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China: Beijing’s Arunachal Pradesh Card

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The statement and clarification on the status of Arunachal Pradesh by the PRC Ambassador in India (November 13 and 15, 2006 respectively) and the prompt rebuttal by the Indian Minister of External Affairs (November 14, 2006) have already received a sharp media focus both in India and the world. The generated anti-China public opinion in India on the Arunachal issue, prior to the arrival in New Delhi of President Hu Jintao on November 20, 2006, will not be a comfortable factor for the diplomatic establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which must have been working hard for the success of the visit.

There is nothing new in what the Chinese envoy had said and the PRC’s territorial position on Sino-Indian border is well known, both through official documents and statements. The question is only on the timing of the remarks. Why now? .The Chinese diplomats are not given to off the cuff statements. The statement must have been made deliberately and with reason as also with full concurrence of Beijing .

Keen observers of the Chinese territorial policy will understand the rationale behind what has been said by the Chinese envoy. Ambassador Sun has only followed a practice, which is customary for China – reiteration of territorial claims at diplomatic levels in periods surrounding the high-level exchanges of visits with India; Beijing’s obvious aim is to make use of the high profile occasions for the purpose of reinforcing its border claims, which could become handy in influencing the bilateral negotiations on the boundary question proceeding separately. Examples in this regard are too many. Following Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China (June 22-27, 2003), the PRC Foreign ministry spokesperson (July 25, 2003) asserted that China did not recognise Arunachal Pradesh. What happened last year has been more eye- catching. Just a week before Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India (April 9-12, 2005), the same Ambassador Sun emphatically declared (April 1, 2005) that Arunachal Pradesh is a ‘disputed’ area. There was no furore at that time in India . The importance lies in that the Chinese envoy has chosen to repeat his remarks on Arunachal for the second consecutive year.

Another Chinese pattern usually identified by analysts, concerns minor military intrusions into Indian borders taking care there is no flare up, closely preceding or after every high level bilateral exchange of visit. The goal is same – reinforcement of border claims. Chinese patrols made incursions into six kilometres of the Indian border across Himachal Pradesh in February 1997, just a month after former PRC President Jiang Zemin visited India . The incident in the year 2003 has been more daring. There was military transgression of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Asaphila region of the Upper Subansiri District of Arunachal (one of the eight pockets of dispute) on June 26, 2003, coinciding with the ongoing visit to China of former Prime Minister Vajpayee. This practice was once again witnessed, closely following Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005. Asaphila witnessed again Chinese intrusion in May 2005, which was vehemently denied by the Chinese side. Will there be a similar Chinese attempt to reinforce border claims by way of a symbolic incursion of troops into India ’s borders, in the period before or after Hu Jintao’s visit? We hope not, but one can never say..

PRC’s unequivocally stated position that the entire Arunachal is Chinese territory could be a pressure tactic against India at a time of well publicised Sino-Indian package deal as part of bilateral agreement on Political Parameters- India’s acceptance of Chinese claims in Aksai Chin in the West, to be matched by China’s consent to India’s territorial limits in Arunachal Pradesh along the present LAC, in the East. New Delhi is said to be insisting on a Arunachal settlement based on population factor, which may not be acceptable to China if this leads to India ’s claims on areas now lying north of LAC. The ‘swapping’ proposal even found a mention in an address given by Singapore ’s Foreign Minister George Yeo last year ( Singapore , August 18, 2005).

China has sufficiently strengthened its position in Tibet in terms of logistics and transport. The now operational Qinghai-Tibet railway is slated for further expansion- linking Lhasa with Shigatse and Yadong, near Sikkim border. Realising the strategic potentials in China ’s build-up in Tibet , New Delhi has of late started making some counter moves. The Indian Central cabinet decided on June 29, 2006 to build roads along Sino-Indian border. China would naturally be concerned with such Indian moves to integrate border areas including in Northeast, considered ‘disputed’ by Beijing , with interior India . Sino-Indian negotiations on Arunachal would undoubtedly be governed more and more from now on by strategic factors.

Tawang in Arunachal has figured in media comments specifically. Chinese claims are based on arguments that the Tawang is the birthplace of Sixth Dalai Lama, is of religious importance and hence should be a part of Tibet . Articles in China representing the viewpoints of the Chinese military had highlighted the strategic importance of Tawang to the PRC that included some economic aspects.. “ Tibet ’s economy can be sustained only if Tawang becomes a part of China ”, they said.. India , on its part, has of late been giving extra political and security attention to Tawang. The visits to Tawang by Home Minister Shiv Raj Patil (April 5, 2005) and Congress President Sonia Gandhi (November 6, 2006) are cases in point.

China has always been territorially ambitious. Mao’s description of China ’s palm ( Tibet ) and ‘five fingers ( Nepal , Sikkim , Bhutan , NEFA and Ladakh) is well known. The PRC had conveyed to the world a ‘historical loss’ of territories through their maps and atlas series. As points of India ’s interest, the maps had claimed that entire Assam , even Andamans, was ‘historically’ part of China . What is to be remembered is that the PRC never gives up its border claims. To suit to its requirement of peaceful international atmosphere including in the neighbourhood for realisation of modernisation task, it prefers to ‘shelve’ the difficult border issues, like the one with India and instead work for ‘common development’. For e.g the PRC wants to ‘shelve’ the South China Sea territorial dispute, leave the Senkaku issue with Japan for ‘future generations’ to solve and ‘put aside the Sino-Indian border dispute waiting for a suitable climate for solution’ (Deng to Vajpayee, 1979).

A Chinese authoritative opinion is that there exists no mutual political and security trust between China and India and as such, a border solution may take a longer time (Prof Fu Xiaoqiang of the PRC Ministry of State Security-affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International relations). There are multilateral strategic issues bedevil the creation of such trust – like India’s concerns about the continuing China-Pakistan nexus and Beijing’s basic suspicions over deepening US-India strategic ties. Economic relation alone is not sufficient to create Sino-Indian mutual confidence- strategic factors always override it. The Chinese understand it well and hope India also realises it. Let us wait for the visit’s conclusion.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan is former Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Email:

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