The vehemence of China’s reaction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh last week to inaugurate two development projects is both difficult to comprehend and digest. This is not the first time that an Indian prime minister has visited Arunachal Pradesh. China has protested before but less acrimoniously.
This attempt at browbeating India comes in the background of improved bilateral relations and willingness to expand economic ties. The language used by the Chinese vice-foreign minister, the press release issued by the Chinese foreign ministry, the summoning of our ambassador to lodge an exaggerated protest and China’s fulminations over two days should make us seriously reassess China’s strategy towards India and the wisdom of our defensive China policy.
That China should at all protest if our prime minister visits Arunachal Pradesh makes little sense. The Chinese position on Arunachal Pradesh is well-known; its reiteration does not make its claim any stronger — it only hardens India’s determination to protect its territory. It also intensifies distrust of China and negative perceptions of that country. The overall development of ties is also impeded by this constant reminder of China’s aggressive intentions towards India.
China has studiously escalated its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. It began calling Arunachal Pradesh South Tibet a few years ago, and subsequently sought to emphasise its Tibetan identity by giving Tibetan names to invented sub-divisions within it, with the clear intention to buttress its “historical” claim to the territory by imputing Tibetan administrative control over it. In the latest admonition to India, the Chinese spokesperson claims that the so-called Arunachal Pradesh was largely established in “three areas of China’s Tibet-Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul” and that these areas “have always been Chinese territory”.
The Chinese vice-foreign minister told our ambassador arrogantly that Modi’s visit undermined “China’s territorial sovereignty, right and interests” and “violates the consensus to appropriately handle the border issue.” For China now Arunachal Pradesh is no longer “disputed territory”, it is China’s sovereign territory. It is also inventing a “consensus” that Indian leaders will not visit Arunachal Pradesh in deference to China’s position.
China is clearly unconcerned about the impact of its outrageous claims on Indian public opinion. The enormous financial resources at its command and its rising global stature explain its diplomatic swagger. It probably assumes that the power gap between it and India has now grown so big that it can set one-sided terms of engagement with India.
Our defensive approach to China has emboldened it to challenge us territorially. We have complied with its strategy of not clarifying the Line of Actual Control and hold in abeyance a solution to the border issue. We have declared a strategic and cooperative strategic partnership with China even when it systematically challenges our strategic interests in our immediate neighbourhood. We have agreed in joint statements to support each other in enhancing friendly relations with common neighbours for win-win results; this negates our concerns about Chinese policies towards Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and so on. We have supported the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Economic Corridor, including people-to-people exchanges, overlooking Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh and the dangers of giving the Chinese access to our Northeast at the people-to-people level.
We have agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation on maritime security, which legitimises China’s presence in the Indian Ocean when its penetration there poses a strategic threat to us. We are endorsing civil nuclear cooperation with China, which erodes our objections to the China-Pakistan nuclear axis.
With Modi intending to visit China in May this year, the Chinese government is brutally hammering home its position on border differences with India, with least concern about Delhi’s sensitivities. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s talks in Beijing earlier this month with Chinese leaders, including President Xi, when she was there for the Russia-India-China meeting at the foreign ministers’ level, was, with hindsight, over-projected as a success, judging by China’s intemperate reaction to Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. She had spoken there about exploring an early out-of-the-box solution to the border issue. It is time we ceased being the advocate of out-of-the-box-solutions, because then we invite on ourselves the onus for showing flexibility, which implies moving away from our established positions. We should learn from the adamant position that China adheres to on the border issue. Its position on Arunachal Pradesh, far from indicating any out-of-the-box thinking, remains rigid and unyielding. China has, in fact, hardened its position rather than finding a pragmatic way out of the impasse.
We must not try to underplay this Chinese challenge to our territorial sovereignty because Modi’s planned China visit in May should not get complicated. If China is intent on making its position clear to the point of inflicting a diplomatic slap on our face, we must react. We should put out a strong statement denouncing China’s stand, calling it provocative, based on invented history and untimely in view of India’s willingness to build on shared interests with it. We should consider sending our defence minister to Tawang immediately. With the latest enunciation of China’s uncompromising position on Arunachal Pradesh, the mechanism of the special representatives (SRs) has lost its purpose and postponing the planned meeting of the SRs in March should be considered. Not doing it would suggest acceptance of China’s latest “terms of reference”.