July 03, 2007

India, China: Read between the (border) lines

As China becomes more aggressive over the Sino-Indian Himalayan border dispute, New Delhi takes a soft stance, hoping that trade relations are enough to keep the dispute at civil level.

By Animesh Roul in New Delhi for ISN Security Watch (03/07/07)

"We are Indian and will remain loyal to the country for ever," Jaro Bagang, a government official in East Kameng, Sepa district, in Arunachal Pradesh, tells ISN Security Watch.

"We never wished to go under a communist and repressive regime across [our] border and the recent Chinese claim is utterly atrocious," Bagang said when asked to comment on the recent Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh and its people.

Bagang belongs to Nishi tribe, one of the state's most populous.

Similar responses can be heard across the state.

"We are inalienable part of India," Sangay Jampi, a Monpa, and presently secretary of the Tawang Monastery – a major bone of contention between India and China, told the daily Times of India on 25 June.

India and China share over an over 2,000-mile barren, icy and rugged border in the Himalayas that stretches from India's Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. While China claims 35,000 square miles of territory within India's jurisdiction, the later disputes Chinese occupation of over 15,000 square miles on the Tibetan plateau.

Multiple rounds of parleys spanning over two decades have failed to resolve the contentious territorial disputes, and recently, China has become more aggressive in its claims.

China even backtracked from a recent agreement that prohibited both parties from laying claim to the disputed territories' inhabited areas.

The Sino-Indian border talks were initiated in the early 1980s, with both countries signing the Peace and Tranquility Agreement in September 1993 and reaffirming their commitment in subsequent confidence-building measure meetings and accords. A breakthrough of sorts took place in 2005 when China accepted Sikkim, another bordering state, as an integral part of India, while the later reciprocated by recognizing the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of Chinese territory.

Last year, both countries agreed to resolve remaining border disputes politically, rather than "technically," under an 11-point roadmap.
Visa fracas

China's assertiveness over its perceived territory came to the fore in early May this year, when a couple of lawmakers from Arunachal Pradesh raised the issue of Chinese incursions in the state. The incursion story - though downplayed by the administration as political gimmick on the part of opposition parties - the subsequent denial of travel permission to an Indian bureaucrat by Chinese authority on grounds that "being from Arunachal Pradesh he was [already] a Chinese citizen," awoke the slumbering political elites.

Beijing refuses visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh under the pretext of considering all inhabitants of the region as Chinese; hence, they do not require visas to travel to China.

Jing-dong Yuan, associate professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies believes China's visa stance perfectly reflects the unresolved nature of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute.

"For China, granting visa to a person from Arunachal Pradesh prior to the final [territorial] settlement is tantamount to recognizing the State as part of India, which Beijing is not willing to accept at the moment,” Yuan told ISN Security Watch.

Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitics at the US-based private intelligence organization Strategic Forecasting Inc, largely agreed.

She told ISN Security Watch that "even though there is no real danger as such coming out of China's Tawang overtures, [it seems] the Asian giant wants to make it clear that AP is still a disputed territory and doesn't want to give any de-facto recognition that the territory is under India's control by granting the travel permit."
Dragon fire engulfs

It used to be that China – described by Indian officials as "truculent" and "inscrutable" – had its eyes largely on Tawang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, but lately it has been asserting claims on the entire state.

Only last year, Chinese envoy to India, Sun Yuxi, confirmed Beijing's claim to the entire Arunachal Pradesh.

The British-drawn McMahon line that forms the boundary line between the two Asian giants was never recognized by China.

Ma Jiali, a research professor at the China Institute of Contemporary International Research in Beijing, points out that Tawang has important cultural and historical links with Tibet.

"Tawang is birthplace of Dalai Lama and Tibet's local government has ruled that area till 1951,"Jiali told ISN Security Watch.

"Even though the [geographical and political] situation has changed after India's independence from the colonial yoke, China never recognized the illegal line marked by the British," Jiali said.

