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China’s Designs on Arunachal Pradesh

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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  • March 12, 2008

    The recent Chinese Foreign Ministry statement expressing ‘unhappiness’ about Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh has generated a debate in India as to whether China is serious about resolving the disputed border. The statement has set back any possibility for an early and realistic settlement of the border dispute. A week after the verbal protest to the Indian mission in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao stated in an official briefing on February 14: “regarding Mr. Singh’s visit to that area, we have expressed our concern. Our position (on the issue) is clear.”

    This latest Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh clearly indicates that China is slowly hardening its negotiating position on the boundary dispute. It also highlights the fact that China no longer holds 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.” By this principle, the least that was expected of China is to accept Indian control over Arunachal Pradesh till both sides reach a final settlement. However, this provision was renounced as early as June 6, 2007 by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi who stated that “mere presence” in populated areas would not affect China’s claims. In effect, Yang’s statement was a renunciation of the provision under Article VII of the April 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question.

    The first of a series of hard line Chinese statements on Arunachal Pradesh was articulated at the official level as early as 1986 when Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Shuquing said that “some 90,000 square kilometres of Chinese territory” was under Indian occupation and that unless India “resolves this key to the overall situation” it would be impossible to reach a settlement. This was followed by Chinese incursions into the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which overshadowed the 7th round of border talks in July 1986. Twenty years later, on November 20, 2006, this stance was reiterated by China’s Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi, when he said that “the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that. That is our position.”

    It can be recalled that China did not disclose its official views openly either on the McMahon Line or on the frontier issue till it attacked India in 1962. An official briefing of India’s Ministry of External Affairs dated December 22, 1959 has suggested that “the Chinese representatives at the Simla Conference [1914] had been fully conscious of the boundary that had been settled between India and Tibet, and the Chinese government had not then or later raised any objection on McMahon line.” For instance, there was no official reaction from the Chinese authorities when Prime Minister Nehru declared on November 20, 1950 in the Indian Parliament that “the McMahon Line is our boundary…we will not allow anybody to come across that boundary.” Further, the Chinese government did not express its reservations about the frontiers during negotiations between the two countries on various occasions in 1951, 1952 and 1953 on trade and intercourse between Tibet and India. It was only during his visit to India in late 1956 that Chinese Premier Chou En-lai raised the issue of the McMahon Line and frontier areas at some length with Nehru. Expressing his unhappiness that “this line, established by British Imperialism, was not fair,” Chou said that “because of the friendly relations which existed between China and the countries, namely, India and Burma, the Chinese government should give recognition of this McMahon line…” Today, of course, this approach has been completely overturned and China says that it neither recognises Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory nor the McMahon Line as the border.

    During the 1962 War, China forcefully took control of Aksai Chin. Now, it treats Aksai Chin as history but has begun to assert claims over Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese today feel that the Eastern sector is the “most disputed area” of the three sectors of the Sino-Indian border.

    Till not long ago, it appeared that China’s interest in Arunachal Pradesh was limited to Tawang, given the spiritual and cultural links between Tibetans and the people of this area. China has constantly reiterated that the sixth Dalai Lama hailed from Monyul area and that three parts of Tawang – Monyul, Loyul and lower Tsayul – were under Tibetan administrative and jurisdictional control. But from these select places the Chinese claim has gradually expanded to encompass the whole state today. Experts feel that this expansive Chinese interest may stem from a number of geo-political factors. Arunachal can serve as an “eastern gateway” from the Brahmaputra valley to China’s Yunnan province. Arunachal also offers a lot on the tourism and agricultural fronts. A further attraction is the state’s purportedly huge mineral deposits and its very real hydro-electric power potential. In addition, Arunachal also offers strategic advantages in terms of providing a base to gain contiguity with Bhutan along its eastern flank as well as permit access to the entire Southeast Asian market.

    It has been argued that given these attractions the Chinese strategy is to include Arunachal Pradesh – or what they refer to as ‘Southern Tibet’ – within the framework of a “comprehensive border settlement programme”. Sujit Dutta, Senior Fellow at IDSA, notes that China has started making veiled references to the idea of a swap between Arunachal Pradesh and concessions in other undisclosed areas. This has resulted in a number of vague Chinese terms like “mutual understanding” “mutual accommodation and concessions” and “mutually acceptable adjustments”. China’s eventual goal thus appears to be one of territorial expansion with respect to Arunachal Pradesh. The protest over Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit stems from this design.