A planned visit by the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan spiritual leader, to a remote corner of northeast India could just have escalated tensions between nuclear-armed neighbors India and China.
The Asian nations share a disputed 3,500-km border. China claims ownership of about 90,000 square meters of land run by India, which it calls South Tibet. This, along with occupation of the Aksai Chin peninsula, led to a brief war in 1962. Since then, the rivals resolved to deal with the border diplomatically — even if there hasn't been much progress toward a resolution. The Dalai Lama, whom China considers a dangerous separatist, lives in exile in India and has a history of visiting the disputed Himalayan region, most recently in 2009 because of the area's strong Tibetan-Buddhist following.
The Indian government says the Dalai Lama's visit is merely religious. After all, his schedule includes teaching and consecrating a new Tibetan temple. "Whenever I come to the northeast of India, it feels like a reunion with people here," the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying by German news publisher Deutsche Welle.
China was offended that India approved the Dalai Lama's trip
That seems harmless, right? But the visit comes at a time of mounting tensions between the nations. Last year, China bolstered its ties with India's archenemy Pakistan, voiced its opposition to India gaining a seat on the elite Nuclear Suppliers' Group and refused to add Pakistan-based cleric Masood Azhar to a UN list of proscribed terrorists. The Dalai Lama, who is scheduled to spend 12 days in the area, will also be accompanied by a junior minister for home affairs.
In that context, the Dalai Lama's trip appears far from apolitical. One China-based south Asia expert argued in the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times that the visit is "New Delhi's way of showing its resentment and telling Beijing that India has a diplomatic card to play as well."
That's certainly how it's being viewed across the border. China was offended that India approved the Dalai Lama's trip, saying it was "gravely concerned" that a visit to the disputed area by the "treacherous separatist" would cause "serious damage" to bilateral ties. China kept its mouth shut about its own neighborly misgivings.
What happens next is cloudy — literally — as bad weather this morning caused the Dalai Lama to delay the trip. Forecast for bilateral ties? Stormy weather ahead with a slight chance of clear skies.