NEW DELHI — For a brief moment Saturday, demonstrators waved the flag of Tibet outside the Chinese Embassy in India's capital. There were only 40 protesters, and it was all over within 20 minutes - a sign of just how feeble the Free Tibet movement has become.
As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tours India on a four-day state visit, the once estranged Asian giants are talking up stronger economic ties and resolutions to old border disputes, including Tibet.
Although New Delhi has all along refused to extend political support to the Tibetan freedom movement, India has indirectly helped keep the cause alive by hosting the Dalai Lama, his exiled government, and some 100,000 Tibetan refugees.
But India's willingness to advocate for Tibet is waning as China booms and becomes a crucial trade partner. Other nations, including the United States, have made similar calculations. At the same time, the once-outspoken Dalai Lama has grown quiet in recent years, reducing the Free Tibet campaign to little more than the fading stickers still found in youth hostels and on VW vans the world over.
"The last few years haven't been the strongest for the movement," says Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at Bath University in England. "Western politicians, who in the 1990s were supporting the Tibetan cause in the name of combating China, are focused increasingly on economic opportunities in China as well as security issues [in the wake of 9/11]."
On a visit yesterday to India's technology capital of Bangalore, Premier Wen urged Indian software companies to come to China and take advantage of his nation's manufacturing capabilities. "Cooperation is just like two pagodas, one hardware and one software," Wen said. "Combined, we [India and China] can take the leadership position in the world."
But economic carrots are not the only reason India has not pushed the Tibet issue. Delhi has its own separatist movements to consider in Kashmir, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. Supporting the Free Tibet movement against the wishes of China, says Mr. Anand, "would open up a Pandora's box within India itself."
In recent years, the Tibetan government in exile has moved away from demands for Tibetan independence, and instead has pushed for Tibetan autonomy and the Dalai Lama's return. Officials with the exiled government say they are in "direct contact" with the Chinese government and have sent three envoys to Beijing.
"For three years, we've had a direct channel to saying to them whatever we want to. We've not been publicly visible. Otherwise, we keep ourselves very much engaged," says Tashi Wangdi, representative of the Delhi bureau of the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has taken a quieter approach in the hopes that the Chinese will conclude that it is in their interest to negotiate with him, says Anand. The Dalai Lama has kept the Tibetan freedom movement peaceful and nonviolent, which may not hold under future Tibetan leadership.
Dhundup Dorjee of the Tibetan Youth Congress, who helped organize this weekend's protest, warns that the Tibetan quest for freedom is a ticking bomb. "If there's an opportunity, the Tibetans will rise up," he says. "If there's no Dalai Lama, what would the situation be?"
Mr. Dorjee finds India's refusal to get involved confounding. He accuses China of having committed several anti-India acts, including support for Pakistan and the diversion of Himalayan rivers.
India could yet help resolve the Tibetan issue, says Anand, but Delhi must convince Beijing that it has no political ambitions in Tibet. Then India needs to bring China around to see that a resolution to the Tibetan problem would open up that border for freer Sino-Indian trade and tourism, he adds.
In the meantime, Dorjee and his compatriots haven't given up on their dream of returning to a homeland free of Chinese occupation, even if this seems less and less likely. He quotes a Tibetan adage to sum up his people's view: "The Tibetans are always hopeful and the Chinese are always suspicious."