A round of talks scheduled to start Monday between India and China did not take place after New Delhi postponed the dialogue. It is being seen as a political spat between the two Asian giants.
Diplomats from the two countries were to meet in the Indian capital for two days to discuss their decades-old boundary dispute. But late last week, Indian officials announced the talks were off. They cited no reason, but say the two sides are in touch to reschedule the dialogue.
In India, domestic media reports say the postponement was triggered by Beijing’s demands that India cancel an international religious meeting which began in New Delhi on Sunday and which Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is scheduled to address, Wednesday. India refused to cancel, saying it is a cultural and religious conference.
Chinese authorities routinely denounce public appearances by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, arguing that such occasions can become venues to highlight opposition to Chinese rule over Tibet.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not comment directly on the religious conference in New Delhi. But he said that Beijing opposes any country providing a platform for the Dalai Lama and accused the Tibetan leader of being engaged in separatist activities under the pretense of religion.
However, the Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi, Tempa Tsering, decried attempts to politicize what he says is a religious gathering.
"It is a purely religious conference and there is no other motivation, no other objectives… we don’t distort or misuse such occasions to suit somebody’s convenience or motives. I feel very sorry that Chinese always distort purposes all the time," said Tempa Tsering.
A professor of Chinese Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Alka Acharya, says part of the problem arose because the political talks and the religious conference are occurring on the same date. She also says there may have been some suspicion in Beijing about the Indian government’s role in the conference.
"The problem arose whether there was any government sponsorship to this particular the event ... I think the government of India made it very clear that there was no government sponsorship," she said. "They [China] do not sometimes appreciate that India cannot take the stand that they expect us to take. That is a pity."
Talks between the two countries to resolve their border dispute have been going on for nearly three decades, but progress has been slow. China claims 90,000 square kilometers of Indian territory. New Delhi says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers of its territory in Kashmir.
At the conference, the two sides are expected to finalize a mechanism for direct communication between their capitals for better coordination on managing the talks.
Acharya says the postponement is unfortunate, from the point of view of the border dispute, but is unlikely to create any deep strain in India-China relations.
"In matters like this postponements sometimes lead to a kind of plateauing of the pace, and that is the concern I would have, because these talks have to be pushed with vigor and such stoppages really flatten the momentum," said Acharya.
Relations between India and China have improved in the last decade. But both remain deeply suspicious of each other and are competing for influence in the Asian region.