Dalai Lama's Visit To India Certain To Upset China

One of the world's most intense rivalries is between two Asian giants: China and India. Relations between them are strained at the moment, and one reason involves the Dalai Lama. He plans to visit an area in northeast India next month that China has claimed as its own for many years.

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This next report involves one of the world's most intense rivalries, between China and India. Relations between those two neighbors are strained at the moment, and one reason involves the Dalai Lama. He plans to visit an area in northeast India that the Chinese have claimed as their own for many years. We're joined by NPR's correspondent in India, Philip Reeves.

Hi, Phil.


INSKEEP: Where will the Dalai Lama visit?

REEVES: Well, this is a huge, heavily forested, very wet, lush sweep of hills and mountains up in the Himalayas. If you look on a map, you'll find it sandwiched between the kingdom of Bhutan and Myanmar and Chinese-ruled Tibet. Now, for India, this area is the state of Arunachal Pradesh. It's one of a cluster of states up there in the far northeast of the country. China maintains, though, that 90,000 square kilometers of this area is in fact part of Tibet and therefore, it believes, part of its territory.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember that the Dalai Lama is in exile from Tibet, the Tibetan spiritual leader. He's been living in India. And what is he going to be doing in this disputed territory?

REEVES: Well, he's confirmed that he's planning to go there on the 8th of November, and to stay there for about a week. Now, the people up in that area practice Tibetan Buddhism. So he's planning to meet his followers, to visit a 400-year-old Buddhist monastery, to pray in temples in the area. So on the face of it, this is a spiritual mission although of course, the Chinese don't see it that way.

INSKEEP: And what makes it very sensitive for them?

REEVES: Well, as you know, he's been pressing for full autonomy for Tibet for years. Beijing sees him, though, as an out and out separatist. It calls him, to use its colorful language, a splitist. It appears to view this trip as an attempt to undermine China's territorial claim to the area, and to support India's claim to it.

INSKEEP: Well, then what do the Chinese do? He is, after all, across the international border as it stands now.

REEVES: Well, at the moment, it's been a verbal response. And it'll surely stay that way. But it does say it's greatly concerned and strongly opposed to the Dalai Lama's trip. It used similar language the other day, incidentally, about a visit to Arunachal Pradesh by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who went there to campaign for votes. The states just held elections, which incidentally, Manmohan Singh's Congress Party won.

But this issue could - will very likely come up, I think, at a meeting between Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, which is happening tomorrow on the sidelines of a regional summit being held in a beach resort in Thailand. So this is an opportunity for both sides to cool tempers after some really quite barbed exchanges.

INSKEEP: An opportunity to cool tempers, but also a reminder of a longtime rivalry here between two countries that have actually fought combat over where the border should be. And I suppose a reminder for the Chinese that India is, as they would see it, harboring someone that they would very much not like to be free at the moment.

REEVES: Absolutely. It is taking place against a general backdrop of rivalry, of suspicion. India is worried about Chinese expansionism. Some analysts think that this is a key reason in the rapprochement, the better relationship between India and the U.S. that's been going on in the recent years.

There's a degree of rivalry over trade, over energy sources, even over missions to the moon. And India doesn't like Beijing's close relationship with its old foe Pakistan. It's been protesting about Chinese projects going on in the chunk of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.

But let's not forget, Steve, that mutual trade's heading towards the $60 billion mark between India and China. That's a big, big rise on say, 10 years ago. And they are cooperating on some fronts, including a common stance on climate change at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in New Delhi.

Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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