Behind the latest diplomatic row with China is a larger Chinese game-plan that India must understand and frustrate. India and China face each other over a highly disputed border. The inviolability of virtually the entire 4,057 km border — one of the longest in the world — has been called into question by China’s increasing cross-frontier military incursions and its calculated refusal to mutually draw a fully agreed line of control along the Himalayas.

The amount of Indian land China occupies or openly covets tops 135,000 square kilometres, or approximately the size of Costa Rica. China currently has unresolved land and sea border disputes with 11 other neighbours. But in comparison with China’s territorial disputes with other neighbours now or even in the past, its land disputes with India stand out for their sheer size and importance.

Beijing’s last-minute postponement of a new round of border talks that was scheduled for this week constitutes no real loss for New Delhi because China has used these 30-year-long negotiations to keep India engaged while blocking any real progress. Even as Beijing has since 2006 provocatively revived its Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh and concurrently stepped up military forays in all sectors, New Delhi has counter-productively stayed locked in these talks.

Let’s be clear: These talks, constituting the longest and the most-barren process between any two nations post-World War II, have only aided the Chinese strategy to mount more military pressure while working to hem in India behind the cover of engagement.

For example, by deploying several thousand troops in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways, China is clearly signalling that the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India on Jammu and Kashmir. The military pressure China has built up on Arunachal may just be tactical. The fact is that India’s vulnerability in J&K has been heightened by the new Chinese military encirclement there.

It took China just four years to first resurrect the Arunachal Pradesh card and then hone the Kashmir card against India. It even shortened the length of the Himalayan border it claims to share with India by purging the 1,597-kilometre line separating Indian J&K from the Chinese-held Aksai Chin plateau, which is the size of Switzerland. Thanks to China’s growing strategic footprint in PoK, India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its J&K. The deepening China-Pakistan nexus actually presents India with a two-front theatre in the event of a war with either country.
What the latest diplomatic row helps highlight is no less ominous. To help undermine the Dalai Lama’s role, Beijing is now exerting pressure on India to deny the Tibetan leader any kind of public platform. The recent spat, as the Chinese foreign ministry has acknowledged, was not just about the Dalai Lama’s address to a religious conference overlapping with the now-scrapped talks. Rather, the ministry brashly insists that India not provide him a public platform of “any form.”

Beijing draws encouragement from its success in bringing India’s Tibet stance in full alignment with the Chinese line. In 2003, the aging and ailing Atal Bihari Vajpayee surrendered India’s last remaining leverage on Tibet when he formally recognized the cartographically dismembered Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” In recent years, even as Beijing has mocked India’s territorial integrity, New Delhi has not sought to subtly add some flexibility to its Tibet stance.

In fact, Manmohan Singh’s climbdown in first suspending bilateral defence exchanges and then meekly resuming them has only emboldened Beijing. India froze defence exchanges in response to China’s stapled-visa policy on J&K and its refusal to allow the Northern Command chief to visit China as head of an Indian military team. But when Singh travelled to Beijing earlier this year, he delivered a two-in-one concession, agreeing to resume defence talks by delinking them from the stapled-visa issue and addressing Chinese sensitivities on the Indian military delegation’s composition by leaving out its team leader — the Northern Command chief.

Even in the latest dust-up, where was the need for the Indian President to first agree to inaugurate the international Buddhist conference in New Delhi and then chicken out after the Chinese had already pulled out of the scheduled border talks?

Just as Beijing compelled New Delhi to climb down on the defence talks, it is likely to drive a hard bargain on the border talks, even though their indefinite suspension can only help bare the actions of the encircler.

China has upped the ante against New Delhi on the Dalai Lama because it recognizes that he remains a major strategic asset for India. It now wants India to go beyond denying the Dalai Lama a political platform to denying him even a religious platform because, Beijing claims, “he is not a purely religious figure but one who has been engaged in separatist activities for a long time.” Of course, China does not want to be reminded that it militarily gobbled up the then-independent Tibet in 1951 or that it now is seeking to extend that annexation by laying claim to Arunachal as “southern Tibet” (a term it fashioned in 2006).

By asking New Delhi to deny the Dalai Lama even a religious platform, China is seeking to extend its containment of India to the Dalai Lama. And, brazenly, it wants India’s help in that endeavour.

In fact, China’s moves indicate it has embarked on a larger strategy to cement its rule on an increasingly restive Tibet by bringing Tibetan Buddhism under the tight control of an atheist state. From its capture of the Panchen Lama institution to its decree to control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any senior lama who passes away, Beijing is driven by long-term calculations. It is waiting to install its own marionette as the next Dalai Lama when the present incumbent dies.

Only India can foil this broader strategy — and it must for the sake of its own interests.