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India: The Strategic Importance of Arunachal Pradesh

Introductory Observations

China’s past and contemporary rigidity on claiming the whole of the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory arises significantly from the strategic importance of this region in relation to China and its hold on Tibet.

On the eve of Chinese President Hu Jin Tao’s visit to India in 2006 the then Chinese Ambassador to India in a manner that was diplomatically abrasive, unwise and arrogant startled the Indian policy establishment by public assertions that the whole of Arunachal Pradesh was part of China.

This Author had at that time in SAAG Paper No. 2023 dated 13.11.2006 entitled: “CHINA: THE STRATEGIC RELUCTANCE ON BOUNDARY SETTLEMENT WITH INDIA” ( had focused on two major issues:

“China’s Endless Round of Border Dispute Negotiations” to prolong a boundary settlement was prompted by strategic reasons.

“The Strategic Importance of Tawang” Some of the major reasons of the strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh were highlighted and it was stressed that India could not afford any territorial compromises in this region.

In the current season while China has once again focused on rigidly and persistently claiming the whole of this region, it is appropriate to refocus on the strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh to India. The above referred Paper is reproduced below.

Additionally, one would like to stress is that Arunachal Pradesh in India’s hands strategically worries China most because it is from this region that India’s missile ranges and coverage of Chinese heartland targets, offers the best locations.

Concluding Observation

Notwithstanding any peace rhetoric from China or efforts to lower temperatures in the India-China border standoff on the Tibet border, it would be realistic for Indian military contingency planning to expect a major Chinese military offensive against India centering on Arunachal Pradesh with Tawang as the initial prime target. That was the lesson of 1962 also.

(The writer Dr.Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.

Paper no. 2023 13.11.2006


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

China ever since its emergence as a monolithic Communist state in 1949 was involved in boundary disputes with virtually every nation on its peripheries. It led to border wars with the former Soviet Union, Vietnam and India. In the case of Vietnam and India, the border wars were perceived by China as punitive wars.

China today has undertaken boundary settlements with virtually all countries with which it had disputes with the exception of India.

Some in India hoped that with a generational change in leadership in China and with the economic, political and strategic rise of India, China may be prompted to move towards more accommodative stances on the China-India boundary dispute.

China’s President Hu Jintao would be visiting India from November 20, 2006 for four days. This author has already spelt out in two earlier papers, that in terms of perspectives, China has given no indications that India could expect any significant breakthrough announcements by the Chinese president on the boundary dispute.

The Chinese President’s visit to India in November 2006 will be just one more item in the chronology of China- India relations. A politically correct visit at best.

This paper attempts to analyse the strategic importance of Tawang (read Arunachal Pradesh) which has now emerged in the open as the core issue of China’s reluctance on the border dispute settlement.

China’s Endless Round of Border Dispute Negotiations

Endless rounds of border dispute negotiations have taken place between China and India. These have taken place at two levels, namely:

Joint Working Group (JWG) discussions which commenced in 1988 Special Representatives talks at the level of India’s National Security Advisers and Chinese Vice Minister level since June 2003. The JWG has already completed over fifteen rounds of discussions. The Special Representatives held Seventh Round of talks in March 2006.

The standard responses after each round have been of the type that was stated in March 2006: “The two Special Representative continued their discussions for an agreed framework for the resolution of the boundary question in a constructive and friendly atmosphere”.

Chinese leaders on visits to India come out with the oft-repeated statement that the boundary dispute should be left to future generations to resolve and meanwhile China-India relations in other fields should move forward. This is just an excuse to keep alive the border dispute as a strategic pressure point against India.

This leads to the question whether China is really serious about resolution of the China-India border dispute?

The endless round of negotiations does not suggest so.

It is best exemplified by an Indian media news report that no meetings have been scheduled between Indian and Chinese Special Representatives for talks on the boundary dispute before the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao on November 20 “as India doesn’t expect any substantive progress on the border issue in the near future.”

Symbolically, China’s reluctance can be read as dissatisfaction with growing US-India strategic relationship and keeping alive the border dispute as a strategic pressure point against India.

Obviously China is actively involved in delays and prolonging the resolution of the boundary disputes for strategic reasons.

China’s Strategic Reluctance on Boundary Settlement with India

Veiled references in the past were made by Indian official spokesmen that progress could not be made as China was constantly pressurizing India to accept a swap by India of Tawang in lieu of Aksai-Chin.

China has now come out in the open to demand and advocate this proposal. An Indian news-report covering the closed door meeting organized between Chinese distinguished experts and Indian academics by China’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, which is part of the giant official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had this to report:

Chinese experts said that China would be magnanimous on the issue of Aksai Chin area if India agreed to give up Tawang. The high-level Chinese experts which included former Chinese Ambassador to India Chen Rui Sheng made it clear that the border dispute could be solved if India handed over Tawang to China. The Strategic Importance of Tawang for India

At the outset it must be made clear that for the Chinese, Tawang is not just the Tawang Monastery region. For them Tawang implies the whole of India’s Arunachal Pradesh. So as not to dilute their claim, they officially will not call it that Arunachal Pradesh should be returned to them.

Coming to the strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh or Tawang in Chinese parlance the following need to be recognized:

Arunachal Pradesh provides strategic depth to India’s Brahmaputra Valley and India’s other North Eastern states. Arunachal Pradesh provides security to Bhutan on it entire Eastern flank by geographical contiguity. Bhutan would be then be in a pincer group of China on both it flanks if Tawang is given away. This would be detrimental to India’s security. China’s borders would then rest on the plains of Assam; India might as well write off its other North Eastern states. The Chinese obsession with the Tawang Region is totally strategic in its aims. In any future conflict with China and if India singly or in coalition with some other power develops offensive capabilities against China, this region offers the shortest cut to China proper and to Tibet. India’s communications infrastructure in this region developed in World War II for US military aid to China is existent and can be further improved. Arunachal Pradesh offers all-wealthier lines of communication to India for military needs to the Tibet border as compared to Aksai-Chin. In terms of any air operations by China in this region, Arunachal Pradesh would provide multi-layered air defence deployments on the ground as deterrence. The region is rich in terms of mineral and natural resources prospects. There are many more reasons that one can state but the major ones should be enough. Arunachal Pradesh is of vital strategic importance for the territorial integrity and defence of India’s North East states and should be non-negotiable.

Concluding Observations

China would be politically naive of it perceives that in the 21st Century, a powerfully rising India would accept the bait of a Chinese strategic barter of Aksai-Chin in lieu of Tawang (read Arunachal Pradesh)

India would be more politically naive than China if it thinks that China would concede the area of Aksai-Chin through which passes its lifelines to keep Xinjiang under Chinese control.

Both in Aksai Chin and in the Arunachal Pradesh area, the strategic interests of China and India clash in the most intense manner. It would be a magical wonder if China can turn around to be strategically accommodative of India’s strategic sensitivities.

China’s strategic reluctances to solve the border dispute with India can therefore be expected to bedevil China-India relations for a long time to come.

(Courtesy:, The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.

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