Arunachal Pradesh: pawn in the new Great Game

Barack Obama’s move to defer a meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington DC is being criticized as a “retreat” on human rights issues, with the president being accused of caving to Chinese pressure ahead of a Sino-US summit in Beijing next month. (India Journal, Oct. 15) Chinese authorities have meanwhile protested a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a Himalayan enclave in the state of Arunachal Pradesh claimed as Chinese territory. “China expresses its strong dissatisfaction on the visit by the Indian leader to the disputed area in disregard of China’s grave concerns,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.

China claims that a mountainous northern stretch of Arunachal Pradesh, known as Tawang, has historically been part of Tibet and therefore should belong to China. New Delhi and exiled Tibetan leaders say a self-governing Tibet signed a treaty with Britain in the early 20th century that ceded Tawang to British-ruled India. China this year tried to block a loan from the Asian Development Bank to India, because Delhi intended to use some of the funds to support flood control projects in the disputed territory. (NYT, Oct. 13)

Tawang was one of the issues in the brief but bloody Sino-Indian war of 1962, when Chinese forces launched a cross-border incursion into Indian-held territory. The fighting ended after China declared a unilateral ceasefire, but a formal agreement ending the conflict was never signed and the disputed territorial claims remain unresolved. In 1996 the two sides signed a pact to maintain “tranquility” along their shared border, agreeing to hold border resolution talks, the most recent of which took place in August. (AlJazeera, Oct. 14)

China is now India’s second-largest trade partner, but in the aftermath of the 1962 war Arunachal Pradesh served as a staging ground for CIA operations in support of Tibetan guerillas.

See our last posts on China, India and Tibet.

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  1. Google appeases both sides in Arunachal Pradesh conflict
    From IDG News Service via PC World, Oct. 23:

    Google Placates India, China With Different Map Versions
    Google has hit upon an interesting way of placating both China and India over the way its map application displays Arunachal Pradesh, a region whose ownership is disputed by the two countries.

    The Chinese version of Google Maps shows parts of Arunachal Pradesh as inside China’s borders. In contrast, the Indian version of Google Maps depicts the state as part of India.

    But both of those depictions differ from the global version of Google Maps, which shows Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory within broken lines on the map.

    In August this year, Google Earth came in for sharp criticism in India for what Google subsequently described as a mistaken use of Chinese script to mark areas in Arunachal Pradesh, an eastern state administered by India.

  2. Dalai Lama challenges China on Arunachal Pradesh
    From the New York Times, Oct. 22:

    Dalai Lama to Visit Indian Region Claimed by China
    BEIJING — Despite protests by the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama is going ahead with plans to visit a heavily militarized Tibetan Buddhist area in northeast India that is the focus of an intense territorial dispute between China and India, a Tibetan official in India said Thursday.

    The Dalai Lama, 74, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, is expected to visit Arunachal Pradesh from Nov. 8 to Nov. 15, the official said in an e-mail message…

    Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama, said in an e-mail message last month that the Dalai Lama would visit the region because he had received “a number of invitations” since he last visited in 2003. “There is a large Buddhist population that is keen to have his holiness give teachings,” the spokesman said.

    The Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit Arunachal Pradesh last year but canceled his trip. Some people in the area say he was denied permission by the Indian government, possibly because of pressure from China. Tenzin Taklha said the Dalai Lama postponed his visit so as not to disrupt elections taking place in India around that time.

    The status of Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most intractable diplomatic issues between China and India. The dispute centers on the mountainous, mist-cloaked region of Tawang, a thickly forested area bordering Bhutan and Chinese-ruled Tibet that is dominated by the ethnic Monpa people, who practice Tibetan Buddhism and speak a language very similar to Tibetan.

    The Chinese government says Tawang was once part of Tibet, and so belongs to China. The Indian government says a self-governing Tibet signed a treaty with British-ruled India in 1914 that ceded Tawang to India on the condition that Britain recognize Tibetan autonomy.

    The British agreed at the time to acknowledge what they called the suzerainty of Tibet. But last year, the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, retracted that recognition, saying it was a holdover from a colonial era.

    Perhaps inevitably, the Dalai Lama has taken sides in the dispute. Last year, he announced for the first time that Arunachal Pradesh belonged to India. Tenzin Taklha said the Tibetan government recognized the borders designated by the 1914 treaty, called the Simla Convention.

  3. Report: Chinese incursion into Arunachal Pradesh
    From Asia Times, Oct. 7:

    India plays down Chinese incursions
    NEW DELHI – Reports of incursions into Indian territory by the Chinese have been on the rise in recent weeks.

    The reports include the injury of two soldiers from the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force) in firing from across the border into the northeastern Indian state Arunachal Pradesh, portions of which China claims as its own.

    Other reports claim Chinese aircraft have transgressed into Indian air space, among other infringements along the disputed 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control, as the India-China border is referred to.

