The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has so far refrained from officially commenting on the just concluded visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh (January 31 – February 1, 2008); both the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson and the state-controlled Xinhua news agency appear to have ignored the event. This looks rather unusual, considering Beijing’s known practice not to miss any opportunity to reiterate their territorial claims at government levels on important occasions.
On the other hand, entrusting the job of articulating the PRC’s policies including on territorial issues, to academicians close to the Party and Government, has always been customary in China and in that context, the opinions expressed by three prominent scholars (in Chinese language publications) on Manmohan’s visit, assume much significance.
First, let us consider what Professor Fu Xiaoqiang of the China State Security Ministry – affiliated China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) has to say on the subject. According to him, on the issue of “Sino-Indian disputed territory”, the Indian Prime Minister is facing ‘no small’ pressure from the country’s military, which remains concerned with the existing infrastructure backwardness through out the Sino-Indian border. Hence the promise of Manmohan to promote economic development in Arunachal Pradesh. He noted in this connection the justification given by the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the construction of roads in the Indian border on the basis of the better infrastructure in China’s Tibet .The scholar has then found an important reason for the ‘slow’ progress in the current Sino-Indian border talks – that India is not willing to make suitable adjustments in its boundary position. He has remarked that if this continues, the same will not be beneficial to the development of the overall situation in Sino-Indian relations.
Another scholar, Sun Shihai, a scholar on South Asia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), close to the PRC Foreign Ministry, has stated that objectively speaking, the development of Indian economy including in Arunachal Pradesh, had all along been a pre-determined strategy of the Indian National Congress. The same is also the policy of Manmohan Singh government for the last several years. He further observed that nevertheless, in India’s Northeast region, a comparatively strong sense of alienation has always existed, which the anti-Government forces exploited. The Indian government, in response, wants to bring the region into India’s development mainstream. The scholar has at the same time accused India for setting up its province, along with administrative divisions, in a ‘still internationally disputed region’ and declared that India’s announced moves now like construction of hydroelectric power stations in the India-China ‘disputed’ region, is not going to benefit the ongoing Sino-Indian border negotiations. Admitting that at present, ‘some questions’ have emerged in the negotiations as the talks are deepening, the issues involved are becoming sharper and the difficulties turning greater and greater, he stated that under such conditions, what is needed is that both the Chinese and Indian sides should maintain ‘caution and restraint’. The CASS expert then alleged that Manmohan’s visit to Arunachal is a sequel to the anti-China policies of ‘hawkish factions’ in India. Subsequent to Manmohan’s visit to China, theories advocating ‘ no need to kowtow before China’, have appeared in India and that in such a background of political demands, Manmohan had no option except to go to Arunachal as a measure to balance the discordant voices within the country .
The third China analyst, Professor Zhao Gancheng, Director of the South Asia Research Division of the Shanghai International Affairs Research Institute, has found the ‘provocative’ nature of the visit of Manmohan Singh to the ‘Sino-Indian disputed territory’ as significant. Asserting that a solution to the Sino-Indian border issue would require a considerably long period to accomplish, he did not agree with the views of other Chinese scholars like Professor Sun Shihai that Manmohan’s Arunachal visit was to balance the moves of hawkish anti-China factions in India. In counter, Professor Zhao has forwarded the following arguments that (i ) at the moment, the Sino-Indian border is not witnessing any incident, (ii) during his China visit, Manmohan did not adopt any measure for compromise with Beijing , (iii) the Indian internal political situation is not yet being affected by emotional factors like elections and (iv) on the Sino-Indian border issue, the ruling party and other political groups inside India do not differ. The expert then asserted that Manmohan’s important intention was therefore to convey India’s stand on Arunachal, to China. Acknowledging that in spite of the excellent development of Sino-Indian relations at present, the border still remains the core issue which is highly important and emotional in both the countries, he felt that the very fact the issue could not be settled so far, goes to prove the ‘comparatively low level in the mutual political trust’ between the two sides. He concluded by saying that Manmohan’s visit to Arunachal will not benefit the healthy development of Sino-Indian relations and that it will also not benefit finding of an early solution to the border issue .
What can be made out of the opinions of the three scholars mentioned above? The following could be important:
China by not commenting officially seems, at present, inclined to downplay the visit of Indian Prime Minister to Arunachal. However, the feelings of its scholars that the visit is ‘provocative’ in nature and that both the sides should show restraint, along with perceptions that the visit could affect bilateral ties as well as the progress in the border issue, may signal the growing uneasiness on the part of Beijing over India’s intentions over a long term.
Till President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in November 2006, the Chinese were claiming entire Arunachal as part of the PRC, implying that in their view, there is no dispute regarding the status of that territory. In comparison, the Chinese references since then, including in the write-ups above, are only to the term of “Sino-Indian disputed territory”, marking a nuanced positional climb down on the part of Beijing. Does this indicate China’s readiness now to show some flexibility on the status of Arunachal Pradesh? This question needs to be studied in the context of what the then PRC Ambassador in New Delhi said (November 2006) on the need for both the sides to make ‘compromises’ on the ‘disputed’ Arunachal and also of some recent Chinese signals – their description in December 2007 that the ‘Brahmaputra river cuts into India at the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh’  and the grant of Chinese visa to an Arunachal civil servant in February 2008.
Both India and China now endorse the line that they should look at bilateral ties beyond the border issue  . That would mean tacit acceptance by the two sides that the boundary issue is going to take a long time to solve. The Chinese analysts have further confirmed such position, as for the PRC is concerned. Their views fit in well with the known stand of Beijing – Premier Wen Jiabao observed at the time of November 2007 ASEAN summit in Singapore that a solution to the border issue is not going to be easy and would need strenuous bilateral efforts. The Indian Prime Minister on his part has also noted the ‘complexities’ of the issue. What is however new is the message being given by China through its experts that if border talks are to progress, India should be willing to make ‘adjustments to its position’ during the border negotiations.
The tracing of internal dimensions of Manmohan’s visit to Arunachal by the PRC experts (pressure from the Indian military and the need to ‘balance’ the moves of anti-China hawkish sections in India) seems to reflect China’s doubts over the likely impact on the border talks coming from future political equations in India, especially in the context of general elections due in that country next year.
(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: email@example.com)
. http://chinaiiss.org/content/2008-2-2/2114543.shtml (China Institute of International Strategic Studies in Chinese, dated February 2, 2008)
. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, “ China – Facts and Figures”, December 2007
. http://ciis.org.cn, China Institute of International Studies , article ( in Chinese) by Professor Zheng Ruixiang on the outcome of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China, dated January 30, 2008.