Once again, the picturesque state of Arunachal Pradesh, the historical bone of contention between India and China, is back in news. China claims 90, 000 square kilometres of territory from India; the total land area of Arunachal Pradesh is 83,743 sq. km
The intended visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in the second week of November 2009 to inaugurate a hospital in Tawang district, for which he had donated Rs 20 lakh, is raising Chinese ire. "China expresses strong concern about this information. The visit "further reveals the Dalai clique's anti-China and separatist essence," Jiang Yu, the spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, said in a statement faxed to Reuters on September 11. "China's stance on the so-called 'Arunachal Pradesh' is consistent. We firmly oppose Dalai visiting the so-called 'Arunachal Pradesh'," she added.
The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, insists that his visit is purely focused on the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism (the dominant religion in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh) and has no political implications. “Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India and the Dalai Lama is free to go anywhere in India,” minister for external affairs, S.M. Krishna told IBN7 news channel on September 16. “The only question is that he is not expected to comment on political developments,” he added.
The incompatibility between India and China has a historical context and is based on a lack of proper demarcation of the 3,500-km border in the eastern sector. China questions the 1914 McMahon line and argues that the area now known as Arunachal Pradesh belonged to Tibet historically, with the Tawang Monastery having tributary relationship with the Dalai Lama. Since Tibet is now a part of China, goes their argument, so is Arunachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, agrees with the Indian position and recognizes Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India. The Buddhist monks in the Tawang Monastery also argue strongly against Chinese claims on their land as having no historical basis or legitimacy whatsoever. The Chinese insecurities become apparent when seen in the perspective of revival of protests in Tibet last year, as the status of Tibet itself remains contested by the Tibetans, both within and outside Tibet.
Another major problem regarding the eastern border between India and China is the different perceptions both countries have about the actual physical demarcation of the border. The worrisome aspect for India in this context is that despite more than two decades of negotiations, India is the only country with which China has not settled its border dispute.
The Chinese activities in Tibet itself, with their plans of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo (the source of the Brahmaputra in India) is another area of grave concern for us. This diversion will have an enormous negative impact on the eco-system and the people of Northeastern India and Bangladesh. The residents of Arunachal Pradesh will be the first to be affected with possible drought and lack of fresh water because of this change of course. The border dispute between India and China could take on the added dimension of water security, seen by many srategic analysts as the most likely source of conflict in the future.
These border tensions reflect disturbing inferences when squarely located within the context of the rise of China and India with their military modernization, nuclear weapons, desire for global prominence and status. The consequences any armed conflict could have on economic growth and the pulls and pressures of electoral democracy in India are enough reasons to not want any armed conflict. China's system of 'checks and balances', however, is less known to the outside world and one can only hope that its own realistic assessment of what a possible war with India would mean -- an economic downturn with enormous negative implications for its people -- acts as a deterrence against any armed conflict with India.
While it is a fact that ever since the two countries signed the 1993 'Confidence Building Measures' on the border, not a single bullet has been fired by both armies at each other, the question that perplexes the Indian strategic community is: Why has China not resolved its border dispute with India and continues to voice its territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh?
The answer is perhaps simple. China views India as a threat, due to its own insecurity in Tibet as a result of continuous international questioning of its legitimacy there. Especially since the Dalai Lama, the recognized legitimate leader of Tibet, resides just across the border in India.
China is also insecure about what it perceives as Indian ambitions in the region. When in early 1962, India executed a 'forward policy' of establishing posts in the disputed areas between India and China to challenge China's claims, it had China worried, not so much about the posts per se, but about the impact such a gesture was having on the Tibetans within Tibet. Tibetans viewed these Indian moves as a 'show of support' for their own movement for independence. Which was one of the main immediate reasons for the 1962 war: a way for China to establish its authority on Tibet.
What should India do?
The question to ask now is, with the Dalai Lama's intended visit to Arunachal Pradesh, could the Chinese be provoked to react sharply so as to indicate to the population of Tibet that any outside help in their aspirations for Tibetan independence is not going to fructify?
India needs to be wary of China, especially keeping in context the latter's internal domestic politics, elite opinion and social cohesion regarding its stand on Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. While China had vacated Arunachal Pradesh in 1962 due to its own internal weaknesses, the context is very different now. China has undertaken tremendous military modernization and is a confident nation. Special treatment meted out to Tibet internationally does not go well in China and many feel that China might want to wage a limited war with India to send a resounding message to Tibetans that theirs is a lost cause.
The recent experience at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is yet another reason for India to not let its guard down. On June 16 this year, China had tried to block the $ 60 million development funds to Arunachal Pradesh calling it a “disputed territory” but failed as the entire ADB board -- except Beijing of course -- voted in India’s favour. But, within two months, an unfazed China managed to overcome its humiliation and win a vote on a “disclosure agreement,” which prevents ADB from formally acknowledging Arunachal Pradesh as part of India. Utilizing its growing international status, diplomatic agility and economic muscle, within two months, China managed to persuade Japan, Australia and a group of other South East Asian countries to back its cause. Clearly, the Indian diplomacy had gotten complacent after the June victory and needs to be jolted out of its stupor. India also needs to strengthen its overall response mechanism. Following three measures suggest themselves:
Dissuasive Deterrence: The message should be clear. India must clearly state that while it has no offensive military desires, or a wish for any armed conflict, its dissuasive defensive capabilities are optimal to deter any military move into its territory. It would mean shoring up the nuclear deterrence against China. Building military infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh would also adds credibility to the country's conventional deterrence posture. "Our territory is safe. Our Army is ready to respond. We can protect our turf," S.M. Krishna told IBN7 news channel. Already, according to Arunachal Pradesh Governor, J.J. Singh, India has deployed 30, 000 more troops in the area. Mountain divisions must be honed as the terrain is hilly. Air-Force cover for the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh must be on high alert with overt showcasing by India of the effectiveness of its Sukhoi 30 MK which it plans to deploy to the Arunachal Pradesh border by October this year. Through such defensive postures, India must 'signal' not only its commitment to defend Arunachal Pradesh in case of a military invasion but also to ensure that China clearly understands that India's defensive force structures are credible. War games must be conducted and the results made public in order to act as postures of deterrence.
Diplomatic Offensive: During the 1971 war with Pakistan, India signed a treaty of 'Peace, Friendship and Cooperation' in August 1971 with the Soviet Union to deter both China and the US from supporting Pakistan militarily against its planned war with Pakistan in December that year. It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of the Indira Gandhi government. The wise dictum of international politics that "there are no permanent allies, no permanent friends, only permanent interests" must now guide Indian policy making to tackle Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh given the changed context of the post cold war period. While Indian military exercises with China are instrumental to build confidence between both states, it is equally wise for India to keep its alliance system robust so that a repeat of an 'isolated India' during the 1962 war is avoided. Improved relations with US, in addition to Russia would be key.
Act Local, Think Global: India's strength in Arunachal Pradesh is the support it has from the local people. India needs to subtly spread international awareness about China's aggressive behaviour. This must include continuous focus on the issue without letting slackness seep into its diplomatic efforts at the international level so much so that it is caught unawares by the kind of development that took place at the ADB in August. Also, locally, it needs to upgrade the infrastructure of Arunachal Pradesh, build roads and improve the living standards of the local people. The people of Arunachal, its mineral resources and bio-diversity are an asset to India and must find recognition in the mainstream political narrative.
In conclusion, while all three measures are important, dissuasive deterrence holds the key. Once that is in place, the other two guidelines can act as support mechanisms for a robust and confident Indian approach for dealing with Chinese belligerence in its border areas today and in the near future.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author and not that of the IDSA.