    In Ladakh, part of the northern state of Kashmir, Chinese intruders reportedly painted rocks red to mark their presence.

    There are also instances of Chinese issuing separate visas to Indian passport holders from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a delicate matter given the long history of conflict with Pakistan over the state.

    India’s diplomatic reaction, however, has been to play down the events. Federal Foreign Minister S M Krishna said, “This [India-China boundary in Ladakh] is one of the most peaceful boundaries. We have no dispute with China in this area. There is an in-built mechanism to deal with such issues.”

    Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorji Khandu said the additional deployment of troops is a routine drill to help soldiers acclimatize with the high altitude, and not an “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation.

  4. India restricts media access to Arunachal Pradesh
    A little ironic—the Indian government’s efforts to hush up the Dalai Lama’s trip to is making headlines. From the New York Times, Nov. 6:

    India Restricts Media on Visit by Dalai Lama
    NEW DELHI — The Indian government moved Thursday to restrict media coverage of the Dalai Lama’s trip next week to a disputed Himalayan region, a visit that has become a sore point between India and China at a time when diplomatic relations are already fraying between the Asian giants.

    On Thursday, several foreign news organizations planning to cover the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh next week were told that travel permits approved earlier by the state government had been canceled by the central government in New Delhi. They included The New York Times.

    The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia issued a statement saying it was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision and also by the failure of the central government to approve other applications.

  5. Dalai Lama visits Arunachal Pradesh —over Chinese protests
    From Reuters, Nov. 8:

    Thousands of Buddhist monks and supporters welcomed Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader on Sunday to Arunachal Pradesh also claimed by China, a trip that has renewed tensions between the Asian giants.

    The Dalai Lama arrived by helicopter in this remote Buddhist enclave nestled in the icy folds of the eastern Himalayas, where he had passed through after fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

    The visit, as well as reports of border incursions in recent months, has triggered tensions between the world’s two most populous nations, whose relations remain hostage to mutual suspicion lingering from a brief 1962 border war.

    The Tibetan spiritual leader defended his visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and said he wasn’t surprised by Beijing’s reaction.

    “It is quite usual for China to step up the campaign against me wherever I go,” the Dalai Lama told reporters after opening a museum at a 400-year-old monastery in Tawang, which is at the heart of the border row between the two countries.

    “My visit here is non-political,” he said.

    Beijing, which considers Arunachal Pradesh to be part of south Tibet, criticised the visit as undermining Chinese territorial integrity. It has slammed the Dalai Lama’s “scheme to wreck China’s relations” with India.

    India and China have made little progress in resolving their decades-old dispute over the Himalayan border, despite several rounds of talks.

    China lays claim to 90,000 sq km of land on the eastern sector of the border. India disputes that and instead says China occupies 38,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) of territory in Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas…

    On Sunday, thousands of people lined the road to Tawang — a moonscape of steep, craggy mountains and white stupas, which is home to the Monpa people who practice Tibetan Buddhism and speak a tongue similar to Tibetan.

    Roads were washed, welcome gates with colourful Buddhist paintings erected and the valley’s main monastery decked up. With hundreds of exiled Tibetans arriving for the event from all over India, the town took on a carnival look to greet the Dalai Lama.

    “He is our god,” said a young woman who gave her name as Choeden in between helping put up Tibetan scripture-bearing holy flags.

    “He has come back to bless us all. China may or may not recognise him but that is not important for us. Can the Chinese remove him from our hearts?”

  6. Whither Aksai Chin?
    Has the Aksai Chin dispute been resolved or not? The Economist columnist Banyan, writing on “Himalayan histrionics,” is unclear on this point Oct. 31:

    In truth, the real problem remains the two countries’ long, shared border. Disputes over the western and eastern ends have been unresolved since a bloody war in 1962. In the west, India claims Aksai Chin, a high plateau controlled by China, as part of Kashmir. In the east, China disputes the McMahon Line, agreed by British India and a Tibet then under British rather than Chinese sway. The line is in effect the border today, but China claims a large chunk of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet. It includes a revered Buddhist monastery at Tawang, near the 17th-century birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.

    In a “good neighbour” policy, China has now resolved every serious land-border dispute, bar this one. A solution had seemed within reach. In 2005 the two sides laid out the approach. Principles would be agreed, then compromises made, and lastly a line drawn. Only marginal adjustments were expected to the present border. But the prospects of such a deal have crumbled as China has hardened its position. Earlier this year Chinese soldiers crossed the presumed line of control in the west and sent a herder family packing

    China’s urgency is reinforced by the Dalai Lama. His flight from Tibet in 1959, via Tawang, fed into border tensions then and he backs India’s border claims today. He plans to visit Tawang on November 8th. There is even talk that his reincarnation might one day be found there. That would be an excruciating outcome for the Chinese Communists, who demand the right to control Tibetans’ relations with the divine. For they could hardly declare such a reincarnation illegitimate on territorial grounds.

    Or perhaps they could.