The Dalai Lama’s recent weeklong visit to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh has had a rather adverse impact on the flow of diplomatic engagement between India and China. The primary casualty of the visit seems to be the 15th annual Russia-India-China (RIC) ministerial meet, that was scheduled to be held in the second week of May this year. This year’s RIC meet has been cancelled since a supposedly “upset” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has refused to visit New Delhi, citing India’s “obstinacy” in allowing the Tibetan spiritual leader’s trip to Arunachal Pradesh, despite China’s objections to the same. Diplomatic sources have revealed to Delhi Defence Review (DDR), that though efforts are on to “reschedule the date for the three countries’ ministerial meeting”, India will stand firm both on the territorial issue of Arunachal Pradesh as well as the Dalai Lama’s right to travel there.
It is likely that the currently postponed RIC meet may be held sometime in August or September, according to these sources. But others privy to the development say that they don’t know whether the trilateral meet could be held as soon as that, given China’s tough posture vis-à-vis India following the Dalai Lama’s visit. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang recently said, “India should observe commitment on Tibet-related issues and should not use the Dalai Lama to undermine China’s interests.”
Upping the ante on India, China has renamed six places in Arunachal Pradesh in a bid to apparently legitimize its claim over the Indian state, called South Tibet by Beijing. As per Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times, the “official” Chinese names of the six renamed places in Arunachal Pradesh are: Mila Ri, Wo’ gyainling, Qoidengarbo Ri, Mainquka, Bumo La and Namkapub Ri. Before this, China had already cancelled the first ever RIC defence ministers’ meeting which was scheduled to be held in Moscow on April 25.
India won’t blink
While these moves have further strained relations between the two neighbours, India does not seem ready to blink on territorial issues. It has refused to be part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of which the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a key component. While China claims that the corridor has no “direct” political connection to the Kashmir issue, New Delhi is not convinced about Beijing’s intentions. India feels that OBOR might not only end up bolstering China’s economic strength, but could also enhance its geopolitical footprint in the region with the attendant impact on stability in the Indian Sub-continent and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Therefore, despite being invited to attend the first ever May 14-15 conference on OBOR, India will have only low key representation at the two-day summit.
Though it has not been confirmed by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), sources say that a junior ranking official from the country’s embassy in Beijing may attend the conclave to which even other BRICS members such as South Africa and Brazil are not sending their heads of the government. From the South Asian region, only Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have confirmed their participation. Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay will also not be attending the conclave. That apart, except for the Philippines, major US allies like Australia, New Zealand, South Korea or Japan are not joining it despite every effort by China to present the summit as a successful event.
China isn’t making headway in Sri Lanka either
Meanwhile, in a bid to counter Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reaching Colombo on May 12, a day before Sri lanka’s Prime Minister leaves for Beijing to attend the aforementioned OBOR conclave. Though Modi is apparently visiting Sri Lanka for the inauguration of ‘Vesak Day,’ also known as Buddha Poornima, a traditional holiday commemorated by the country’s Sinhala Buddhists, there is more to the visit as already stated.
His visit intends to expedite the process of India’s developmental agenda in Sri Lanka, including rail and road connectivity projects in the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces. China is also keen to invest in similar projects, but given the high interest rates charged by Chinese financial institutions on their investments and Sri Lanka’s grossly inadequate financial resources to pay back the over $8 billion worth of debt it owes to Beijing, the Sri Lankans are increasingly looking towards India and Japan to meet their infrastructural needs.
This will be Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka since 2O15 and reflects the importance India attaches to maintaining influence in Colombo, at a time when Sri Lanka has emerged as a major OBOR partner for Beijing. However, for the moment, it is not clear what shape the interaction between Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping will take when they meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan in June or indeed at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany in July.
Both Modi and Xi are considered to be astute political leaders, and the international media as such will keep a close eye on their body language when they next come face-to-face with each other.
Shankar Kumar is a veteran journalist with decades of experience in covering political events of transnational importance. He lives in New Delhi.
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