March 4, 2017 / 3:15 AM / in 5 months

India to host Dalai Lama in disputed territory, defying China

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama addresses those gathered at Buyant Ukhaa sport palace in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, November 20, 2016.B. Rentsendorj/Files

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian federal government representatives will meet the Dalai Lama when he visits a sensitive border region controlled by India but claimed by China, officials said, despite a warning from Beijing that it would damage ties.

GRAPHIC: India-China border tmsnrt.rs/2mhBcGD

India says the Tibetan spiritual leader will make a religious trip to Arunachal Pradesh next month, and as a secular democracy it would not stop him from travelling to any part of the country.

China claims the state in the eastern Himalayas as "South Tibet", and has denounced foreign and even Indian leaders' visits to the region as attempts to bolster New Delhi's territorial claims.

A trip by the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regard as a dangerous separatist, would ratchet up tensions at a time when New Delhi is at odds with China on strategic and security issues and unnerved by Beijing's growing ties with arch-rival Pakistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration is raising its public engagement with the Tibetan leader, a change from earlier governments' reluctance to anger Beijing by sharing a public platform with him.

"It's a behavioural change you are seeing. India is more assertive," junior home minister Kiren Rijiju told Reuters in an interview.

Rijiju, who is from Arunachal and is Modi's point man on Tibetan issues, said he would meet the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the Buddhist Tawang monastery after an eight-year interval.

"He is going there as a religious leader, there is no reason to stop him. His devotees are demanding he should come, what harm can he do? He is a lama."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday the Dalai Lama's trip would cause serious damage to India-China ties, and warned New Delhi not to provide him a platform for anti-China activities.

"The Dalai clique has for a long time carried out anti-China separatist activities and on the issue of the China-India border has a history of disgraceful performances," spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

China Investing Nearby

Visits of the Dalai Lama are initiated months, if not years in advance, and approval for the April 4-13 trip predates recent disagreements between the neighbours.

But the decision to go ahead at a time of strained relations signals Modi's readiness to use diplomatic tools at a time when China's economic and political clout across South Asia is growing.

China is helping to fund a new trade corridor across India's neighbour and arch-foe Pakistan, and has also invested in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, raising fears of strategic encirclement.

Last month a Taiwanese parliamentary delegation visited Delhi, angering Beijing, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of China.

In December, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at his official residence with other Nobel prize winners, the first public meeting with an Indian head of state in 60 years.

Some officials said India's approach to the Tibetan issue remained cautious, reflecting a gradual evolution in policy rather than a sudden shift, and Modi appears reluctant to go too far for fear of upsetting its large northern neighbour.

India's foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was in Beijing last week on a visit that analysts said was aimed at stabilising relations between the world's most populous countries.

Tangible Shift

That said, Modi's desire to pursue a more assertive foreign policy since his election in 2014 was quickly felt in contacts with China.

At one bilateral meeting early in his tenure, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj asked her Chinese counterpart whether Beijing had a "one India" policy, according to a source familiar with India-China talks, a pointed reference to Beijing's demand that countries recognise its "one China" policy.

"One India" would imply that China recognise India's claims to Kashmir, contested by Pakistan, as well as border regions like Arunachal Pradesh.

India's hosting of the Dalai Lama since he fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule has long irritated Beijing. But government ministers often shied away from regular public meetings with the Buddhist monk.

"These meetings were happening before. Now it is public," Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in the Indian town of Dharamsala, said in an interview.

"I notice a tangible shift. With all the Chinese investments in all the neighbouring countries, that has generated debate within India," he said.

The chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, a member of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, met the Dalai Lama in New Delhi in October and officially invited him to visit the state.

On the Dalai Lama's last visit in 2009, the state's chief minister met him. This time he will be joined by federal minister Rijiju, a move the Chinese may see as giving the trip an official imprimatur.

New Delhi has been hurt by China's refusal to let it join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the global cartel that controls nuclear commerce.

India has also criticised Beijing for stonewalling its request to add the head of a banned Pakistani militant group to a U.N. Security Council blacklist.

Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said New Delhi appeared to have been surprised by China's inflexibility since Modi came to power, fuelling distrust in the Indian security establishment.

"India does feel that the cards are stacked against it and that it should retain and play the cards that it does have," he said. "The Dalai Lama and Tibetan exile community is clearly one of those cards."

Additional reporting by Abhishek Madhukar in DHARAMSALA and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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