According to a report, the official spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry Wang Wenbin said, “Zangnan is China’s territory and the Indian official’s visit violates China’s territorial sovereignty and is not conducive to the peace and tranquillity of the border situation.”
Shah is visiting Arunachal Pradesh (which has been unilaterally christened ‘Zangnan’ or Southern Tibet by the Chinese) to launch the “Vibrant Villages Programme” in Kibithu, at the very eastern extremity of the India-China border. As per routine, the Chinese had also objected to his visit there in 2020.
Arunachal has long been a flashpoint in India-China relations. Recall that it was on the Namka Chu River, north of Tawang, where the Sino-Indian war of 1962 began.
China's Protests are a Routine Affair
In 2006, the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi had somewhat egregiously declared that Arunachal was part of China. Thereafter, in 2007, a trip by some 100 IAS officers to China was cancelled because Beijing refused to give a visa to an IAS officer from Arunachal.
In 2008, China issued a verbal protest against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state and his reference to it as “our land of the rising sun.” Singh made it a point to visit Arunachal shortly after a visit to China and announced several large projects there, including the Trans-Arunachal Highway. A few days later a junior Chinese official conveyed the verbal protest to the Indian embassy in Beijing.
In 2009, following Manmohan Singh’s visit, the Chinese stepped up their protest. They declared that they were “deeply upset” and that China was “strongly dissatisfied with the visit to the disputed region by the Indian leader.” In 2015, 2016, and 2019, the Chinese protested the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Arunachal as they did the visit of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Rajnath Singh in 2017 and 2019.
Earlier in November 2009, when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang, the Chinese had protested. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (yes, the same person who is now Foreign Minister) said that China opposed the visits of the Dalai Lama because it “fully exposed his separatist nature”. He went on to add that China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction with India” for allowing the visit despite Chinese protests. Actually, this was the Dalai Lama’s sixth visit to the area which was declared a state in 1986. In escaping from Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama took shelter in Tawang before going onwards to the plains of Assam.
Not surprisingly, when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang again in April 2017, the Chinese went ballistic. Indian Ambassador Vijay Gokhale was summoned to the foreign ministry and a formal protest was lodged against the visit. The Chinese demanded that “India stop using the Dalai Lama to do anything that undermines China’s interest.”
In 2016 another controversy erupted when India permitted US Ambassador Richard Verma to visit Tawang. China attacked the US for “interference” in the Sino-Indian border dispute and said that his visit would “make the dispute more complicated.” The spokesman went on to add that “Any third party with a sense of responsibility should respect efforts made by China and India for peace, reconciliation and tranquillity, rather than the opposite.”
The Origins of the Arunachal Question
So, as we noted, there should really be no surprise regarding the reaction to the Shah visit. The Chinese as a matter of routine protest all visits by the Prime Minister, other senior ministers and special persons like the Dalai Lama and the US ambassador. They have objected to Indian infrastructure projects there, as well as funding for them by the World Bank or ADB.
The roots of the Chinese problem with Arunachal lie in the interpretation of the 1914 Simla Convention using which the India-Tibet boundary was defined.
At the time Tibet was independent and it gave plenipotentiary powers to its delegation led by Lonchen Shatra to negotiate with the British. The Chinese representative was present, he initialled the draft Convention and the map accompanying it but eventually did not sign it. So eventually it was signed in secret by Shatra and Sir Henry McMahon.
The Chinese were not happy, not because of the Tibet-India boundary, but issues relating to the border between China and Tibet. And since then they have not recognised the McMahon Line. However, from 1951-1985 or so, they accepted the line. In 1962, they captured virtually all of Arunachal but withdrew after the ceasefire. This was unlike Ladakh, where they retained over 3000 sq km of the territory they had captured in addition to Aksai Chin which had been under their occupation since 1951.
In 1960, 1978-1983, the Chinese expressed their willingness to exchange their claim over Arunachal for the Indian claim over Aksai Chin. In essence, they did not think much of their own claim over the state.
But from 1985 onwards they have claimed that the eastern boundary represented the more serious part of the Sino-Indian dispute and they put forward the demand that in any settlement, India must concede the Tawang tract to them.
Tawang, of course, is the most important town in Arunachal Pradesh and is the site of a monastery built in 1680-81 at the instance of the fifth Dalai Lama and it belongs to the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism that he led. The Chinese interest in establishing control is obvious given the importance of the monastery to Tibetan Buddhism, an issue that is occupying their attention as the current Dalai Lama ages and could reincarnate in the area which is largely populated by people of the Monpa ethnicity, which is distinct from Tibetan.
How should India approach these issues?
Simply, as it has been doing so. The Chinese will protest, after all, we, too, protest on issues relating to “Azad Kashmir” and the Northern Areas. They have a claim which is yet to be resolved and we agree that it needs to be resolved, or else we would not be engaging them in dialogue for all these decades. As for renaming areas in Arunachal, that is mainly of propaganda value. Government policy has ensured that as the tribal regions opened up, Hindi was used as the link language and culturally the region is fully integrated with India.
Even so, we must do things that we need to do to shore up our claims, diplomatically and militarily. We are not doing too badly. In December 2022, for example, we were able to foil a major Chinese attempt to overwhelm our posts in Yangtse, Northeast of Tawang. We have strong defences and they are quite capable of dealing with any Chinese military effort to overwhelm us.
The building of “Vibrant Villages” that Shah is initiating is part of this. This has been triggered by a Chinese effort to build what they call “Xiaokang” or “moderately prosperous villages” along the entire Sino-Indian border which are likely to be inhabited by a mix of Chinese and Tibetan security personnel.
Deserted Houses and Villages
A major fact of life is that the Sino-Indian border is a desolate, high-altitude region which is very, very difficult for people to live in. After the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the incentive to live there declined further as herding and border trading were both constrained. Mountain regions, even areas which are well connected and lower in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have witnessed steady depopulation. Many areas in the north have not just deserted houses, but entirely deserted villages.
The Chinese initiated the Xiaokang scheme as far back as 2006 to reverse this trend and, in their typical fashion, worked quickly to implement this. Such villages have been visible along the border, especially in Bhutan where they are well inside Bhutanese territory. In India’s case, they are proximate to the LAC in the counties facing Arunachal and Sikkim and claims they are on the Indian side of the LAC are not accurate.
The Chinese make no bones about the importance of national security in building such villages where the CPC seeks to promote closer civil-military integration and also change the demography of the border region by getting more Hans to settle there. Just what the Indian plans are to populate them is not clear.
Unlike China, our residents there will be volunteers and so they will need some viable employment or incentive to live in what can only be described as a very harsh environment.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)