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Manmohan in Arunachal: Courage is Welcome, but Caution is Needed

For obvious reasons, China is likely to keep a close watch on the implications arising from the two events occurred in India as January 2008 ended – the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and the lighting of Tibetan Olympic torch. In particular,Beijing is unlikely to miss the significance to it of these happenings coming close on the heels of Manmohan’s visit to China.

Manmohan Singh’s two-day long visit to Arunachal Pradesh (31 January- 1 February), the first one by an Indian Prime Minister since 1986, is no doubt a courageous and calculated move. More importantly, as a symbolic repudiation of Beijing’s claims over entire Arunachal, he made it a point to declare that the State is India’s ‘land of rising sun’ and that India ‘ is ready to face any challenge’. The PM has also announced a massive package of around US$ 1 billion towards the development of the state, which has all along been craving for the Centre’s attention. This would include, among other things, a green field airport at the State’s capital Itanagar and hydel power projects at Pare in Lower Subansiri district and Roing in Lower Dibang Valley district. He also laid the foundation stone for the setting up of a new 33 km long railway line connecting Harmuti in Assam and Itanagar. As a step aimed to underscore the strategic importance of Arunachal border for India’s territorial integrity, the Prime Minister chose to address the Indian border troops (Lohitpur, 1 February) including from Kibithu on the India-China border, one of the most remote Circle Headquarters in Anjaw district. Located seven kilometres from the Line of Actual Control, Kibithu was the scene of a fierce battle during the 1962 Sino-Indian war and was a flourishing trade centre in the years before the war. Of late, Kibithu has become one of the venues for Border Personnel Meetings between the army commanders of both countries.

No doubt, Tawang, to which the Chinese are reportedly making specific claim, was not in Manmohan Singh’s schedule, but his announcements of schemes for a Guwahati-Tawang helicopter service and an 1840 km long Trans-Arunachal highway from Tawang, have indirectly given the message – for India, Tawang’s position is not negotiable.

The second event has been the lighting of Tibetan Olympics torch in front of the UN office in New Delhi on January 30.The opening of this torch relay coincided with the 60th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The scheduled Tibetan Olympics (Dharamsala, 15 to 25 May 2008) is intended to be an initiative to offer a platform for young Tibetans to celebrate the spirit of the World Olympics, being held in Beijing in August this year.

China has been asserting its claim over Arunachal Pradesh whenever it gets an opportunity; Also, the presence in India and statements of the Dalai lama have been subjected to constant criticisms in Chinese political and intellectual circles. Though the recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to China and his meetings with Chinese leadership have been seen as further promoting meaningful cooperation, particularly in economy and trade, between the two countries, there has been no visible progress on the core border issue. In fact, a hardening of Chinese stand on the issue was witnessed when the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, created a flutter during his meeting with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee in Hamburg last year, by giving the impression that Beijing was not bound by the agreed principle of not disturbing settled population ( Reference-April 2005 statement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles).

On the part of the Dalai Lama, fearing that Beijing will use the Olympics 2008 to inaccurately present China as a free and open society to the outside world, he has called for peaceful protests during the games. He wants to highlight the plight of the Tibetan people who he claims are still victims of aggressive Chinese rule. Tibetan Olympics is intended to register the exiled community’s protests.

A ‘senior’ Indian foreign ministry official has stated (AFP, 31 January 2008) prior to the start of Manmohan’s visit to Arunachal that India and China were ‘managing’ to overcome the boundary dispute and that the issue cannot stop the two from moving forward in other areas like trade. The Indian Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, on his part, has taken care to term the visit as meant for development and not for ‘foreign affairs’ purposes. Such statements unmistakably reflect New Delhi’s intentions to insulate the progressing bilateral ties with China from the boundary issue. Undeniably, Beijing also seems to share such view point at this stage. It can not be ruled out however that China may see in the border and the Dalai Lama factors as having potentials to affect its long term interests. Beijing may even wait for an opportunity to embarrass New Delhi at an appropriate moment on the issues. It would therefore be necessary for India to watch every statement and move of the Chinese leadership and intellectuals concerning the two issues, especially of the PLA, the intentions of which often appear at variance with those contained in the diplomatic statements of the political leadership in China. India’s response should aim at maintaining caution on one hand and evolving appropriate counter moves and strategy on the other vis-à-vis China. Signs are that New Delhi has already started moving in this direction. On the Arunachal factor specifically, the new thrust being seen on the need to develop infrastructure in the state, coupled with the choice of Gen J J Singh as its Governor, are a case in point. On the Dalai Lama issue, Beijing seems to be satisfied so far with India’s position. But, India should very carefully handle the Tibet Olympics proposal, considering that Olympics is a matter of prestige for China.

(The writer, Mr.N.Raghupathy, is a former Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Email: nraghupathy@yahoo.com)

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