Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Don’t rock the boat

In November 1949, the Tibetan Cabinet in Lhasa wrote to the American Secretary of State, requesting the US’ support for Tibet’s admission to the UN: “As Tibet being an independent state, we have no dangers from other foreign countries but in view of the spread of communism and their successes in China, there is now an imminent danger of Communist aggression towards Tibet.”
Lhasa was advised by the Americans not to ‘rock the boat’.
Later, an officer of the Ministry of External Affairs told Loy Henderson, the US Ambassador to India: “[India] feels that making issue of Tibetan question at present might precipitate Communist decision invade pursuant their declared intention liberating country.”
Around the same time, a cable from Henderson to Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State stated, “during the conversation, Mr. Graves [of the UK High Commission in Delhi] showed me a Hansard report [verbatim report of proceedings of the British Houses] of December 14, 1949,” to which was attached a 1943 memorandum mentioning the British position with respect to Tibet; the memorandum stated the Tibet was a ‘de facto independent’ country.
However the British too did not want to ‘rock the boat’.
This came back to mind, when the controversy erupted regarding the cancellation of a ‘tourist visa’ for Dolkun Isa, Executive Chairman of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress. Isa was to attend a ‘conference’ at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
The media immediately took up the issue: why was the visa suddenly revoked without reason? Soon the Modi Sarkar was accused of behaving like its predecessors.
Most observers saw a retaliation against China’s decision to put a hold India’s request to add Masood Azhar, head of the Pakistani-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad, to the UN’s blacklist.
On the Isa issue, China was quick to respond: the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the Uyghur leader was under a ‘red-corner’ Interpol notice and should be arrested as he was a terrorist.
The restive province of Xinjiang is an extremely sensitive issue for China, as Beijing believes that Islamist militants and Uyghur dissidents are colluding to establish an independent state, Eastern Turkestan.
Though the Ministry of External Affairs was apparently not aware of the Conference and the visa given to Isa, most observers first thought that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was finally decided to ‘rock the boat’.
It may not be that simple.
First, could Isa have attended the ‘conference’ on a tourist visa (or e-visa)?
Whoever has organized this type of event in India, knows that foreign participants need a ‘conference visa’ which is not easy to obtain.
Further, the Dharamsala ‘conference’ was bound to be controversial; it was organized by the US-based Citizen Power for China, a group led by Yang Jianli, one of the protagonists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (incidentally Yang was present in Dharamsala).
Granting Isa an electronic visa made it easier to cancel the permission to visit Dharamsala at short notice. The MEA could show its ignorance of the event.
Cancelling the visa while still holding the meet, even in camera, indicates that the Indian Government was keen to convey the message to Beijing, ‘don’t play with fire concerning terrorism’, and at the same time, allowed Delhi a strategic retreat.
Delhi wanted to ‘rock the boat’ to a certain extent only. It is why visas granted to other Chinese dissidents like Lu Jinghua and Ray Wong were also cancelled.
Lu, also a participant in Tiananmen protests, figures on a Chinese list of ‘major criminals’. She learnt of the withdrawal of her visa only after reaching JFK to enplane for India on April 25. The visa for Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Ray was also reportedly withdrawn around the same time.
Delhi later said that Lu’s visa was withdrawn because her documents were ‘ineligible’ and there was an ‘inconsistency’ about the purpose of her visit. Obviously, she was not going to Himachal for ‘tourism’.
According to the Chinese website of Radio Free Asia, several other activists were banned from the meet, in particular five individuals associated with the World Uyghur Congress.
Hong Kong activist Alex Chow, who co-organized the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, told Quartz that he too was denied a visa.
But it is not the point; the important point is that the gathering took place.
One may well ask: has Delhi become an adept of Sun Tzu’s Art of War?
The Chinese Master in one of the 13 chapters of the book, writes about ‘Variations and Adaptability’, emphasizing on flexibility during a conflict.
Mao himself explained: “People may ask if there is contradiction to abandon a territory gained by heroic battle. This is to put the wrong question. Does one eat to no purpose simply because he relieves himself later?”
Delhi needed to use flexibility after the high profile visits of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to China (and before President Prabab Mukherjee’s trip to Beijing later this month).
To cancel a ‘tourist visa’ was abandoning a bit of territory, but the main ‘battle’ was won; the ‘conference’ was held, though informally and amidst media blackout.
And before that, 60 participants were granted a two-hour audience with the Dalai Lama to discuss …China and democracy.
Edward Leung Tin-kei of Hong Kong Indigenous was one of them.
Hong Kong radical activist described the encounter with the Tibetan leader as a ‘rare opportunity’: “I’ve never thought I could meet Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader. This doesn’t happen every day,” Leung told The South China Morning Post.
Chow Hang-tung, working for an Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China was another Hongkonger attending the closed-door meet. “It was very inspiring”, Chow said.
Ursula Gauthier, the French correspondent of L’Obs, who was recently expelled from China for questioning China’s interpretation of ‘terrorism’ and Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada, were also present.
In the meantime, Beijing is nervous about the democratization of the Tibetan society. The Global Times commented on the recent Tibetan elections for a Prime Minister and Deputies: “Although the [Tibetans] resorted to ‘democratization’ after fleeing, this did not mean they would give up their original characteristics. …After all, feudal serfdom under theocracy has long been abandoned by Western countries.”
Who takes this Cold War language seriously today?
Participating in the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan also lectured on terrorism: “a comprehensive approach should be taken through political, diplomatic, economic and cultural means in order to eliminate the root of terror.”
General Chang obviously forgot ‘democratic means’ in his list.
Though the perception in India was that the Modi Sarkar had retreated, it may not be the case. Beijing has got the message loud and clear: India can do it again and the next time, with proper ‘conference visas’.
Beijing knows this.

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