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China ’s Arunachal Fixation


Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati


Chinese scholars can be brutally frank in their views unlike their countrymen who are in politics or government, except, of course, people like Sun Yuxi, China’s Ambassador to India, who said the whole of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh belonged to his country. During a visit to China in the winter of 2003, Shen Dingli, the well-known Professor of International Relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, explained to me the key reason for his country’s economic ascendancy thus: “While New Delhi chose to stick to swadeshi (Sanskrit for own country) well after its independence, Communist China went in for Foreign Direct Investment much earlier than India did.”

In late July 2007, Dingli’s colleague at the University, Wang Yiwei, said something during his visit to New Delhi that succinctly explained the reasons behind China’s fixation for Arunachal Pradesh. “Tawang (in north-west Arunachal Pradesh) goes beyond the territorial issue. We want to win the hearts of the Tibetans. By giving up claims on Tawang, we don't want to be seen not to be protecting Tibetan interests,” Yiwei was quoted as saying in a media interview. This indeed was a frank admission of at least one of the major reasons for Beijing’s fatal attraction towards Arunachal Pradesh.

China ’s dream about owning Tawang (perched at an altitude of 3,500 metres above mean sea level and an important seat of Buddhism) or the whole of Arunachal Pradesh for that matter is without doubt the main stumbling block in a possible resolution of the protracted Sino-Indian border dispute. The two of the world’s most populous Asian neighbours share a 3,500 km (2,200-mile) border, most of it located along the icy Himalayan heights.

That they fought a brutal 42-day war in 1962 along India’s eastern Himalayan front in present Arunachal Pradesh is history, but the ‘trust deficit’ (as Prof. Yiwei seeks to call it) between New Delhi and Beijing continues to this day. India has been contesting Beijing's rule over 38,000 sq km (15,000 square miles) of barren and uninhabited land on the Tibetan plateau, which China seized from India during the 1962 war. On the other hand, China is pushing ahead with its claim on 90,000 square km of territory ruled by India in the eastern part of the border, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh, a fact confirmed by India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Parliament on 26 February 2008. Mukherjee made it clear Arunachal Pradesh was an integral part of India and that Beijing’s claim was illegal.

China has for sometime been making veiled suggestions about a swap of Tawang in lieu of Aksai-Chin. But, in recent months, Beijing has been vocal with this suggestion, indicating that it is bent on keeping India on the defensive or even confused. But why should China be so obsessed with Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh as a whole? Some of the main reasons could be:

Arunachal Pradesh can give China access to the Brahmaputra Valley and the rest of northeastern India
China will gain contiguity with Bhutan in its eastern flank also if Arunachal Pradesh could be gained
Unlike the Aksai-Chin, India has the benefit of all-weather communication lines to the Chinese frontier through Arunachal Pradesh
The Tibetans have an emotional attachment with the famous Tawang Monastery, founded by the Merak Lama, Lodre Gyatso, in 1681 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobsang Gyatso. Moreover, the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in Tawang.

The most blatant statement about Beijing’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh was made by Ambassador Sun Yuxi in an interview to an Indian television channel just ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to New Delhi from 20-23 November 2006. The Chinese envoy to India had said: “In our position, the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that. That is our position.” New Delhi politely refuted that claim on that occasion as also later to similar claims by the Chinese.

We shall talk about the mood of the locals in Arunachal Pradesh and how Beijing has violated the spirit of an agreement it reached with New Delhi in 2005 by making repeated claims on Tawang a little later, but the fact remains that the frontiers of these two Asian giants met for the first time in history only when China annexed Tibet in 1950. China then decided to wage a war against India, and that too within just a little more than a decade after becoming the latter’s neighbour.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army had occupied Tawang, among other stretches, during the war in 1962 and had even destroyed parts of the Tawang Monastery, but after the ceasefire in November that year, the Chinese withdrew and moved back to the British-drawn MacMohan Line that New Delhi recognizes. After keeping quiet for years, China has started talking openly about its intentions to lay its hands on Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh as a whole on the basis of the putative historical ties between Tibet and Arunachal as an analyst puts it. Clearly, Beijing appears to be on an expansionist campaign by trying to capitalize on the gains from its annexation of Tibet.

On 11 April 2005, during the visit to India by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, India and China had signed an agreement on the ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question.’ Article VII of this agreement says, “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” China has since blatantly violated the spirit of this agreement by repeatedly renewing its claim over Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh as a whole. A former Indian Army officer who saw action during the 1962 war wrote recently that if China insists on the return of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on religious grounds, India could perhaps make counter claims and demand for Mount Kailash and Mansarovar in Tibet, since these are sacred religious places associated with Hinduism!

