New Delhi has postponed border talks that were to begin this past Monday after Beijing objected to a privately sponsored international convention of Buddhists in India. The four-day Global Buddhist Congregation was scheduled to occur at the same time as the negotiations.
Two weeks ago, China got in touch with South Block, the home of India’s Beijing-friendly Ministry of External Affairs, to express its displeasure with the Congregation, which concluded in Delhi this week. The event, commemorating 2,600 years of the Buddha’s enlightenment, brought the three strands of Buddhism together for the first time. Organizers also worked to adopt a common stand on religious and other issues as well as form a united Buddhist organization.
From Beijing’s point of view, it was bad enough that India was getting a head start on influencing the world’s Buddhists—more than 9,000 of them from 32 nations attended the Congregation before it closed its doors on Wednesday—but it was worse that the Dalai Lama gave the keynote address at the end of the event. South Block initially tried to make concessions to the Chinese, including barring His Holiness from the Congregation’s opening dinner, making sure that no Indian leader would share a platform with the famous Tibetan lama, and relocating the site of the boundary talks away from the event.
Yet Beijing rejected New Delhi’s concessions and would not be placated, at one point insisting that the Indian government force the Congregation to move to another country. In the face of escalating Chinese demands, South Block had no choice but to call off the border negotiations. At this moment, it appears the talks will take place sometime next year.
In the past, India’s diplomats said or did just about anything to avoid upsetting their Chinese counterparts. This time, however, Beijing overplayed its hand by blatantly interfering in India’s internal affairs. In short, China forced South Block diplomats to say they lived in a free society and would not interfere in a religious and cultural event.
Whether or not the spat is soon forgotten, it’s important because it is the first indication of how Beijing is reacting to its stunning series of setbacks in November. In Honolulu, China was excluded from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, in Canberra Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that US forces would get basing rights in Australia, and in Bali the region united against China’s expansive claims to the entire South China Sea. And if this were not bad enough, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now visiting Beijing’s once-firm ally, Burma.
In the past, Chinese diplomats quickly adjusted when they met resistance. This time, however, they look like they are doubling down on the arrogance that has frightened—and united—China’s neighbors and the United States. For instance, it is evident that Beijing hardened its stance toward India after the Bali East Asia Summit, unhappy with New Delhi’s position on Beijing’s maritime claims.
Beijing looks like it learned nothing last month—and that should be of great concern to the entire international community.