China toys with India's border
BANGALORE - India's frontier with China is bristling with tension. Barely two weeks after the two countries reaffirmed commitment to existing mechanisms for dispute settlement, and agreed to maintain peace and tranquility along their border, a major Chinese incursion has taken place into India's Sikkim state.
On June 16, Chinese troops came more than a kilometer into Sikkim's northernmost point - a 2.1-km sliver of land called Finger Point. Only a month ago, Chinese soldiers had threatened to demolish stone structures in the area. That warning was subsequently echoed and endorsed by Chinese officials.
Incursions and skirmishes are frequent along the 4,057-km-long Sino-Indian border - an area that has not been demarcated on maps or delineated on the ground. India and China fought a border war in 1962, which India lost. Besides a fuzzy border, the two sides lay claim to chunks of territory.
India claims some 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin in the northeastern corner of Jammu and Kashmir, an area which China occupied and continues to control. Beijing is also holding 5,180 sq km of land in Kashmir ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963.
China lays claim to around 90,000 sq km of territory in India's northeast, roughly approximating the India state of Arunachal Pradesh. China refers to it as "Southern Tibet".
What is worrying about the incursions over the past year, say intelligence officials, is not just "the increasing frequency" but also "the fact that the Chinese are making deeper forays into Indian territory".
What has irked India about the incursions into Sikkim is that China, after virtually acknowledging Sikkim to be a part of India, is bringing this part of the boundary back into the border dispute. Over 65 incursions have taken place in Sikkim this year.
China's reopening of the Sikkim front and its increased military pressure on India along all sectors of the disputed border appears to be aimed at pushing India to concede to its demands in Arunachal Pradesh, more specifically Tawang. And its claims over Tawang are linked to its bid to cement control over Tibet.
Tawang is situated in the southwestern extremity of Arunachal Pradesh. Its shares borders with Bhutan to its west and Tibet to its north. Nestling in the eastern Himalayas at an altitude of 3,400 meters, Tawang is known for its stunning view of the mountains, alpine weather and Buddhist monasteries.
However, it is not its dramatic landscape and tourism potential that makes Arunachal Pradesh or Tawang a coveted piece of real estate in China's eyes.
Indian army officers say that control over Arunachal, and Tawang in particular, will enable China to militarily overrun the Brahmaputra Valley and the rest of northeastern India. Tawang is a critical corridor between Lhasa and the Brahmaputra Valley.
There is an economic angle, too. Unlike the icy Tibetan plateau, Tawang is fertile and rich in minerals. It has the potential of sustaining Tibet's economy.
And then there is Tawang's link with Tibetan Buddhism and its religious and emotional significance for Tibetans. Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. Perched on a mist-covered spur in Tawang is the 327-year-old Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery, Tibetan Buddhism's biggest monastery, after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. When the present Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, it was through Tawang that he made his way into India, taking refuge at the Tawang Monastery for over a week.
The Tawang Monastery is "a virtual treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist religion and culture" and is seen by Tibetans as the repository of perhaps the last remnants of a Tibet submerged by Han Chinese culture.
Chinese scholars have argued that Tawang is central to Beijing's control over Tibet. "If the border issue is not dealt well, the Chinese central government could face problems from local Tibetan people, who consider Tawang as part of Tibet," Professor Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations told the Press Trust of India in an interview in March 2007, adding that "the Chinese government cannot afford to ignore popular feelings," he said.
This view was echoed by another Chinese scholar a few months later. "Tawang goes beyond the territorial issue. We want to win the hearts of Tibetans. By giving up claims on Tawang, we don't want to be seen not to be protecting Tibetan interests," Wang Yiwei, associate professor at Fudan University told the Indian media in July 2007.
If China's occupation of Aksai Chin was to consolidate military control over Tibet by securing an all-weather overland access to Tibet, its claims over Tawang are aimed at giving its occupation of Tibet religious and cultural legitimacy, underscoring yet again that Tibet lies at the heart of China's border dispute with India.
Interestingly, while China demands Tawang on behalf of Tibetans, the Tibetans are not claiming Tawang to be Tibetan territory. Although during a visit to Tawang in 2003, the Dalai Lama is said to have obliquely referred to Tawang as part of Tibet, he has acknowledged several times the validity of the McMahon Line as per the Simla Agreement (under which Tawang is Indian territory) and recently said that Arunachal is a part of India.
It does seem that China is exploiting the Tibetan reverence for Tawang to push its territorial claims vis-a-vis India.
"Having gobbled up Tibet, the historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations, Beijing now lays claim to Indian territories on the basis of not any purported Han connection to them but supposed Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical influence," points out Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
"The Chinese Government has always conveniently tried to hide behind the Tibetans on this issue," says Claude Arpi, a French Tibetologist living in India.
China's claim to Tawang and Arunachal is not new. During the 1962 war Chinese troops occupied vast swathes of territory here before withdrawing to the McMahon Line that India recognizes as its border with China. In 1987, there was a serious skirmish at Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh.
China's assertion of claims over Arunachal has grown over the past two years. On the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to New Delhi in November 2006, Beijing's ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, told an Indian television channel that "the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it". Then, in May 2007, an Indian civil servant from Arunachal was denied a Chinese visa on the grounds that he was from Chinese territory and hence didn't need a visa.
At negotiations Chinese officials are said to be obdurate on the issue of India handing over Tawang to China. And along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) China has been flexing its muscles through incursions into Indian territory.
Indian analysts have drawn attention to China's basis for its claims over Tawang. "Beijing's claim to Arunachal Pradesh or more specifically to a slice of it, Tawang, flows from Tibet's putative historical or ecclesiastical ties with Arunachal," points out Brahma Chellaney. "An ecclesiastical relationship cannot by itself signify political control of one territory over another," he argues.
If this was a valid ground for territorial claims, then the return of Mount Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet, which is regarded sacred by Hindus, would be a legitimate demand that India should then press.
In 2005, India and China had agreed that "in reaching the boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas". India feels that by laying claim to Arunachal - a populated area - China is brazenly violating earlier agreements.
India has been taking steps to underscore and strengthen its control over Arunachal. Projects worth US$10 billion have been announced to improve the state's economy and connectivity. Military infrastructure here is being improved. And the disputed border in Arunachal, including Tawang, is being opened to foreign tourists.
Will the Chinese go to war with India over Tawang? Mohan Malik, an expert on Sino-Indian relations and professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu writes:
Although the probability of an all-out conflict is extremely low, the prospect that some of India's road building projects in disputed areas could lead to tensions, clashes and skirmishes with Chinese border patrols cannot be completely ruled out. Should a conflict break out, the PLA's [People's Liberation Army] contingency plans emphasize a "short and swift localized" conflict (confined to the Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil conflict) with the following objectives in mind: capture the Tawang tract; give India's military a bloody nose; and deliver a knockout punch that punctures India's ambitions to be China's equal or peer competitor once and for all.Arunachal's chief minister Dorjee Khandu has invited the Dalai Lama to inaugurate a super-specialty hospital in Tawang later this year. Will India stand up to the Chinese and assert its claims over Tawang by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit? And how will the Chinese respond? Expect sparks to fly on the issue.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.