time. It has expressed its desire to allow Mongolia to make use of the $1 billion financial assistance offered during PM Narendra Modi’s visit in 2015 to tide over the economic sanctions imposed by China.
Buddhism is a common factor linking the Dalai Lama, Mongolia and India. The Dalai Lama also has connections with Arunachal Pradesh, which is an integral part of India and has several prominent Buddhist monasteries. The Dalai Lama, who has been living in India since 1959, has the right to visit Arunachal Pradesh. It seems that the current incident, where China has objected to the Tibetan spiritual leader visiting Mongolia, has implications for Arunachal Pradesh as time and again this issue has been raked up by China. India should strongly support Mongolia in view of the historical, geo-cultural and geopolitical interests.
China cannot stop the Dalai Lama from visiting any part of the world, including Arunachal Pradesh, and, of course, except Tibet which has been illegally acceded by China.
The visit of erstwhile US Ambassador Richard Verma to Arunachal Pradesh in October has also not gone down well with China. Beijing has warned India and the US over the envoy's visit, claiming that Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed territory between China and India. China has perceived Verma’s visit as intervention by the US in the Sino-Indian boundary dispute which makes it more complicated and disturbs the hard-won peace at the border.
If China raises these issues time and again, it has to give reply to some questions. Why is China not following the same principles as preached by it? What is the status of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), where work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is going on? From where did it get the right to station 10,000 military personnel in PoK to protect its CPEC project? Why has military modernisation been going on in South China Sea, where seven countries are claiming territorial jurisdiction? How can it stop India from exploring energy in the area, where New Delhi has been asked by Vietnam to do so?
India is a potential global power, characterised by sound economy, political stability, military modernisation, science and technology development, and large pool of human resource development. The only thing which will make a difference is the strong urge for translating the diplomatic will into practice.
But to prove its worth in the comity of nations, India has to take strong decisions. India should support not only Mongolia -- rather it should support the Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue as well in the backdrop of its own Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh policy.
(The author is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)