The Sino-Indian spat over Arunachal Pradesh, triggered by Beijing 's new hardline stance on territorial disputes, has brought home the truth that at the core of the India-China divide remains Tibet, and that unless that issue is resolved the chasm between the two demographic titans will not be bridged. After all, Beijing's claim to Arunachal Pradesh - or more specifically to a slice of it, Tawang - flows from Tibet's putative historical or ecclesiastical ties with Arunachal.

Tibet thus lies at the heart of the disputes. To focus on Arunachal or even Tawang is not only to miss the wood for the trees, but also to play in to the hands of China, which has sought to practise incremental territorial annexation. Having gobbled up Tibet, the historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilisations, Beijing now lays claim to Indian territories on the basis of not any purported Han connection to them but supposed Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical influence. A good analogy to China's expansionist territorial demands was Saddam Hussein's claim, following his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to areas in Saudi Arabia on the basis of alleged Kuwaiti links to them.

Another reminder that Tibet remains the central issue was the September 2006 shooting by Chinese border guards of unarmed Tibetans fleeing to India via Nepal through the 5800-metre-high Nangpa-la Pass. There have been instances in the past of Tibetans being shot at by the paramilitary People's Armed Police or the People's Liberation Army at border crossings, but this was the first such incident captured on film and shown across the world on television. The 41 survivors of that event who escaped gunfire and capture by Chinese troops on ice-covered Himalayan terrain recounted in Dharamsala how the guards opened fire without warning on some 77 Tibetans, a majority of them teenage boys and girls seeking to pursue Tibetan Buddhist studies in schools run by the Dalai Lama.

Beijing, having wrung the concessions it wanted out of India on Tibet, now is calculatedly signalling that Arunachal is its next priority. By publicly presenting Arunachal as an outstanding issue that demands 'give and take', it is cleverly putting the onus on India for achieving progress in the border negotiations. Lest the message be missed, New Delhi is being openly exhorted to make concessions on Arunachal, especially on strategic Tawang - a critical corridor between Lhasa and the Assam Valley of immense military import.

A good analogy to China's expansionist territorial demands was Saddam Hussein's claim, following his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to areas in Saudi Arabia on the basis of alleged Kuwaiti links to them.
The choice before India now is stark: either to retreat to a defensive, unviable negotiating position where it has to fob off Chinese territorial demands centred on Arunachal or to take the Chinese bull by the horns and question the very legitimacy of Beijing's right to make territorial jurisdiction claims ecclesiastically on behalf of Tibetan Buddhism when China has still to make peace with the Tibetans.

Either way it does not augur well for the border talks, already the longest between any two nations in modern world history. After a quarter-century of continuing negotiations, the border diplomacy has yielded no concrete progress on an overall settlement nor removed even the ambiguities plaguing the 4057-kilometre frontline. Beijing has been so loath to clearly define the frontline with India that it broke its 2001 promise to exchange maps of the eastern and western sectors by the end of 2002.

Gently shining the diplomatic spotlight on the Tibet question will help India turn the tables on Beijing, whose aggressive territorial demands have drawn strength from New Delhi's self-injurious and gratuitous acceptance of Tibet as part of China.

At a time when China is threatening to divert the waters of river Brahmaputra, the subtle and measured revival of Tibet as an unresolved issue will arm India with leverage and international say on any Chinese effort to dam the Brahmaputra and reroute its waters. With water likely to emerge as a major security-related issue in southern Asia in the years ahead, India can hardly ignore the fact that the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra originate in occupied Tibet.

Tibet is the means by which India could coop up the bull in its own China shop. Beijing 's new hardline focus on Arunachal/Tawang is apparent not only from its refusal to grant a visa to any official from Arunachal Pradesh, but also from its aggressive patrolling of the still-fuzzy Himalayan frontier. Through its forcefulness on Arunachal, China is signalling that the ongoing negotiations with India cannot centre merely on border demarcation, even if both sides still call them 'border talks'.

Imperceptive or tactless actions can hardly advance any country's interests. But China, being a closed system, does not seem to understand that. That is the reason why communist China has a tradition of acting in ways unfavourable to its own long-term interests. One recent example of that is the way it helped rekindle Japanese nationalism by scripting anti-Japan mob protests in April 2005. Tokyo is now more determined than ever not to allow Beijing to call the shots in East Asia.

What is new is not China 's claim to Tawang or to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh but its brassy assertiveness in laying out in public its territorial demands. What makes such forcefulness doubly astonishing is that its net effect will only be to reinforce India's resolve not to cede further ground to China. Indian officials take an oath of office pledging to "uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India," and it is unthinkable any Indian government would gift Tawang to China. As Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee has already put it, "Every inch of Arunachal is part of India".

That Tawang is a Monba, not Tibetan, area is a conclusion that British surveyors Bailey and Moreshead painstakingly reached, leading Henry McMahon to draw his famous red line on the Survey of India map-sheets to Tawang's north. Earlier at Shimla in October 1913, the British Indian government and Tibet, represented by McMahon and Lonchen Shatra respectively, reached agreement on defining the frontier at that meeting, to which the Chinese delegate at the Shimla Conference was not invited because all parties at that time, including China, recognised Tibet's sovereign authority to negotiate its boundary with India. Even Ivan Chen's map presented at the Shimla Conference clearly showed Tawang as part of India.

An ecclesiastical relationship cannot by itself signify political control of one territory over another. However, in the two regions - Amdo (the birthplace of the present Dalai Lama) and Kham - where Tibet exercised undisputed ecclesiastical jurisdiction and political control, the occupying power has forcibly incorporated those areas in the Han provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. Before claiming Tawang to be part of Tibet, China should be told plainly to first restore Amdo and Kham to Tibet.

