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Fifty years after India shut its consulate in Lhasa in the wake of hostilities with China, South Block is showing renewed interest in returning to Tibet. It won't be easy. As foreign office sources pointed out, apart from Nepal, China does not allow any other country to have diplomatic representation in Lhasa.

But is India really interested? Officially, nobody will ever say otherwise. But academics and others who have closely tracked India's China policy, say a consulate in Lhasa is seen as "problematic" for Delhi. There could be issues over the grant of Indian visas, China's conflict with the Tibetans could draw India in and affect the whole relationship. Then there was the presence of the Dalai Lama in India.

India also remained cool to Chinese offers of a free trade region meshing Tibet and northern India. Although that would have given India the opportunity to set up shop in Lhasa, diplomats saw it differently. Tibet was sparsely populated, poor and undeveloped, with little industry. Diplomats saw it as a thinly veiled Chinese attempt to flood India with Chinese goods.

On the other hand Indian diplomats saw more to gain from plugging into China's trade and business hubs. Thus Shanghai was a logical choice for a consulate, followed by booming Guangzhou on China's east coast.

Now China wants to open a consulate in Chennai and the principle of reciprocity requires Beijing to accommodate Delhi with a consulate on its soil. So while the official mantra of "interest" in Lhasa remains, India seems more keen a consulate in one of two cities in China's south west.

The first option is Chengdu (a major communication and economic hub). But there are obviously other reasons. Chengdu is the military region tasked with securing the border with India (J&K, UP, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). Its mandate also covers Yunnan meaning the border with Myanmar, and Tibet (with which India has a border stretching more than 3,000 km).

The other option is Chongqqing (manufacturing and transport centre in the news recently when princeling Bo Xilai got his comeuppance). Chongqqing is also one of five core cities controlled directly from Beijing (the other four are Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin).

China watchers however say India has little interest in Chongqqing. For reasons of trade and business, they say Chengdu is seen as a far better bet. And while the official line may underscore the value of Lhasa (leading eventually to Urmuqi in Xinjiang), the focus really is on linking up with and learning from, the Chinese economic juggernaut.


More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.
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