Global Times, the leading Chinese daily affiliated to the flagship People's Daily has a knack of displaying Beijing's love-hate relationship vis-a-vis India. On Wednesday (April 5), while it took a strong exception to the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese claims to be their own, saying "it damages the China-India relationship", it also said in another piece that "cooperation between the two emerging Asian powers over Internet-related technologies is likely to provide a good platform to strengthen their future relations".
Similarly, in March, the same Chinese media had accused India of considering Beijing's much talked-about Belt and Road initiative from a geopolitical perspective which would only bar it from reaping the benefits offered by the initiative.
It was also in the same month the same daily had advised the country's rulers to take a fresh look at Narendra Modi's India saying: "Beijing-New Delhi ties have recently entered a subtle and delicate phase, observers soon started to pay close attention to how the bilateral relationship will develop after Modi tightens his grip on power."
Even before that, in October 2016, the Global Times had wholeheartedly praised India's growth story, saying: "China doesn't have the capability to limit India's manufacturing development. What China is capable of is preventing Chinese investment from capitalising on India's admired growth outlook, indisputably an unwise choice."
So given these inconsistent stances of the country's media when it comes to India, one feels Beijing's latest rhetoric on the Dalai Lama's visit to northeast is more of a hollow threat.
Former India Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Intelligence Corps Head Colonel Ramani Hariharan said an overhype about Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh is in play but it's China's own making.
He also said that this is not the first time China has objected about issues related to Dalai Lama. The only difference is that the Narendra Modi government's comment has been made in public unlike in the past when India conveyed the same views diplomatically. That's Modi's leadership style.
According to Col Hariharan, China is raising the hype because it is a bit uncertain about CPEC with a huge investment riding on it after India raised the issue of the project violating India's sovereignty (China's core interest). India's support would have made sure of success and added to its brand value.
"China has also come down in India's trust after it mindlessly refuses to cooperate on terrorist Azhar Masood issue. So instead of semantic jugglery, China has to show some reciprocal sensitivity to India's reservations. Otherwise we can expect the impasse to continue," he said.
For one, China knows very well that its relation with India in the second decade of the 21st century is no more dominated by symbolic issues like Tibet. Tibet has traditionally been an issue over which Beijing has shown the world its military and diplomatic might and has always condemned those who dared to take a sympathetic stand on the Dalai Lama, who Beijing views as a symbol of anti-China separatist activities.
But today, it's no more the case. Also at the same time, China needs to get its rhetoric going, for if it gives up the strategy of bashing India over sheltering the Dalai Lama, it could give a message to the world that Beijing has turned soft on the issue. It cannot afford to not put up a stunt.
India plays Dalai Lama card to counter China's resistance to it internationally
Secondly, as the Global Times has rightly analysed, a more assertive India is now using the Dalai Lama as a diplomatic tool to win more leverage vis-a-vis China, especially in the wake of the latter blocking India's entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and also shielding Masood Azhar from being blacklisted.
The playing of the Lama card to put back the pressure on China is New Delhi's deliberate assertion in the power game in Asia and Beijing is clearly frustrated by India's diplomatic gesture, which is more open in the Modi era. The various moves to link the northeast through railway tracks have also irked the Chinese and hence the roaring.
But economically, China needs India
But China, which has in the recent past acknowledged India's growth at a pace better than its own in the 2015-16 fiscal, also knows that it cannot win against India just by flexing its muscles today. Economically, the Chinese exports much more to India (USD 55.63 billion in FY 2016-2017, see above graphics) compared to what India sends to China (only USD 8.94 billion in FY 2016-17) and in that sense, India's dependence on China is miniscule in relation to how much the neighbouring country needs our market.
Moreover, as the 'Make in India' scheme gains momentum in India, the Chinese will not forgo the opportunity to be part of India's growth story and benefit from it for its own interests.
Strategically, China has a plateful of issues today
Secondly, China has been facing challenges from various quarters. While the US under Barack Obama and his successor Donald Trump have not entertained Beijing much, the issues related to the dispute in the South China Sea and over North Korea's reckless nuclear belligerence have also put it in a spot internationally.
China's all-weather friend Pakistan is of little use
All-weather friend Pakistan has always showed China its loyalty but it has done so to get the latter's blessings in its fight with its arch-rival. India, on the other hand, has worked hard on improving its defence collaborations across the world (be it with the US, in South Asia, the Asia-Pacific or Indian Ocean region) and there is very little to differentiate when it comes to both countries' foreign policy reach-out at the moment.
In fact, India has also made efforts towards working closely with China on platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS. Hence, there is very little space for the Chinese to manoeuvre against India in a system where both operate as frenemies and require each other to give shape to a new emerging world.
As far as China's threat on "damaged relations" with India, it just reflecting the Dragon's old habit of intimidating its rival. In reality, Beijing is frustrated with India's growing courage to take it head on and it is showing.