New Delhi (Reuters): Indian federal government representatives will meet the Dalai Lama when he visits a sensitive border region controlled by India but claimed by China, officials said, despite a warning from Beijing that it would damage ties.
India says the Tibetan spiritual leader will make a religious trip to Arunachal Pradesh next month, and as a secular democracy it would not stop him from traveling to any part of the country.
China claims the state in the eastern Himalayas as "South Tibet", and has denounced foreign and even Indian leaders' visits to the region as attempts to bolster New Delhi's territorial claims.
A trip by the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese regard as a dangerous separatist, would ratchet up tensions at a time when New Delhi is at odds with China on strategic and security issues and unnerved by Beijing's growing ties with arch-rival Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration is raising its public engagement with the Tibetan leader, a change from earlier governments' reluctance to anger Beijing by sharing a public platform with him.
"It's a behavioral change you are seeing. India is more assertive," junior home minister Kiren Rijiju told Reuters in an interview.
Rijiju, who is from Arunachal and is Modi's point man on Tibetan issues, said he would meet the Dalai Lama, who is visiting the Buddhist Tawang monastery after an eight-year interval.
"He is going there as a religious leader, there is no reason to stop him. His devotees are demanding he should come, what harm can he do? He is a lama."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday the Dalai Lama's trip would cause serious damage to India-China ties, and warned New Delhi not to provide him a platform for anti-China activities.
"The Dalai clique has for a long time carried out anti-China separatist activities and on the issue of the China-India border has a history of disgraceful performances," spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing.
Last month a Taiwanese parliamentary delegation visited Delhi, angering Beijing, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of China.
In December, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at his official residence with other Nobel Prize winners, the first public meeting with an Indian head of state in 60 years.
Some officials said India's approach to the Tibetan issue remained cautious, reflecting a gradual evolution in policy rather than a sudden shift, and Modi appears reluctant to go too far for fear of upsetting its large northern neighbor.
India's foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was in Beijing last week on a visit that analysts said was aimed at stabilizing relations between the world's most populous countries.
At one bilateral meeting early in his tenure, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj asked her Chinese counterpart whether Beijing had a "one India" policy, according to a source familiar with India-China talks, a pointed reference to Beijing's demand that countries recognize its "one China" policy.
"One India" would imply that China recognize India's claims to Kashmir, contested by Pakistan, as well as border regions like Arunachal Pradesh.
India's hosting of the Dalai Lama since he fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule has long irritated Beijing. But government ministers often shied away from regular public meetings with the Buddhist monk.