In November 1949, the Tibetan Cabinet in Lhasa wrote to the American Secretary of State, requesting the USâ support for Tibetâs admission to the UN:
âAs 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.â
Lhasa was advised by the Americans not to ârock the boatâ.
Later, an officer of the Ministry of External Affairs told Loy Henderson, the US Ambassador to India: â[India] feels that making issue of Tibetan question at present might precipitate Communist decision invade pursuant their declared intention liberating country.â
Around the same time, a cable from Henderson to Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State stated, âduring 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,â to which was attached a 1943 memorandum mentioning the British position with respect to Tibet; the memorandum stated the Tibet was a âde facto independentâ country.
However the British too did not want to ârock the boatâ.
This came back to mind, when the controversy erupted regarding the cancellation of a âtourist visaâ for Dolkun Isa, Executive Chairman of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress. Isa was to attend a âconferenceâ 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 Chinaâs decision to put a hold Indiaâs request to add Masood Azhar, head of the Pakistani-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad, to the UNâs blacklist.
On the Isa issue, China was quick to respond: the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the Uyghur leader was under a âred-cornerâ 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 ârock the boatâ.
It may not be that simple.
First, could Isa have attended the âconferenceâ on a tourist visa (or e-visa)?
Whoever has organized this type of event in India, knows that foreign participants need a âconference visaâ which is not easy to obtain.
Further, the Dharamsala âconferenceâ 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, âdonât play with fire concerning terrorismâ, and at the same time, allowed Delhi a strategic retreat.
Delhi wanted to ârock the boatâ 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 âmajor criminalsâ. 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 Luâs visa was withdrawn because her documents were âineligibleâ and there was an âinconsistencyâ about the purpose of her visit. Obviously, she was not going to Himachal for âtourismâ.
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 Tzuâs Art of War?
The Chinese Master in one of the 13 chapters of the book, writes about âVariations and Adaptabilityâ, emphasizing on flexibility during a conflict.
Mao himself explained: âPeople 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?â
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 Mukherjeeâs trip to Beijing later this month).
To cancel a âtourist visaâ was abandoning a bit of territory, but the main âbattleâ was won; the âconferenceâ 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 â¦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 ârare opportunityâ: âIâve never thought I could meet Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader. This doesnât happen every day,â 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. âIt was very inspiringâ, Chow said.
Ursula Gauthier, the French correspondent of LâObs, who was recently expelled from China for questioning Chinaâs interpretation of âterrorismâ 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: âAlthough the [Tibetans] resorted to âdemocratizationâ after fleeing, this did not mean they would give up their original characteristics. â¦After all, feudal serfdom under theocracy has long been abandoned by Western countries.â
Who takes this Cold War language seriously today?
Participating in the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security, Chinaâs Defense Minister Chang Wanquan also lectured on terrorism: âa comprehensive approach should be taken through political, diplomatic, economic and cultural means in order to eliminate the root of terror.â
General Chang obviously forgot âdemocratic meansâ 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 âconference visasâ.
Beijing knows this.
Claude Arpi is French-born author, journalist, historian and tibetologist born in 1949 in AngoulÃªme who lives in Auroville, India.