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Sunday, November 19, 2006

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   Beijing's Arunachal Card

The visit to India of President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) begins on November 20, 2006. The PRC Ambassador Sun Yuxi’s statement at New Delhi at such a juncture that the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang is Chinese territory (November 13,2006), has prima-facie been serious enough to warrant a prompt high level Indian rebuttal next day, with the External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee saying that the state is an ‘integral’ part of India. - by Mr. D. S. Rajan.

The visit to India of President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) begins on November 20, 2006. The PRC Ambassador Sun Yuxi’s statement at New Delhi at such a juncture that the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang is Chinese territory (November 13,2006), has prima-facie been serious enough to warrant a prompt high level Indian rebuttal next day, with the External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee saying that the state is an ‘integral’ part of India. Despite the Ambassador’s subsequent clarification (November 15,2006) that Arunachal is a ‘disputed’ area on which both the sides should make ‘compromises’ and that China is ready to make the same, the Sino-Indian row on the subject has not subsided, casting a shadow on the impending state visit.

 

Mr. D.S. Rajan is formerly Director in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He can be reached at rajan@whatisindia.com

The Chinese position on Arunachal as part of the PRC has always been consistent and there is nothing new in what Ambassador Sun has said. But the question arises as why the envoy chose to make such observations on a bilaterally sensitive subject, just days before the Presidential visit? Is he not aware that his remarks would vitiate the pre-visit atmosphere? Is it a diplomatic faux pas or a deliberate act?

The answers lie in the fact that the envoy has only followed a practice, which is customary for China – territorial claims generally get reiterated at bureaucratic levels shortly before or after the high-level exchanges of visits with India; the PRC’s obvious aim is to utilise the opportunity arising from such high profile occasions to reinforce its border claims from time to time, with an eye on influencing the course of bilateral negotiations going on separately. As an instance, closely following Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China (June 22-27, 2003), the PRC Foreign ministry spokesperson (July 25, 2003) asserted that China did not recognise Arunachal Pradesh. Last year’s example has been more prominent. Just a week before Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India (April 9-12, 2005), the same Ambassador Sun emphatically declared (April 1, 2005) that Arunachal Pradesh is a ‘disputed’ area. It is another matter such a remark went rather unnoticed in India at that time. What should not be missed is that on Arunachal, the envoy has only repeated his last year’s remarks.    

Making small intrusions into Indian borders without precipitating any crisis, close to the visits of top leaders to each other country, appears to form another Chinese pattern. The objective is same – reinforcement of border claims. It can be argued that Chinese intrusions have in any case taken place periodically with no connection to the visits, but the perception that they still reflected some Chinese designs looks valid. As examples, the Chinese troops made incursions into six kilometres of the Indian border across Himachal Pradesh in February 1997, just a month after    former PRC President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India in preceding December. Next, a Chinese army patrol transgressed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Asaphila region of the Upper Subansiri District of Arunachal (one of the eight pockets of dispute) on June 26,2003, at a time when Prime Minister Vajpayee was still in the PRC soil on official visit. Another intrusion into the same Asaphila area was reported in May 2005, a month after Premier Wen Jiabao ended his visit to India (Chinese promptly denied such report). Will there be now a similar Chinese attempt to reinforce border claims by way of a symbolic incursion of Chinese troops into India’s borders, in the period surrounding Hu Jintao’s visit? Given the past patterns, the question becomes meaningful. 

The Chinese current focus on the status of Arunachal Pradesh needs to be examined in the context of a reported Sino-Indian agreement, widely speculated in the world media, on swapping disputed territories as part of search by both the sides for political parameters to the border question – India’s acceptance of Chinese claims in Aksai Chin in the West, to be matched by China’s consent to India’s territorial limits in Arunachal Pradesh along the present LAC, in the East. The ‘swapping’ proposal even found a mention in an address given by Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo last year (Singapore, August 18, 2005). China’s claims over entire Arunachal, as now reiterated by Ambassador Sun, could be construed a bargaining point vis-a-vis India, particularly when New Delhi is insisting, according to reports, on a settlement giving respect to population factor relating to Arunachal. This may not be acceptable to China as with population as basis some areas north of LAC could come under the scope of Indian claims. 