In this game of military and political diplomacy, it is extremely important to gauge the mood of the people who live in Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh for that matter because they are the ones who have been indirectly drawn into the vortex of this border question. And on this crucial point, it is advantage India, and that’s reason enough for New Delhi to cheer. “Not a soul in Tawang will ever support China. We are an inalienable part of India and the Indian society,” said Sangay Jampi, secretary of the Tawang Monastery. “Neither Tibet nor Tawang ever belonged to China,” the 35-year-old monk added. This statement, published in The Times of India in June this year, reflects the mood of the people in Tawang district that covers a 2000 square kilometer area. And for the record, Khandu Dorjee, the present Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh hails from Tawang district. A devout Buddhist, Dorjee has enough contribution towards the Tawang Monastery!

Again, take the case of the Chinese government denying a visa to an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) official from Arunachal Pradesh in May this year on the ground that the State was an integral part of China. Beijing sought to imply that an Arunachali did not require a visa to enter China. This prompted New Delhi cancel plan to send over 100 IAS officers of the 1991 batch to China for training as part of a mid-career program. The training was organized by the Government of India’s Department of Personnel in collaboration with the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Beijing obviously is reluctant to issue visa to someone from Arunachal Pradesh before any final settlement of the border issue, as that, from China’s point of view, could be tantamount to recognizing the State as part of India. But, here again China has not been consistent with its position. In 1995, four women from Arunachal Pradesh visited that country on Chinese visas to attend a UN conference on women. “Yes, we had gone on Chinese visas in 1995,” Jarjum Ete, one of those four women and currently Chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh Women’s Commission, told this writer.

When he met Chinese President Hu Jintao in June 2007 on the sidelines of the G-8 summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to underplay the visa fracas and described China as India’s ‘greatest neighbour’ aside from stating that relations between the two nations were passing through a ‘constructive phase.’ What New Delhi and Beijing seems to be doing now is to push ahead in improving contacts or ties in all other areas by de-linking such matters with the contentious border issue.

Almost as a matter of routine, the Joint Working Group (JWG) to resolve the border question, which commenced in 1988, has already held more than 15 rounds of discussions, while the Special Representatives’ talks at the level of India’s National Security Adviser and Chinese Vice Minister, that began in June 2003, has held 10 rounds of meetings so far. Yes, India would never like the ‘settled populations’ to be disturbed while resolving the border dispute, but right now the focus is on bilateral trade. Trade had grown 56.8 per cent in the first four months of 2007, and had crossed $11.4 billion. “We are well on track to doubling trade to $40 billion a year by 2010,” India’s Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said recently.

The question uppermost among the minds of the Indians is whether China is interested at all in resolving the border dispute with India. Yes, Beijing is talking of a swap of the Aksai-Chin area in lieu of Tawang, but are the Chinese serious even on this (not that India will ever concede giving up Tawang)? The answer most observers would like to give is that China will not really give up its hold on Aksai-Chin because the heights in this area controls its access to Xizang and Xinjiang autonomous regions through a strategic highway that Beijing has built.

Does China then expect New Delhi to gift away Tawang? Not really, because Beijing is aware of that fact that year 2008 is not 1962. The Indian Defence apparatus has grown and modernized itself over the years. Still, China wants to push ahead with this demand because it is an integral part of its Tibet policy. As B. Raman, a former deputy chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, says, “ China was unlikely to settle the border problem with us unless and until we agreed to give it the entire Tawang area in Arunachal Pradesh… In their ( China’s) perception, their strategic control of Tibet could not be taken for granted unless and until they controlled Tawang.” Beijing is actually wary of a possible new uprising in Tibet after the Dalai Lama, and, therefore, this dream perhaps of extending its sway to Tawang.

Suppose one is to agree to the view that that Beijing is making it a habit to raise the Tawang or Arunachal Pradesh issue on and off because it could be one way of expressing its displeasure over the growing India-US strategic ties, the question arises how does one solve the border dispute then? Many feel the two nations have missed their chance during the time in the late seventies when Deng Xiaoping had emerged as the unchallenged leader in China. Hu Jintao, this section of observers say, is not Deng Xiaoping who could have done something on the border front, ignoring his comrades. Again the question of trust comes to the fore. Recent CIA documents made public show how a shrewd Zhou en Lai, Chinese Premier, executing a “five-year masterpiece of guile,” made a trusting Jawaharlal Nehru believe his view that China's vast claims to Indian territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh were “petty issues”, which could be resolved by officials at lower levels.

The border issue may not be resolved anytime soon, but the fact remains that the Chinese PLA soldiers are not likely to embark on an adventure to march across the Tibetan mountains into Arunachal Pradesh. This is the perception of experts and the authorities in India. This is because Beijing may not really be interested in real war games at a time when it is busy in further boosting its economy and trying to match the US in every sphere. New Delhi, of course, is not complacent and rightly so.