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China’s eagle eye on Arunachal

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 10, 2009

    Referring to India’s recent troop deployment in Arunachal Pradesh and the construction of a new airbase at Tezpur, Assam, Zhang Haizjou writing in China Daily on June 10, 2009 states that “India is attempting to extend its control over a disputed border area…” Similarly, Li Hongmei writing in the People’s Daily has held India responsible for hiking tension over Arunachal Pradesh by harbouring “awe, vexation, envy and jealousy – in the face of its giant neighbour” China. These are the latest in a spate of recent writings in the official media blaming India for increasing bilateral tensions by deploying troops in Arunachal Pradesh. The sheer barrage of these scathing writings makes it prudent for India to take note of the trends in Chinese thinking on India’s border areas. It appears that at the moment China might choose to raise its concerns over Indian troop deployment in the region at the forthcoming Special Representatives level meeting scheduled in August.

    China appears to have taken India’s recent strategic moves in Arunachal seriously, portraying them as a “complex development” in the bilateral relationship. The Chinese reaction appears resolute. A mixture of anger, concern and anxiety is visible among Chinese scholars, party officials and media analysts trying to identify the rationale behind India’s strategic decision to revitalize its North-East region. Two dominant discourses are visible. One, to understand and evaluate India’s strategic/military moves in the North-East region. Two, to gauge India’s competitiveness both in protecting Arunachal and in comparison to China’s overall progress. For instance, referring to India’s increasing military presence in the region, Bi Mingxin emphasizes (Xinhua, 15 June 2009) that “capable of carrying nuclear weapons and tailor-made for Indian specifications … Tezpur has become the third dedicated Sukhoi-30MKI airbase in the country after Pune in Western India and Bareilly in Northern India.” The piece goes on to outline that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the process of upgrading “five bases in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country, including Tezpur, Chabua, Jorhat (Assam), Panagarh (West Bengal) and Purnea.”

    Chinese writings also display concern over India’s strategic competitiveness on a range of issues. A prime example is the piece titled “India’s unwise military moves,” published in the official Global Times on 11 June 2009, which states:

    “India likes to brag about its sustainable development, but worries that it is being left behind by China. China is seen in India as both a potential threat and a competitor to surpass. But India can’t actually compete with China in a number of areas, like international influence, overall national power and economic scale … China won’t make any compromises in its border disputes with India … India’s current course can only lead to rivalry between the two countries. India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.”

    An interaction with leading Chinese experts from SIIS, SASS, CIIS, CICIR and government officials indicates that China is in no mood to relax its stance over Arunachal. In fact, there is a growing feeling that India will have to “manage” its relationship carefully with a more assertive China. There seems to be a consensus among leading Chinese experts in influential think-tanks that “India is adopting the military means in the north-eastern sector to have a good control over the disputed issue of Arunachal Pradesh.” China has been particularly riled by the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) approval of a loan worth US$60 million for infrastructure development in Arunachal Pradesh. Reacting strongly to the development, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang had commented that the ADB’s financial approval “cannot change the existence of the China-India territorial disputes, nor China’s position on the issue.” Beijing had strongly opposed the loan, though India resolutely managed to push through with the strong support of the US, Japan and South Korea.

    In principle, public opinion in China is in favour of taking an official call on Arunachal Pradesh by denouncing the earlier “agreed official principles”. Interactions with Chinese experts confirm the fact that their understanding is that “mutually agreed principles” have only a tactical value for them. The Chinese have no hesitation in unilaterally rejecting any principle if it creates barriers to the promotion of their national interests. The recent media and scholarly discourse on how to respond to India’s strategic move in Arunachal Pradesh underlines this fact – that China should not hold sacrosanct the settled principles for boundary demarcation agreed upon in 2005 that “in reaching the boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Publicly renouncing this provision on 6 June 2007, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that “mere presence” in populated areas would not affect China’s claim. Earlier, the former Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi remarked on 20 November 2006 on CNN-IBN Television that “historically, the whole of Arunachal Pradesh” belongs to China.

    At the very least, this Chinese posture may be seen as a pointer to the danger of China making its campaign public that “Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed territory”. China has constantly been referring to Arunachal Pradesh as a “complex historical chapter” in the China-India border dispute. Most Chinese experts refer to the fact that the sixth Dalai Lama hailed from Monyul in Arunachal Pradesh. In the Chinese contention, three parts of this region – Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul – were under the Tibetan administrative and jurisdictional control. Though it has officially claimed time and again 90,000 sq. km. of land in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, Beijing’s primary interest is limited to Tawang. A leading expert in Shanghai asserts that “historically, Tawang belongs to Tibet; and India should realize this fact quickly in order to avoid a situation like 1962.”

    Today, public opinion in China is keen on once again taking a strong position on Arunachal. In the wake of India’s strategic planning in the North-East, Chinese experts rue their government’s mistake in not gaining control of Arunachal Pradesh during the 1962 War. A scholar in Shanghai points out, for example, that “it was a costly error on the part of China” to have declared a unilateral cease-fire on 21 November 1962 without gaining control over the region.

    Experts cite several assumptions as to this “great political mistake” was made. One, though not the primary reason, was that the Chinese military was short of “logistical support”. More importantly, the military decided to retreat from Arunachal because it wanted to uphold the principle of “peaceful solution” to the boundary issue with India in future. An expert in Shanghai opines that the Chinese political leadership did not set much store on gaining control over Arunachal because it never anticipated that the Tibet crisis would hurt the Chinese as deeply as it does today. A well-known expert on India in Beijing holds the view that external factors like the anticipated US support to India and the problematic Sino-Soviet relationship forced the Chinese to retreat from Arunachal Pradesh.

    To this day, China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet” and lays claims to this territory. Though the Chinese rhetoric does not get much notice in India, these public outbursts on India’s strategic planning in Arunachal reveal the Chinese anxiety. To an extent, many in Beijing possibly believe that the time has come to get tough on the issue. Assumptions and assessments are still being made in the Chinese public discourse over Arunachal in the context of its past, present and future. Officials and experts remain quite alert when it comes to affairs related to Tibet and the China-India boundary issue. Though Chinese have not reacted publicly to India’s recent moves in the region, it goes without saying that the issue of Arunachal is taken very seriously both within the government and in the public discourse. At the moment China’s views on Arunachal appear more complex than ever.