Lift the wraps on the Himalayan border situation

Let facts speak for themselves on the India-China frontier


Brahma Chellaney

The Sunday Guardian, August 15, 2010


For almost 11 months now, the Indian government has put a lid on the Himalayan border situation with China. Ever since several senior government figures last September spoke out against the manner the media was covering Chinese border incursions, sources of information have dried up and newspapers and television networks have carried little news. It is not that the Chinese cross-border forays have ended or even abated. It is just that Indian media organizations have little information to report, even though the incidence of Chinese incursions remains high.


Beijing can only be pleased with the way New Delhi has managed to gag its own media over the border incidents.  The unwitting message that sends is that when the world’s biggest autocracy builds up pressure, the world’s largest democracy is willing to tame its own media.


Just as China has sought to pass off military incursions into Bhutan as instances of Chinese troops “losing their way,” soldiers of its People’s Liberation Army “lost their way” into Indian territory 270 times in 2008 alone — the last full year for which official figures are available. In addition, there were 2,285 instances of “aggressive border patrolling” by the PLA in 2008. Such a pattern of aggressive patrolling and intrusions has persisted to this day.


The plain fact is that the continuing border tensions reflect a growing strategic dissonance between China and India, which represent competing political and social models of development. Tibet has emerged at the centre of escalating Himalayan tensions. China has resurrected its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh — almost three times as large as Taiwan — and stepped up military pressure along the 4,057-kilometre frontier with India.


As the resistance to its rule in Tibet has grown, Beijing has sought to present Tibet as a core issue to its sovereignty. Tibet now holds as much importance in Chinese policy as Taiwan. But in spotlighting the Arunachal issue, Beijing seems to be drawing another analogy, even if unwittingly: Arunachal is the new Taiwan that must be “reunified” with the Chinese state.


Tibet, however, has always been the core issue in Sino-Indian relations. After all, China became India’s neighbour not owing to geography but guns — by annexing buffer Tibet in 1951. Today, Beijing is ever ready to whip up diplomatic spats with Western nations that extend hospitality to the Dalai Lama. But India remains the base of the Tibetan leader and his government-in-exile.     


The key instigation in the more-muscular Chinese stance towards India clearly has come from the U.S.-Indian strategic tie-up, unveiled first in 2005. As President George W. Bush declared in his valedictory speech, “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India”.


Since then, the official Chinese media has started regurgitating the coarse anti-India rhetoric of the Mao Zedong era, with commentators warning New Delhi not to forget the lesson of 1962, when China humiliated India in a 32-day, two-front war. The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, earlier charged India with pursuing a foreign policy of “befriending the far and attacking the near,” while a commentary by the China Institute of International Strategic Studies — a PLA think-tank — cautioned India “not to requite kindness with ingratitude” and not to “misjudge the situation as it did in 1962”.


Against that background, India’s interests will be better served by letting the facts on the border situation with China speak for themselves.


In recent years, China has opened pressure points against India across the Himalayas, with border incidents occurring in all the four sectors. Chinese forces are intruding even into Utttarakhand (although the line of control in this middle sector was clarified in 2001 through an exchange of maps) and into Sikkim (whose 206-kilometer border with Tibet is not in dispute and indeed is recognized by Beijing). Yet, Indian officials have said the incursions are the result of differing perceptions about the line of truth. That may be so about Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, but can that be true about Sikkim and Uttarakhand? It speaks for itself that Beijing hasn’t offered this lame excuse.


Even in the pre-1962 period, India sought to play down China’s aggressive moves along the border. The result was “the stab in the back” in 1962, as Jawaharlal Nehru called it.


In fact, there are important parallels between the situation pre-1962 and the situation now. Border talks are regressing, Chinese claims on Indian territories are becoming publicly assertive, Chinese cross-border incursions are rising, and India’s China policy is becoming feckless.

Indeed, what stands out in the history of Sino-Indian disputes is that India has always been on the defensive against a country that first moved its frontiers hundreds of miles south by annexing Tibet, then furtively nibbled at Indian territories before waging open war, and now lays claims to additional Indian territories. By contrast, on neuralgic subjects like Tibet, Beijing’s public language still matches the crudeness and callousness with which it sought in 1962, in Premier Zhou Enlai’s words, to “teach India a lesson.”


The irony is that by laying claims to additional Indian territories on the basis of their purported ties to Tibet, China blatantly plays the Tibet card against India, going to the extent of citing the birth in Tawang of one of the earlier Dalai Lamas, a politico-religious institution it has systematically sought to destroy. Yet India remains coy to play the Tibet card against China.


The net result of failing to use Tibet as a bargaining chip has been that India first lost Aksai Chin, then more territory in 1962 and now is seeking to fend off Chinese claims to Arunachal Pradesh.


Beijing openly covets Arunachal Pradesh as a cultural extension to Tibet — a classic attempt at incremental annexation. Just because the 6th Dalai Lama was born in the 17th century in Arunachal’s Tawang district, Beijing claims that Arunachal belongs to Tibet and thus is part of China. By that argument, it can also lay claim to Mongolia as the 4th Dalai Lama was born there in 1589. The traditional ecclesiastical links between Mongolia and Tibet indeed have been closer than those between Arunachal and Tibet. What makes China’s claim more untenable is that, as part of its gerrymandering of Tibet, it has hived off the birthplaces of the 7th, 10th, 11th and present Dalai Lama — the 14th in line — from Tibet. Before seeking Arunachal, shouldn’t it be asked to first return the traditional Tibetan areas of Amdo and eastern Kham to Tibet?

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