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Arunachal Pradesh: Welcome Assertiveness by India

There are indications of a more assertive policy by India in Arunachal Pradesh. These have come in the wake of dissappointment and concern in New Delhi over the failure of the border talks between the Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers to make progress mainly because of what India considers as the adamant Chinese claim to Arunachal Pradesh. While Chinese officials have given no inkling of any willingness on their part to dilute this demand, non-Governmental Chinese experts have been hinting for over a year now that China might be inclined to dilute this demand if India agreed to transfer the populated area of Tawang to China in return for China giving up its claim to the rest of Arunachal Pradesh.

2. When Prime Minister Wen Jiabo visited New Delhi in April, 2005, the two Prime Ministers had agreed that any border settlement should not affect populated areas. Indian hopes that this probably presaged a Chinese willingness to give up their claim to the Tawang Tract have since been belied. The Chinese have gone back on this agreement and have been insisting on the transfer of Tawang to China despite its being a populated area.

3. India has also been concerned over the perceived Chinese reluctance to make a de jure renunciation of their past position challenging Indian sovereignty over Sikkim. When Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, the Chinese had stated that Sikkim was no longer an issue affecting Sino-Indian relations. Indian assessment that this probably presaged a de jure recognition by China that Sikkim is an integral part of India has been belied so far. Reported protests by China last year over Indian troop deployments in the area and over the alleged construction of some structures by the Indian Army in Indian territory in Sikkim have given rise to legitimate concerns that just as they went back on their commitment relating to non-transfer of populated areas, they are preparing the ground for going back on their acceptance of the status quo in Sikkim.They are apparently wanting to link Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh, that is, making their acceptance of the status quo in Sikkim conditional on India agreeing to transfer the Tawang Tract to China.

4. India’s premature gesture to China in the past in formally accepting Tibet as an integral part of China without insisting on a quid pro quo by China in the form of accepting the status quo in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh has left India without any cards in its negotiations with China. In its over-anxiety to maintain good relations with China, India has been making one gesture after another to China without any of these gestures being reciprocated by Beijing.

5. India’s unilateral recognition of Tibet as an integral part of China has come in the way of India’s expressing concerns or protesting over Chinese activities in Tibet such as strengthening the infrastructure not only in interior Tibet, but also in areas adjacent to the border and extending its well-developed rail and road links to the border areas. There is also a talk of extending them into Nepal at the request of the Nepalese authorities. How can India protest over Chinese activities of military significance in Tibet when India itself has recognised it as Chinese territory?

6. China, on the other hand, by not recognising Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory, has reserved to itself the right to protest over Indian activities in these areas such as construction of defensive structures in Indian territory in Sikkim, the visit of Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, to Arunachal Pradesh on January 31 and February 1,2008, etc— the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to this area in two decades after the last visit by the late Rajiv Gandhi. India had even refrained from strengthening the road and other infrastructure in the Arunachal Pradesh area to match the Chinese infrastructure in Tibet, partly due to concerns that this could create tensions in the bilateral relations at a time when the economic relations between the two countries were improving and when the Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers were discussing the border issue and partly due to misgivings that the road links constructed by India might be used by the Chinese Army in the event of another military confrontation between the two countries as had happened in 1962.

7. Concerned over the persistent Chinese claim to Arunachal Pradesh, its going-back on the past agreement between the two countries to find a solution to the border problem which would not involve any transfer of populated areas and the more activist policy of the Chinese Army across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and across the Sino-Bhutanese border, India has belatedly realised that it cannot bank on China’s good intentions while formulating its border management policies in this region. Though belated, there is now a welcome realisation that the time has come for India to be more active and assertive in this region and to undertake a crash programme for strengthening the road and other infrastructure in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. During his visit to Sikkim in December last year, Shri A.K.Antony, the Defence Minister, had announced a crash programme for strengthening the infrastructure in the Sikkim region. A similar programme for Arunachal Pradesh has now been announced by the Prime Minister.

8. During his visit to Arunachal Pradesh, he announced the intention of the Government to spend Rs.10,000 crores on the development of the area and laid the foundation stone for six of these projects. More than a half of this amount (Rs.5,500 crores) is to be spent on the construction of a trans-Arunachal Pradesh Highway connecting Tawang with Mahadevpur and the construction of a four-lane highway to Itanagar, the capital of the State. Even though the Prime Minister did not visit Tawang, apparently in deference to the Chinese sensitivities on the issue of its future, his announcement of the plan to construct a highway to Tawang hopefully underlined the Government’s determination not to give in to the Chinese demand for the transfer of the Tawang Tract to China.

