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Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
Date of Publish: 2016-08-10

The Frontier Tangle: Arunachal Pradesh and the Murky Sino-Indian Ties


More than five decades have elapsed since the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962 and much water has flown down the Lohit. But the spectre of the devastation still haunts India’s northeastern frontier. China’s territorial claims over Arunahcal Pradesh coupled with India’s reluctance to give in have made the Sino-Indian ties a gloomy affair. The alleged transgression by 250 Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers from across the border into Arunachal Pradesh on 13 June 2016 has brought the issue back to the centre of discussion and has yet again established the significance of Arunachal Pradesh vis-à-vis India-China relations. Neville Maxwell in his 1999 article in the Economic and Political Weekly titled, Sino-Indian Border Dispute Reconsidered stated,

“The Nehru government sought to decide for itself where India’s borders with China would lie and then impose the alignments it had chosen on Beijing, refusing to negotiate them”.

The Indian gesture was obviously not to be accepted without contestations by Beijing. China considers the 1914 demarcation of the border by Sir Henry McMahon (from which India draws) to be irrational and imperialist in nature. The Chinese maps show Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and call it southern Tibet. As a result, the Arunachal Pradesh affair has remained a cornerstone with respect to India-China relations. While the full-scale border conflict of 1962 was a watershed event in relation to territorial aspirations of both India and China in Arunachal Pradesh, there have been a series of intermittent transgressions from across the Chinese side of the McMahon Line post-1962. In addition to minor border transgressions, Beijing’s strategy of denying visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh (citing that AP being an indispensable territory within China’s sovereign reaches, the residents of AP do not require visa to travel to China) and eventually issuing stapled visas has come up as a tool for demonstrating China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh. The issue came up as a hot topic in May 2007 when China denied visa to an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, Ganesh Koyu, then a secretary in the Arunachal Pradesh government. China then in 2010 denied a visa to the Indian Army’s then General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Northern Area Command Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal because he headed the command which comprises of Jammu and Kashmir, which China considered as disputed.

Keeping aside all diplomatic cordialities between India and China, a fact that both the sides are destined to live with is that neither can negate the existence of the other and shall have to co-exist in the realist world of “self-help”. Namrata Goswami in a 2011 article titled, China’s Aggressive Territorial Claim on India’s Arunachal Pradesh: A Response to Changing Power Dynamics in Asia accords realist International Relations competition and “balance of power” calculations to be the driver of China’s strategy towards Arunachal Pradesh. On almost all occasions when India has come closer to the United States or has rather made an attempt to demonstrate its eminence, China has responded accordingly and Arunachal Pradesh has been the ground for play.  It was probably in the wake of India-US Civil Nuclear Deal of 2005 and India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2008 that the Chinese obsession with AP came to fore even more. Denial of visa to Koyu in 2007, blocking of a ADB project for India in 2009 which included a fund allotment of USD 60 million for development of AP, assertion by the Chinese envoy to India in 2006 that “the whole of the state of AP is Chinese territory” are sufficient enough reasons to justify the claim. The 13 June 2016 border transgressions for that matter further justifies the claim given the talks at that time of India’s membership in the coveted Nuclear Suppliers Group and US assistance in helping India achieve it. Given the concurrent aspirations of the two rising post-colonial powers to establish eminence in an emerging Asia, the Arunachal Pradesh tangle is expected to be far from getting resolved very soon and the imperative for both sides shall be to effectively engage with the issue.

The Chinese approach has been more or less persistent and Beijing has come up with considerable infrastructure connecting the areas contiguous to Arunachal Pradesh. Repeated maneuvering of the PLA soldiers along and on many occasions across the border makes the Chinese persistence more than explicit. On the other hand, India’s attempt to reach out to its peripheral region has met with several setbacks as of now. Arunachal Pradesh in particular and the entire North Eastern region of India in general has been witnessing a communication bottleneck given its dependence on the 20kms wide Siliguri corridor connecting the region with mainland India. There have been agreements of late between New Delhi and Dhaka in terms of Bangladesh ensuring a transit through latter’s territory to connect the northeastern frontier but the optimisms of such arrangements are still far from visible given domestic differences in Assam in terms of dealing with Bangladesh. Hence, the connectivity bottlenecks would continue unless better alternatives are drafted. The limited existence of the Indian State in Arunachal Pradesh has kept the masses in deprivation of the fruits of modernity and development. The most common idea of development that the populace has come across is the concept of mega dams which they are anyways opposed to, given the expected environmental costs of such projects. Away from the narratives of India’s rapid economic growth and the newly attained prestige in international arena thus remains Arunachal Pradesh in lack of adequate health care, roads, industrial self-sustainability, proper communication facilities etc. The indifference of the masses towards state sovereignty has been yet another shortcoming for New Delhi and the change of name from North East Frontier Agency to a more sanskritizied nomenclature of Arunachal Pradesh has borne less fruits in terms of integrating the Arunachali psyche into a greater national identity. The population based representation in the Parliament has overlooked the strategic relevance of Arunachal Pradesh. Democracy is a game of numbers and thus the two representatives from Arunachal Pradesh in the Lok Sabha are mostly unable to make considerable bargain for the state. Thus in the way of India’s aspirations to attain an eminence in Asia vis-à-vis China calls for a well-thought-of frontier policy so as to ensure that Beijing cannot make Arunachal Pradesh the cornerstone each time India nears to the US or makes an attempt to assert her eminence. The 13 June, 2016 transgression by PLA should thus be an eye-opener for New Delhi and steps must be taken so as to avert situations like that of 1962.

Uddipta Ranjan Boruah

(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi. Views expressed are the author's own. He can be reached at uddiranbx@gmail.com )


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