As Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee prepares for his six-day visit to China beginning on June 22, 2003, a debate has formed in India concerning the impact of the Tibet issue on Sino-Indian talks.

“For more than 50 years, Tibet has been a very sensitive issue between India and China because Tibet’s government-in-exile led by the Dalai Lama has its headquarters in Dharamsala,” India’s NDTV television said in a broadcast on June 20, 2003.

“In fact, Beijing will convey its concerns to Prime Minister Vajpayee during his trip to China next week even as India tries hard to balance its interests between China and Tibet,” it added.

Similarly, C. Raja Mohan, Strategic Editor of The Hindu, wrote in his newspaper in May that “The question of Tibet always lingers uncomfortably in the air whenever the top leaders of India and China meet.”

However, in a despatch from Beijing on June 19, 2003, the Indian news agency PTI had this comment from a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman: “Asked whether the Tibet issue as well the presence of the exiled Tibetan religious leader Dalai Lama would figure during Vajpayee’s talks with the Chinese leadership, the official said Tibet and Dalai Lama issues are not ‘a difficult problem’ in Sino-Indian relations.”

Nevertheless, B. Raman, a former additional secretary in the Indian Cabinet Secretariat, says in an article titled, “Understanding China” that the Chinese side will use the Tibetan issue to pressure India when it suits their need.

“… if the situation in Tibet deteriorates in the future threatening the Chinese position, the presence and activities of the Dalai Lama and his followers in Indian territory could again become a major issue of contention, leading to the Chinese re-kindling the border to exercise pressure on India,” Raman wrote in his article on June 14, 2003.

Also, if there is progress in the trade talks leading to the opening of the Nathu La on the Sikkim-Tibet border, it will have a direct impact in the situation of people on both sides of the borders. The Chinese side is reported to have been preparing the town of Dromo (aka Yatung), near the Indian border, for a possible re-opening of this traditional trade route.

As part of the debate in India, Jasjit Singh, former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, in his article in the Indian Express of June 14, 2003, suggested that the Chinese side “would like to see New Delhi accept Beijing’s ‘sovereignty’ over Tibet as against the ‘suzerainty’ status currently recognised by India.” He hinted that India should do so if China “recognise[s] J&K’s accession to India.” J&K is Jammu & Kashmir, a state in India bordering Pakistan.

Responding to this, P.M. Kamath, a retired lecturer in political science, wrote in the Indian Express of June 20, 2003, that such a development” would be suicidal to India’s national interest, security and reputation.” Kamath continued, “Historically, Tibet has never been Chinese territory. The British and the Russians preferred to maintain it, during their 19th century imperial contest, as an autonomous region. Even while conceding Chinese control over it in 1950, Nehru only recognised Chinese ‘suzerainty’. It is vital for India’s security as a buffer autonomous state. After all, since 1962 China has been using Pakistan as a counterweight to Indian power in the region. With the Dalai Lama in India and heading a government in exile, any use of Tibet as a bargaining chip with China to promote Indian security interests is inhuman and immoral.”

Monitoring the recent meeting between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese leaders, the Indian media feels this is positive for Sino-Indian relations.

The NDTV broadcast said, “India’s policy towards Tibet has changed over the years. From active support to Tibetan rebels in the 1950s and 1960s, to today’s balancing act where New Delhi is urging both sides to reach a political settlement. The most encouraging development in the last six months is that the Dalai Lama’s envoys have visited China twice to pave the way for formal talks.”

“Any movement towards a dialogue between exiled Tibetan leadership and Beijing feeds positively into the Sino-Indian relations and lightens the political shadow that Tibet has cast for so long over the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Beijing,” wrote C. Raja Mohan in the Hindu.

Several Tibetan and Indian organizations have urged Prime Minister Vajpayee to raise the issue of Tibet during his meetings with Chinese leaders.

The Economist magazine of June 20, 2003, analyzed recent development in India-China relations leading to the forthcoming visit by Prime Minister Vajpayee as follows:

“India’s relations with China are still scarred by the bitterness that ended its first prime minister’s dream of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, Indo-Chinese brotherhood, sealed in a treaty in 1954. Sibling tension soon surfaced, and sharpened when India gave sanctuary in 1959 to the Dalai Lama and 100,000 of his followers as they fled China’s suppression of an uprising in Tibet. It ended, in humiliating betrayal for Mr. Nehru and India, in the war of 1962. The conflict, which grew out of territorial disputes, ended in a comprehensive Chinese victory.

“It took a quarter of a century for relations to return to something like normal. In 1988 the two prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Li Peng, agreed to set the border dispute to one side. Since then there have been 14 meetings of a joint working group set up to tackle it. Last year Zhu Rongji, then Chinese prime minister, came to India, and his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, will repay the visit this weekend. His six-day trip, during which he will meet Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and other newly appointed Chinese leaders, will be the first by an Indian prime minister since 1993.”