The Chinese intentions to bargain with India also appears to rise due to their possible concerns over New Delhi’s latest moves (the June 29,2006 decision to build roads along Sino-Indian border) to integrate border areas with the interior India, particularly in Northeast. For them such moves would mean further legitimisation of India’s hold over Arunachal. 

The Chinese have said lot of things about Tawang. First point they make is that as birthplace of Sixth Dalai Lama, the place is of religious importance and hence should be a part of Tibet. Articles in China representing the viewpoints of the Chinese military had highlighted the strategic importance of Tawang to the PRC including in economic sense. “Tibet’s economy can be sustained only if Tawang becomes a part of China”, they argued. On the other hand, India is renewing its focus on Tawang, both in strategic and political terms. The visits to Tawang by Home Minister Shiv Raj Patil (April 5, 2005) and Congress President Sonia Gandhi (November 6,2006) illustrate this point.  Whether or not Tawang will be covered under China’s willingness to ‘compromise’ on the border issue, conveyed through Ambassador Sun, has become a key question. 

To gain a correct perspective on the boundary issue, an insight into the history of Sino-Indian relations since 1962, the year China launched an attack on India, may be necessary. On October 20, 1962, the Chinese troops began their attack on India   in both Western and Eastern borders. Ladakh, especially areas south of Karakorum pass, Pangong Lake and Demchok, was their target. In the East, their intrusions covered wide areas and by November 18, 1962, Chinese forces reached close to Tezpur.   Feeling that it could already achieve strategic objectives, China announced a unilateral ceasefire on November 21,1962. The relations remained tense since then. China supported Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 during the  latter’s wars with India. It was only in 1988, a breakthrough in bilateral relations could be achieved when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing. Most notable outcome was formation of a bilateral Vice-Minister level Joint Working Group (JWG) to discuss the boundary issue. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing in 1993 resulted in conclusion of a bilateral Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in Border Areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to India in 1996 when an agreement was signed by the two sides on Confidence Building Measures in Military field in the border areas along the LAC.  

Subsequent to the remarks made by the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandez that China was India’s main threat (March 1998), the Sino-Indian relations suffered a setback. Indian nuclear tests in the same year worsened the ties further. Indian President K.R.Narayanan’s visit to China in 2000 and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visits to India in 2001 and 2002, somewhat rectified the situation. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to China (2003) saw signing by both sides of Declaration of Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation. The Indian side recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China. Another development of the occasion was the appointments by India and China of their Special Representatives to approach the border issue from a political perspective. PRC Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in April 2005 when it was agreed by the two sides to establish a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. Also signed during the visit was a Sino-Indian agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for settlement of the boundary question.  

An atmosphere in Sino-Indian relations free of tensions is prevailing now, with disputed borders remaining quiet, relationship reaching strategic level and economic and trade contacts booming. A solution to the key border issue is however still eluding. To highlight respective claims, India charges that 33000 Sq kilometres of its territory in the Western border are under Chinese occupation besides 5100 kilometres of Kashmir territory ceded to Pakistan by the PRC; China claims that 90000 sq kilometres of its territory are occupied by India in the East. To solve the issue, regular JWG meetings and also talks between the two Special Representatives are being held.

Hu Jintao’s visit is taking place in the background given above. An authoritative China scholar (Prof Fu Xiaoqiang of the PRC Ministry of State Security-affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International relations) has said that there is yet no mutual political and security trust between China and India and as such, a border solution may take a longer time. In the existing situation marked by the continuing China-Pakistan nexus at the expense of India and Beijing’s suspicions over deepening US-India strategic ties, perceived   anti-China, how far Hu Jintao’s visit could contribute to building of such trust would remain a question.


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