NEW DELHI // It is just over 50 years since the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. When news of his escape broke, 50,000 Chinese soldiers were despatched to capture him, but protected by a group of CIA-trained fighters he made it over the border into north-eastern India to a small monastery town called Tawang. There, guarded by hundreds of monks and a squad of Assamese riflemen, the Dalai Lama recuperated after his two-week long journey on foot, mule and yak over some of the world's highest mountain passes.
Today, the Dalai Lama returns to Tawang, in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and China is no less incensed by his stay there now than it was five decades ago, when India granted him asylum. It is not just the memory of his escape: the visit is fanning the flames of a border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi that dates to the early 20th century and has already sparked one war. China claims most of Arunachal as part of historic Tibet, which it says is an integral part of Chinese territory, and its troops briefly occupied the region after easily defeating Indian forces in 1962. Beijing therefore sees the visit as a highly provocative move, designed to "wreck" relations with India.
"The Dalai Lama is a liar," said Ma Zhaoxu, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. "We are firmly opposed to Dalai's visit to the disputed border region." India, however, says the Tibetan government ceded what is now Arunachal to the British under the 1914 Shimla Accord. It views the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, allowing him to run his government-in-exile from the north Indian hill station of Dharamsala, and says he can travel where he likes.
Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, made India's position clear when he met Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, in Thailand last month. "I explained to Premier Wen that the Dalai Lama is our honoured guest," he told reporters afterwards. "He is a religious leader." The Dalai Lama also insists his Arunachal visit is purely spiritual. "The Chinese government politicises too much wherever I go. Where I go is not political," he said on a recent trip to Tokyo.
Analysts almost all disagree, however, seeing the trip as a highly political move both by the Dalai Lama and the Indian government. The government blocked the Dalai Lama from visiting Arunachal last year, but gave him permission last month, despite China's objections. The Dalai Lama had returned to Tawang on four previous occasions. Mr Singh visited Arunachal himself in early October, drawing strong protests from China.
"The Indian government has decided to put its foot down on this issue," said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "There was a realisation that previous overtures by the prime minister had got India nowhere." Over the past few years, there have been 13 rounds of negotiations between China and India on the border issue, but neither side has been willing to give ground. China refuses to accept the Shimla Accord because it says Tibet was not a sovereign state at the time.
It had offered to give up its claim to Arunachal in exchange for Indian recognition of Chinese sovereignty of Aksai Chin, another disputed area near Kashmir and Ladakh. India, however, rejected that, arguing in favour of defining the border section by section. After years on the backburner, the dispute suddenly flared up this year. In March, China tried to block a loan of US$2.9 billion (Dh10.7bn) to India from the Asian Development Bank because part of its was earmarked for infrastructure in Arunachal.
In June, Beijing was infuriated when J J Singh, Arunachal's governor, announced that 60,000 more Indian soldiers were being sent to the region. The same month, India deployed four Sukhoi fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons in Assam, which borders Arunachal. Throughout the summer, Indian media and security analysts repeatedly accused Chinese troops of increasing border incursions in both Arunachal and Ladakh.
The Indian military has not confirmed figures for this year, but says there were 270 border violations last year - double the number the year before. Last month, India stopped issuing visas to non-skilled Chinese workers and China began issuing Indians from Kashmir with visas on separate pieces of paper. Analysts agree that a key reason for the escalating tensions is that China has dramatically improved its infrastructure, allowing its troops to access the border more easily. They also agree that it is hard to define border incursions because China and India do not agree on where the actual Line of Control is.
Experts are divided, however, on whether China is deliberately stirring up the border issue with India, or simply trying to improve security around all its frontiers. Some argue that China, having resolved border disputes with all its other neighbours, simply wants to push India into a compromise on Arunachal and Aksai Chin. But in India, Beijing's moves are widely seen as a targeted reaction to India's growing economic and military muscle.
"The Chinese military believe in unrestricted warfare," Bharat Verma, editor of the India Defence Review, said in an interview. "We could see a conflict in the north-east in the next two years." He and other Indian analysts say China wants to control Tawang as it has sufficient natural resources to supply the rest of Tibet. They also point out that few people in Arunachal have any desire to be part of China.
Residents of Tawang have been painting their houses, mending roofs and hanging large posters of the Dalai Lama on their walls. Guru Tulku Rinpoche, 48, the abbott of Tawang monastery, said he expected 30,000 people to attend the main prayer service. "We are very happy, so happy, all the monks and nuns, all the people of Arunachal. "Everyone who lives here wants Arunachal to stay in India. The Chinese occupied Tibet and now they want more land, and then more."