On December 9, Chinese troops violated the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh in North-East India. In the clash that followed, 20 Indian soldiers and a much higher number of Chinese were reportedly injured. Though the status quo ante was quickly restored through local commander-level talks, the Chinese intrusion cannot be taken as a one-off incident that can be brushed under the carpet as another LAC violation.
Beijing’s aggressive intrusion can be seen as an attempt to keep the issue of sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh alive so that it can be used to give anxious moments to India as and when a need arises.
But according to French Tibetologist, Claude Arpi, China could be trying to put pressure on India to concede Aksai Chin in the North, and in return, secure legitimate control over Arunachal Pradesh. This appears to be Beijing’s long-term plan, Arpi thinks.
There could be a contemporary perspective to the flare-up. With New Delhi getting close to the US politically and militarily, and as a consequence, constantly talking about making the Indo-Pacific region free from China’s hegemonic moves, China feels the need to needle India in an area which is very sensitive.
Unlike the border region of Ladakh and Aksai Chin, which is both sparsely populated and distant from mainland India, Arunachal Pradesh is populated and near other populated Indian States. During the 1962 war, China briefly occupied Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, then known as the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA). Therefore, any Chinese incursion into Arunachal Pradesh could well unsettle India militarily and politically.
A further reason for unsettling India at this point of time is the massive preparation India is making for the G20 meetings it will be hosting in 2023. China is irked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to use the summit to showcase India’s claim to be a regional and global power. China has consistently challenged India’s bid to claim this status. The 1962 attack on India was primarily meant to puncture Nehruvian India’s bid to lead Asia.
Earlier on, China began issuing “stapled passports” to Indians who had worked in Arunachal Pradesh. This was to conceptually “delink” the State from India. Apart from showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of China in their maps, the Chinese also renamed 15 places in that State. More recently they set up a new village in an area in Arunachal Pradesh they still occupy, and abducted Arunachal locals describing them as “intruders”.
On its part, India completely integrated Arunachal Pradesh with itself by changing its name from North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) to Arunachal Pradesh and conferring Statehood on it. Connectivity with the rest of India was also enhanced. Arunachal Pradesh now has four airports at Itanagar, Ziro, Pasighat, and Tezu. Several helipads have also been built near the McMahon Line dividing India and Tibet (China).
Baseless Chinese Claim
Writing in the Assam-based daily Sentinel, Harendra Nath Bora says that the Chinese claim over Arunachal Pradesh has no basis. The Chinese did not have any military control or military post in Arunachal Pradesh at any point of time, he says. Claude Arpi, in his book 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga says that during the last two millennia, the Chinese had never set foot in what is today Arunachal Pradesh, except for one short visit.
“The short visit was that of a Chinese Army contingent while in an expedition to Tibet in 1911 to suppress a Tibetan revolt against all foreigners including the Chinese. It came down to Walong and planted some token boundary marks. These were subsequently uprooted and confiscated by British Indian forces. These areas were kept free from further incursions by the Chinese and the Tibetans. In any case, a casual incursion of this type does not mean that the entire Arunachal Pradesh was under Chinese control,” Bora says.
On the other hand, India’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh are stronger, he adds. “There is abundant evidence of India’s political, religious and cultural presence in Arunachal. The ruins and relics of Bhishmak Nagar, Parasuram Kunda, Malini Than, Bhalukpung, the Brick Fort or Itanagar are some pieces of historical evidence of Indian cultural and political presence in Arunachal Pradesh in the period of early history.”
“In the medieval period also, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh remained independent. They expressed loyalty to the rulers of Assam and in return, the Assam kings accorded the tribesmen free and safe passage to the plains of Assam and treated them with lavish gifts. Evidence is there of the Ahom kings having recruits in its army from the Arunachali tribes,” Bora says.
In a conversation with Sudha Ramachandran in The Diplomat Claude Arpi points out that China “has not always claimed” Arunachal Pradesh and that that its present claims are meant to gain leverage over India in a future border settlement.
Asked why, when the India-China war ended on November 21, 1962, China retained control of Aksai Chin but pulled back from NEFA, Arpi said that before the war, Zhou En Lai had suggested a “swap” with India: It envisaged Aksai Chin going to China and NEFA going to India.
This was because, for China, Aksai Chin was strategically far more important than NEFA. The road it built in Aksai Chin in the early 1950s linked Xinjiang and Tibet.
But since the mid-1980s, China has been reasserting its “rights” over Arunachal Pradesh claiming it to be “Southern Tibet.”
“In January 2022, Global Times announced new names of 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, given with precise coordinates. Eight were residential areas, four were mountains, two were rivers, and one was a mountain pass (Sela). It was the second batch of so-called standardized names of places published by the Chinese government; the first batch of the so-called standardized names of six places in Arunachal was released in 2017. This is part of the propaganda to assert China’s claims,” Arpi said.
In explanation, he said that for Beijing, these moves were a bargaining chip for an eventual swap and the recognition by India of the occupation of Aksai Chin by China.
Why is Tawang important to China?
The Chinese claim over Tawang in Arunachal is based on the fact that the Buddhist monastic taxes in Tawang were being collected by Tibetan officials till February 1951. But the taxes paid by a monastery do not amount to ownership certificates, Arpi argues. Several monasteries in the Indian Himalayas have been affiliated with large monasteries in Tibet. This does not mean that these monasteries belong to China, he adds.
Another factor cited by the Chinese is that the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706) was born in Urgyeling, south of Tawang. But the fact that a religious leader was born in a foreign territory is not a legally valid argument to claim ownership of the area where the leader was born, Arpi points out.
Not often mentioned are the bitter relations existing between the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibetans. Tibetan officials had been oppressing the Monpas. The Monpas were finally liberated by the Assam Rifles, a unit of the Indian army, in 1951.