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The Dalai Lama Factor in Sino-Indian Relations

NEW DELHI – Relations between India and China haven’t been particularly warm in recent months. But they have lately taken on an icy chill, with Chinese leaders furious over the Dalai Lama’s visit to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own. On April 8, over loud protests from China’s government, the Dalai Lama addressed devotees from far and wide at the historic monastery in the border town of Tawang, where the sixth Dalai Lama was born more than three centuries ago.

India and China view both the Dalai Lama and Arunachal Pradesh very differently. From India’s perspective, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community, and so has the right to minister to his followers at the great Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Tawang. And, because Arunachal Pradesh is a state of the Indian union, what happens there is India’s decision alone.

In China’s view, however, Arunachal Pradesh is not really India’s. Yes, it officially belongs to India, but only because of the McMahon line, a boundary drawn by British imperialists in 1911, which China no longer accepts (though China did settle its boundary with Myanmar along the same line). The Chinese government refers to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet.

In any case, says China, the Dalai Lama is not a spiritual leader, but a political one. And, given his support for Tibetan self-rule (Chinese officials angrily call him a “splittist”), his visit to a sensitive border area is being viewed as a deliberate provocation.