His earlier comments for the media on the Tawang issue had spurred a debate in India when he stated that India should return the area to China in order to resolve the border issue as Beijing did not want to see instability in Tibet.

One senior official in New Delhi criticized the Chinese for the ongoing dispute, saying that Chinese fears about instability and a possible Tibetan uprising over the issue were farfetched.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity, he pointed out that India had already acknowledged the Tibetan Autonomous Region as part of China, and that these latest assertions showed that Beijing was holding out for more, perhaps even the "geographical extremity of what was Tibet in the pre-1950 era."

"China perceives that a movement is brewing - which is false - in Indian Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is located," he said.
Cause for alarm?

For now, the atmosphere appears grim, with a pre-1962 scenario being relived on both sides of the border, where the Chinese and Indian armed forces are reportedly building infrastructures to strengthen their ground positions.

Alarmists recollect the Tibet-Sinkiang road construction of late the 1950s, which brought Chinese enforcements dangerously close to India's border, triggering a poor response by India and finally a brutal war.

Possibly, present geopolitical interests have reinvigorated Chinese interest in Arunachal Pradesh. A prosperous Arunachal Pradesh is important to sustaining isolated and impoverished Tibet. A Lhasa (Tibet)-Tawang corridor would not only bring China closer to Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland in Indian's northeast, but it would also connect Burma (Myanmar) with Tibet, facilitating overall trading activities. It also could open up routes eventually to the Indian Ocean and Bangladesh.

Following the footsteps of Burma, Bangladesh has recently embraced China for the development of its infrastructure, including road networks and gas pipelines. The most significant of these developments is the planned laying of a gas pipeline for carrying crude from Chittagong to Yunnan through Burma.

A Dhaka-Yangon-Beijing axis may dampen India's "look east" policy and ambition to influence Southeast Asian trade and commerce, and for China, it seems that Arunachal Pradesh holds the key to that axis.

Yuan, however, optimistically places New Delhi-Beijing's growing economic activities ahead of all speculations and axis calculations by saying that "the bilateral ties have been developing rather positively over the past few years in all areas: political, economic and security."

However, he lamented, "as long as the territorial disputes remain unresolved, normalization cannot be regarded as complete and the potentials of cooperation cannot be fully exploited."
India remains cautious

So far, India's defense and interior ministries have taken a soft stance on the Chinese gambit, with the only strong statements coming from the Foreign Ministry, under pressure from rising domestic criticism, mostly from Arunachal Pradesh. After substantial groveling, New Delhi rejected Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh at the highest level, but cautiously.

Cautious or not, for Bhalla, "China does not consider it as a substantial political barrier for bilateral relations, though these border disputes will remain a thorn between the two countries for some time to come."

Arguably, New Delhi does not want to be locked into an antagonistic relationship with its powerful neighbor and is not in a mood to force Beijing to resolve the longstanding boundary dispute, which also involves the delineation of the over 4,000-km Line of Actual Control (LAC).

China's insistence on this Northeast Indian state makes two things clear: that the ongoing border talks are not moving in the right direction and that the talks are not only about the peaceful demarcation of the LAC. Sooner or later, the proposal for a territorial swap will surface.

Not surprisingly, India's soft diplomatic maneuvering and appeasement tactics in the face of China's apparent aggressive posture on border issues has invited obvious domestic criticism.

But one development at least has shown that New Delhi may be prepared for a tougher response. India, unlike other major powers and Southeast Asian nations, has pursued a pragmatic engagement with Taiwan, sticking to a "One China" policy.

However, according to C Raja Mohan in a June commentary for ISN Security Watch, India's signal earlier that month that it had diplomatic options for Taiwan that might not be comfortable for Beijing could indicate that India might change its traditionally "One China" policy in response to the Arunachal Pradesh developments.

Animesh Roul is a New Delhi-based correspondent and analyst for ISN Security Watch

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