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The Tawang Bottleneck

(To be read in continuation of earlier article by same author of December 1,2006, titled INDIA-CHINA: HYPE and REALITY—PART III; LAST at

The Chinese insistence on India accepting its claims to the Tawang Tract in Arunachal Pradesh in India’s North-East continues to be the main stumbling block in the boundary talks between the two countries. There was no forward movement on this issue at the 10th round of the border talks held at New Delhi and Coonoor in Tamil Nadu between India’s National Security Adviser,Shri M.K. Narayanan, and the Chinese Vice- Foreign Minister,Mr. Dai Bingguo from April 20-22, 2007. A three-paragraph joint statement issued at the end of the talks merely said without referring to any specific issue: ” “The talks were held in an open, friendly, cooperative and constructive atmosphere.Both sides agreed to hold the next round of talks between the Special Representatives in China at a mutually convenient time, which will be decided through diplomatic channels.”

2. In his daily press briefing at Beijing on April 25,2007, Mr.Liu Jianchao, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated as follows: “The two sides held candid, frank talks in a friendly atmosphere on the framework for a solution to the boundary issue.They had an in-depth exchange of views and the two sides are committed to make joint efforts to promote the process.” After noting that China and India had good cooperation in economy, trade and tourism, he said: “We have increased mutual trust and both sides agreed to promote the strategic partnership between the two countries.”

3.Earlier while talking to the media at Beijing on March 7,2007, at the time of the National People’s Congress , Professor Ma Jiali a researcher at a leading Chinese Government think-tank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), was reported to have stated as follows:”India should return Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to China in order to resolve the border issue as Beijing does not want to see instability in Tibet. Tawang is central to the resolution of the Sino-Indian border issue.If India returns Tawang, a sacred place for Tibetan Buddhists, the Chinese side could be magnanimous in settling the border in the western and middle sectors of the disputed boundary. If the border issue is not dealt [with] well, the Chinese Central Government could face problems from local Tibetan people, who consider Tawang to be part of Tibet.The Chinese Government cannot afford to ignore popular feelings.Some Tibetans could use this issue to foment trouble in Tibet if Tawang is not returned to China.”

4. It has been apparent for the last three years since the present Government headed by Dr.Manmohan Singh came to power that the Chinese had made it clear that there could be no final settlement on the border issue unless India agreed to transfer the Tawang Tract to China. The Chinese insistence on the transfer of the Tawang Tract, a populated area, was contrary to one of the agreed principles between the two countries that any transfer of territory between the two countries under a border agreement should not involve populated areas.

5.Prof. Ma Jiali’s comments were significant for two reasons: Firstly, they highlighted that Tawang was the main stumbling block and not the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Secondly, the Chinese insistence on the transfer of Tawang was linked to the question of future political stability in Tibet.

6. The Professor made it appear as if instability could arise as a result of Tibetan unhappiness over the Tawang Tract remaining excluded from Tibet. The Chinese do have concerns over future stability in Tibet, but not for the reasons mentioned by Prof.Ma Jiali. The real reason for their concern is the fact that despite their undoubted success in the economic development of the Tibetan region, they have not been able to eradicate the influence of Buddhism and His Holiness the Dalai Lama from the minds of the people of Tibet. They continue to hold the Dalai Lama in great reverence. The Chinese are worried that if they try to impose their own Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people after the present Dalai Lama, there could be a fresh popular uprising in Tibet similar to what one had seen in the 1950s, which had led to the Dalai Lama fleeing to Tawang in 1959 and seeking political asylum in India.

7. The Chinese feel confident that they would be able to crush any uprising provided it does not enjoy any outside support from the Tibetan diaspora abroad or from India and the US. The Chinese had always suspected that the Khampa revolt of the 1950s was instigated and sponsored by the intelligence agencies of India and the US from across Tawang in India’s Arunachal Pradesh and the Mustang area in Nepal. To prevent a similar scenario after the Dalai Lama, they either want to pressurise India to transfer Tawang to China or to keep the issue pending without reaching any border settlement in order to justify an intervention by the Chinese Army in the Arunachal Pradesh area should there be serious political instability in Tibet after the Dalai Lama. Till the Chinese feel totally satisfied that they have pacified Tibet once and for all with their own Party nominees in position in Lhasa as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, there is unlikely to be any change in their rigid position during the border talks.

8. The Chinese have also been watching with concern the interest being taken by the Dalai Lama and his entourage in maintaining and further strengthening their contacts with the people of Tawang.Lhachem Jitsun Pema La, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama, had visited Tawang for studying the development of education in Tawang and West Kameng and to explore the possibility of establishing a school for Tibetan children in the area. The Dalai Lama continues to be an iconic figure to the people of the area and through them, to their co-religionists in Tibet.The persisting influence of the Dalai Lama among the people of the area continues to be viewed with nervousness by the Chinese.

9. The Chinese rigidity on the Tawang issue was once again illustrated on May 25,2007, when the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi refused to honour the Indian passport of an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, who was to go on a study tour of China along with some other officers of the IAS. The Chinese Embassy said: “”Arunachal is the place where the two countries have a dispute about territory.” Following this, the Government of India postponed the study tour. The Chinese have expressed their keenness that the tour should go ahead but minus the officer from Arunachal Pradesh. It is hoped that the Government of India would not agree to this.

10. The Chinese policy towards India in bilateral matters would continue to be characterised by forward movement in all matters excepting on the border issue and benign stagnation on the border issue with the Chinese marking time till the Dalai Lama is out of the way and they have managed to avoid any instability after him. However, this benign stagnation could turn into hostility in the event of serious disturbances in Tibet. The Chinese have been preparing themselves for such a contingency should that happen despite their efforts to prevent it. India too should continue to strengthen the defences of the Arunachal Pradesh area and keep itself in readiness to meet any contingency should the benign stagnation turn into fresh hostility. Arunachal Pradesh and its people should not be allowed to suffer in their economic development because of the continuing atmosphere of uncertainty sought to be created by the Chinese rigidity on the Tawang issue. (30-5-07)

(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. )

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