Yet, a disturbing pattern of Chinese statements is emerging without cause. A diplomat-cum-senior researcher at a Chinese foreign ministry-run think-tank suggested that India kick out the Dalai Lama if it wished to build 'real and sustainable' relations with Beijing. In an interview with an Indian newspaper, Zheng Ruixiang said: "The Tibet problem is a major obstacle in the normalisation of relations between India and China. India made a mistake in the 1950s by welcoming the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet. It is now time for correcting the past mistake and building a real and sustainable relationship with China."

The pattern suggests that under President Hu Jintao, who made his name in the Chinese Communist Party by ruthlessly quelling the 1989 anti-China protests in Lhasa as the martial-law administrator, Beijing may be striving to adopt a more forthright stance vis-a-vis India, including on the border disputes and the presence of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Having consolidated his hold on power in the past year to emerge as China's unchallenged ruler, Hu has begun suppressing dissent at home, strengthening the military and shaping a more nationalistic foreign policy. Hu may believe his regime can exert more strategic pressure on India, now that the railway to Tibet has been built and Pakistan's Chinese-funded Gwadar port-cum-naval base is likely to be opened during his stop in Islamabad next week.

Given autocratic China's penchant to act counterproductively, India should welcome the Chinese resurrection of the past and highlighting of bilateral disputes in public. What all this brings out is that Beijing is unwilling to settle the border disputes on the basis of the status quo. Not satisfied with the Indian territories it has occupied, either by conquest or by furtive encroachment, China wishes to further redraw the frontiers with India, even as it keeps up the charade of border negotiations. The new Chinese brashness helps create the necessary leeway for India to re-evaluate its policy and approach and add more subtlety and litheness to its stance unilaterally accommodating China on Tibet and other issues.

Past mistakes

India needs to first grasp the damage to its China policy caused by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister. Both on Tibet and the border talks, he acquiesced to Chinese demands. He signed on to a document formally recognising Tibet to be "part of the People's Republic of China" and, by agreeing to a new framework of border talks focused on an elusive 'package' settlement, he rewarded Beijing for its breach of promise to fully define the frontline through an exchange of maps.

China may have ceased its cartographic aggression on Sikkim through its maps, but the important point, often overlooked, is that it has yet to expressly acknowledge that Sikkim is part of India. While it now makes India accept in every bilateral communiqué the Vajpayee formulation that Tibet is 'part of the People's Republic of China,' Beijing till date has declined to affirm in a joint statement with New Delhi or even unilaterally that Sikkim is part of the Republic of India. Sikkim was never an issue in Sino-Indian relations until Vajpayee made it one. He then ingeniously flaunted the Chinese "concession" on Sikkim as a cover to justify his kowtow on Tibet.

Tibet is India's trump card, yet Vajpayee capriciously surrendered it to gain a dubious concession on Sikkim, over which China has never claimed sovereignty. All that China was doing was to depict Sikkim as an in dependent kingdom in its official maps. But such action made little difference to India. The world had accepted Sikkim's 1975 merger with India, and it made little sense for New Delhi to surrender its Tibet card just to persuade Beijing to stop ploughing a lonely furrow - that too over a territory over which China had staked no claim. If an Indian concession on Tibet can ever be justified, it can only be in the context of making Beijing give up its claims on Indian territories, formalise the present borders and reach a deal with the Dalai Lama to bring him home from exile.

For India, the Dalai Lama is a powerful ally. When China annexed Tibet, India surrendered not only its extra-territorial rights over that buffer, but it also signed a pact in 1954 - the in famous Panchsheel Agreement - accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet without seeking any quid pro quo, not even the Chinese recognition of the then existing Indo-Tibetan border. That monumental folly stripped India of leverage and encouraged the Chinese to lay claims to Indian territories on the basis of Tibet 's alleged historical links with those areas.

The Panchsheel accord recorded India's agreement both to fully withdraw within six months its 'military escorts now stationed at Yatung and Gyantse' in the 'Tibet Region of China' as well as 'to hand over to the Government of China at a reasonable price the postal, telegraph and public telephone services together with their equipment operated by the Government of India in Tibet Region of China.'

If India still has any card against Beijing, it is the Dalai Lama. As long as he remains based in Dharamsala, it is a great strategic asset for India. The Tibetans in Tibet will neither side with China against India nor accept Chinese rule over their homeland. If after the death of the present 71-year-old Dalai Lama, the institution of the Dalai Lama were to get captured by Beijing (like the way it has anointed its own Panchen Lama), India will be poorer by several army divisions against China.

It is not late for India to repair the damage done through blunders by Nehru and the closet-Nehruvian Vajpayee. The only way India can build counter-leverage against Beijing is to quietly reopen the issue of China's annexation of Tibet and its subsequent failure to grant autonomy to the Tibetans, despite an express pledge contained in the 17-point agreement it imposed on Tibet in 1951.

This can be done by India in a way that is neither provocative nor confrontational. Building a mutually beneficial relationship with China does not demand appeasement on India's part. And the alternative to appeasement is not provocation. Between appeasement and aggravation lie a hundred different options.

India can start diplomatically making the point that China's own security and well-being will be enhanced if it reaches out to Tibetans and grants genuine autonomy to Tibet through a deal that brings back the Dalai Lama from his exile in Dharamsala. If the Chinese ambassador to India can publicly demand 'mutual compromises' on Arunachal - a statement portrayed by the Indian press as an attempt by him to 'play down' his unabashed claim on Arunachal - is it too much to expect the new Indian ambassador in Beijing to genially appeal to China's own self-interest and suggest it pursue 'mutual compromises' with the Tibetans on Tibet?