9. The projects for which he laid the foundation stone were for the construction of a 3000 MW hydro-electric power station at Dibang—which, when completed, will be India’s biggest hydel station— and a 110 MW power station at Pare, the construction of a new Secretariat building at Itanagar to house the offices of the Arunachal Pradesh Government, the construction of a 45-km railway line between Itanagar and Harmuti in Assam and water supply projects at Itanagar and Naharlagun. He also announced plans for a daily helicopter service between Tawang and Guwahati, the capital of Assam, a new airport at Itanagar and improvement of the airfields at Pasighat, Along, Daporijo, Ziro and Tezu. The announcement of the decision to undertake these projects will convey a clear message to the Chinese that India is not prepared to accept Chinese claims to any part of this territory.

10. The Prime Minister also said at Itanagar: “Arunachal Pradesh is the easternmost State of our country and the sun kisses the country here first. That is why for the country, it is the land of the rising sun. Arunachal Pradesh was a favourite of two of our beloved leaders—Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. If Indira Gandhi created Arunachal Pradesh, Rajiv granted Statehood to it.” The infrastructure projects for the strengthening of the road,rail and air connectivity between Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of the North-East would not only benefit the people of the State, but would also strengthen the capability of the Army to defend this territory in the event of any future confrontation with China. Equally significant has been the posting of Gen.J.J.Singh, who retired as the Chief of the Army Staff towards the end of last year, as the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh.

11. While the new assertiveness displayed by the Prime Minister is to be welcomed, the most important thing is to ensure a rapid implementation of the various projects announced by him. The experience of the people of the North-East has been that the grandiose plans for economic development and the strengthening of infrastructure announced by visiting Prime Ministers had remained either unimplemented or inadequately implemented with enormous delays in implementation. One had seen this repeatedly happen in Nagaland and Mizoram. We just cannot afford to let this happen in Arunachal Pradesh. It is hoped that the former COAS, who is now the Governor and who will understand the importance of infrastructure matching that of the Chinese in Tibet, will not let this happen and will push these projects through.

12. The Chinese reactions to the Prime Minister’s visit and statements in Arunachal Pradesh have come in two phases. In the first phase, there was no official reaction either in the Government-controlled media or from Government spokesmen. The initial reactions were mainly from ostensibly non-Governmental analysts with close links with the Chinese Government. Sun Shihai, Deputy Director at the state-run think-tank, Institute of Asia Pacific Studies, was quoted by the media as saying as follows:”The two countries will continue with the border negotiations with the help of special representatives. Both sides must maintain calm and not arouse nationalist sentiments in order to create proper environment for the settlement of the problem. Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed area. This is why we have negotiations. If there was no dispute, we would not have had negotiations. Manmohan Singh is viewed in China as an honest man who could be relied upon for settling the border dispute and taking the Sino-Indian relationship to greater heights.I do not think Prime Minister Singh was trying to connect his visit to China ( in mid-January,2008) to his trip to Arunachal Pradesh. I am sure he sees them differently. Domestic politics should not come in the way of settling the border dispute. But sometimes politicians and the media may try to relate domestic politics with international relationships.Yes, this issue about populated areas is one of the clauses of the 2005 agreement. But that ( My comment:that is, China’s agreeing in 2005 to the clause about non-transfer of populated areas) does not mean China has changed its stand on Arunachal Pradesh.” What he apparently meant to convey was that the earlier Chinese agreement not to insist on the transfer of populated areas did not apply to Arunachal Pradesh, which was a stand alone case not affected by the 2005 agreement.

13. Subsequently, a week after the Prime Minister’s visit, an unidentified middle-level official of the Chinese Foreign Office was reported to have told an interlocutor in the Indian Embassy in Beijing that the Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and his statements there were inappropriate at a time when the Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers were trying to find a solution to the problem. Though some sections of the Indian media projected it as an official Chinese protest, it was not. It was a verbal, somewhat low-key expression of unhappiness without letting it create an unnecessary cloud in the bilateral relations and spoil the feel good feeling after the recent visit of the Prime Minister to China.

14. It would appear that the Chinese themselves did not make an official disclosure of this verbal communication of their unhappiness. One got the impression that this was leaked out at New Delhi. Shri Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Minister for External Affairs, came out with forthright remarks in response to queries from the media about the reported Chinese unhappiness. He was quoted by the media as saying as follows: “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of our country. We are having regular representation in our Parliament elected by people of Arunachal. Therefore, it is obvious that the Prime Minister will visit any part of the country.”

15. China has not yet reacted officially to a report carried by the “India Today” (February 11,2008) about India agreeing to let a team from the US search for the remains of some US Air Force personnel, who went missing in action in the Arunachal Pradesh area during the Second World War. According to the journal, the Intelligence Bureau had objected to it on the ground that under the existing policy foreigners are not allowed to visit Arunachal Pradesh, but its objection was over-ruled and a special exception was made to facilitate the American search.It is intriguing that this issue should have come up after so many years at this time when the future of this area has become a matter of increasing concern to India. The Chinese are likely to see an ominous significance to this. (12-2-08)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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