China must realise changing names does not change sovereignty

China has released ‘new’ names for 15 places situated in Arunachal Pradesh. Time for India to reassert its claim on Minsar near Mt Kailash, and support Thimbu in its claims of the eight Bhutanese enclaves located in Western Tibet

Claude Arpi January 14, 2022 16:35:33 IST
China must realise changing names does not change sovereignty

Representational image. News18

Since 1984, the Chinese and Bhutanese officials have been meeting to discuss their common border. The Bhutanese negotiators are usually bullied by the big ‘northern neighbour’ (as the Bhutanese prefer to call China).

A few years ago, during a 'discussion', the Chinese side gave a long presentation about the names of the places which, according to them, proved that Bhutan had occupied Chinese territory at several locations. They started arguing that ‘la’ was a Chinese word (it means ‘pass’ in Tibetan and Bhutanese, not in Chinese). Even after the Bhutanese negotiators told their Chinese counterparts that it was not a Chinese name, the latter continued to insist that the postfix ‘la’ showed that the place belonged to China.

It is then that a smart senior Bhutanese official interrupted the Chinese and asked: “What about Patia-la? Is it a Chinese place?” The Chinese were so much taken by surprise that they kept quiet… at least for some time.

This anecdote came to mind when I read that Beijing had released the second batch of ‘new’ names for places in Arunachal Pradesh. On 30 December, the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing announced that it had “standardised in Chinese characters, Tibetan and Roman alphabet the names of 15 places in Zangnan [they now call thus the southern part of Xizang or Tibet], in accordance with regulations on geographical names issued by the State Council, China's cabinet.”


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Though China has never used this term before, 'Zangnan' is probably an abbreviation of (Xi)Zang is Tibet and 'Nan' is ‘south’ in Mandarin. Why Beijing has used a Chinese abbreviation for the area and Tibetan names for the 15 locations is not very logical, but ‘logic’ is not always the Chinese forte these days.

The 15 places

According to The Global Times, among the official new names of 15 places, which were given with precise coordinates, eight were residential areas, four were mountains (‘ri’ or range in Tibetan), two were rivers (‘chu’) and one is a mountain pass (‘la’ for Sela, between West Kameng and Tawang districts).

It was the second batch of so-called standardised names of places published by the ministry; the first batch naming six places was released in 2017. I shall come back to it.

Contrary to what the Indian media wrongly mentioned, the names are not ‘invented’; they are transcriptions of the Tibetan names for these 15 areas. It is far more serious than ‘invented names’ because by ‘proving’ that these places had Tibetan names, China can come to the easy conclusion that they have been Tibetan places in the past and are therefore Chinese.

The argument is tenuous, but it does not stop China from using it. It however gives a clear message to India: Whatever has been Tibetan (or even has a Tibetan name) belongs to China. One day, places in Ladakh, Sikkim or Kinnaur can thus be claimed.

Lian Xiangmin, from the China Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, explained to The Global Times that “it is part of a national effort to standardise the management of place names. The places have existed for hundreds of years”.

Incidentally, the claim on the North-East Frontier Tracts (later Agency or NEFA) being part of the Chinese territory dates only from the end of the 1930s, when the newly-created Xikang Province engulfed some of these areas of the North East.

Lian said, “It is a legitimate move and China's sovereign right to give them standardised names. More standardised place names in the region will be announced in the future.”

Another so-called expert, Zhang Yongpan, from the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that these areas were named by the central and local (Tibetan) governments “throughout history, as well as ethnic groups such as the Tibetan, Lhoba, and Monba who have long lived in the region”.

Historically, it is again entirely wrong. The move is apparently part of the implementation of the new Land Border Law, which came into effect on 1 January 2022.

The Global Times explained: “The eight residential places in the second batch are Sengkezong [Senge Dzong] and Daglungzong [Taklung Dzong] in Cona [Tsona] County of Shannan [Lhoka] prefecture, Mani'gang [Manigong], Duding [Tuting]and Migpain [Migpan] in Medog [Metok] County of Nyingchi [prefecture], Goling, Damba [Tampa] in Zayu [Zayul] County of Nyingchi, and Mejag [Mechag or Maja] in Lhunze [Lhuntse] County of Shannan.”

It thus continues for the mountains, rivers and a pass.

Why this mixture of different places is not clear and why only 15 names, if the entire State belongs to China (as claimed by Beijing).

The First Batch

Already in 2017, China had announced ‘standardised' names for six places in Arunachal Pradesh. Why four years between the first batch of six names and the present ones? At that time, it seemed a childish reaction to the just-concluded Dalai Lama's visit to the state.

The Chinese media then argued that Beijing's objective was to reaffirm China's claim over 'South Tibet'. Interestingly, a few days earlier, Beijing had started naming ‘Tawang’ as ‘Dawang’, according to its pinyin spelling. Similarly, Tuting in Upper Siang is called ‘Duding’ and Taklung in West Kameng district is named Daklung; simply Chinese people have difficulty pronouncing Tibetan words, particularly ‘Ts’.

In 2017, The Global Times reported that Beijing had standardised in Chinese characters, Tibetan and Roman alphabet the names of the six places “in accordance with the regulations of the central government”.

Urgyeling, the birthplace of Tsangyang Gyaltso, the sixth Dalai Lama, a few kilometres south of Tawang town, became Wo'gyainling. One understands the reason why China is so attached to the place; Beijing would not like to have the 15th Dalai Lama reborn in the area.

Another place was ‘Qoidengarbo Ri’, for 'Chorten Karpo’ or ‘White Stupa’ in Tibetan; this referred to Gorsam Chorten, the only large white stupa in the area (and the largest in Arunachal). It is not far from Ziminthang, the tactical HQ of the 4 Infantry Division during the 1962 War. ‘Ri’ refers to one of the ridges around the stupa.

Mainquka is Menchuka in Shi Yomi district. China was not happy that India just landed a C17 Hercules transport aircraft in the area.

Where is Wuje?

China has renamed places in the past. Just a couple of months after the signature of the infamous Panchsheel in April 1954, surrendering India’s rights in Tibet, China started intruding into India’s territory in Barahoti (today Chamoli’s district of Uttarakhand). Soon Beijing began to talk about a place called ‘Wuje’. It took time for Delhi to discover that Wuje was the same place as Barahoti; but for a couple of years, China managed to confuse Delhi. The reason for the confusion was probably because Beijing did not even know that Wuje/Barahoti was south of Tunjun-la, the main pass in the area and therefore south of the watershed.

This did not deter China to continue to claim the area as being Chinese since immemorial times. This changing of name would be inconsequential, but in the present list two areas are close to the McMahon Line: Maja/Mechag, south of Longju, where a few months ago, China built a new village in Indian territory, is included, so is Tuting (Duding) where the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India in the Upper Siang district. India needs to be ready for any eventualities in these areas.

And the time has perhaps come for India to reassert its claim on Minsar, the Indian principality near Mt Kailash and support Thimbu in its claims of the eight Bhutanese enclaves located in Western Tibet.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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