China's Arunachal gambit: 1962 unlikely but India must recognise Dragon's psychological warfare
India must resist the temptation to dismiss China's move as a game of silly nomenclature.
As this column had argued recently, there is something apparently schoolboyish about China's move to rename six places in Arunachal Pradesh.
And yet, India must not remain blind to the larger design. It must resist the temptation to dismiss China's move as a game of silly nomenclature. It is not. There is quite a bit of method in this madness.
To begin with, this is far from just a retaliation against India for allowing the 14th Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. That may have served as an immediate provocation. We would be sorely mistaken, though, to remain under the assumption that had the Tibetan spiritual guru not visited the northeastern state, China would have not taken this step.
Weight of history alone should be enough to dismiss that illusion. China's position on Arunachal Pradesh, what it calls 'South Tibet', has undergone a series of flip-flops since 1914 when the tripartite Simla Conference between British India (as part of Great Britain), Tibet and China upheld the legality of McMahon Line. India shared, even during its Independence, no common boundary with China. This situation was permanently altered when Chinese troops marched into the buffer state of Tibet in 1950.
Four years later, Jawaharlal Nehru gave legitimacy to China's occupation of Tibet through the signing of 'Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India,' better known as the Panchsheel Agreement.
As historian and Tibetologist Claude Arpi writes in Tibet — The Lost Frontier, this was a historic blunder that negated the will of Tibetans, resulted in India's loss of strategic advantage arising from Simla Conference and sanctified China's expansionism. In this bad deal, India was guided by Nehru's idyllic philosophy while China was focused on self-interest.
"Beijing got what it wanted: the omission of Demchok pass in the Treaty, (leaving the door of Aksai Chin open), the removal of the last Indian jawans from Tibet, the surrender of Indian telegraphic lines and guest houses, but first and foremost the Indian stamp of approval on their occupation of Tibet."
The Panchsheel Agreement will go down in history as the key determinant of Sino-Indian relationship. For the next few years, India's discomfort at Chinese military presence grew as the PLA insisted on negating the McMahon Line and used frequent incursions on to the Indian side of the boundary to render it as a flexible, negotiable demarcation instead of a legalised boundary.
As former Indian NSA and one-time envoy to China Shivshankar Menon notes in his book Choices, when Nehru raised the topic with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, he was assured that "China has no claims on Indian territory". And yet, five years later in 1959, we find the first written assertion from China that McMahon Line is 'disputed' and the entire Sino-Indian boundary line should be renegotiated.
China presented a solution. As Menon notes in his book, in 1960, Zhou offered to accept McMahon as the boundary in the east (that would include the whole of Arunachal) if India is ready to accept the status quo in Aksai Chin, which India considered a legitimate part of Jammu and Kashmir.
While we were lost in the dream of Sino-Indian brotherhood that would 'change the world', China was aggressively scaling up infrastructure near Into-Tibetan border and building roads in Aksai Chin.
Following the 1962 war, the Sino-Indian boundary settlement issue was kept in freezer as India was busy licking its wounds and China in dousing Tibetan rebellion.
It was not until 1985, notes Menon, that China made its intentions clear. In the 23 intervening years, it had built up a formidable network of infrastructure and prior to Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1988, it demanded that India hand over Tawang in return for an early settlement of boundary dispute. There were indications that Aksai Chin might be part of the swap deal. Note the change in Chinese position.
In subsequent years, Chinese position has increasingly hardened. To the extent that not only has Aksai Chin deal been withdrawn, the red lines along the 4,056 km boundary line has come under increasing pressure despite the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement.
PLA's incursion during Xi Jinping's visit made it clear — even as Narendra Modi was extending the red carpet — that the Chinese president was more intent in showing that India can never take the Line of Actual Control for granted and Beijing will continue to treat the McMahon Line as a tool for negotiation.
This perspective is necessary as we see the latest developments in northeast. Despite the incendiary language in China's state-controlled media, it is unlikely that PLA will attempt a repeat of 1962.
Chinese foreign policy is based on realism. It uses a unique 'punishment and reward' policy to influence smaller neighbours while larger geopolitical rivals are treated to a policy of incrementalism. It may inch forward, test the red lines before retreating but in doing so, effect a minuscule alteration of ground situation.
As Indrani Bagchi noted in a column in The Times of India: "China is playing the same game in South China Sea and PoK – inch forward, but altering the ground situation irrevocably on the way. In fact, the PLA’s frequent incursions/ transgressions (whatever you will) also have the same aim of marking territory. China is using both infrastructure and political tools to make Pakistan 'own' PoK."
It also uses Sinocentrism as a tool for cultural dominance. Consider the nomenclatures in six places of Arunachal. According to the Global Times report that used Roman alphabets to denote the names, these are: Wo'gyainling, Mila Ri, Qoidêngarbo Ri, Mainquka, Bümo La and Namkapub Ri. Quoting a Beijing University professor, the report said, "naming the places is a step to reaffirm China's territorial sovereignty to South Tibet."
These names, aver experts, are China's way of extending cultural hegemony over an area where it claims territorial rights. This is an old game played by the Chinese. Sinocentrism and military advances are used as complementary tools to extend geopolitical influence underwritten by imperialism.
Strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi writes in Hindustan Times, "China has long mastered the art of 'lawfare' or the system through which legal claims are put forward to delegitimise adversaries. Renaming places is not something new. So the Chinese call the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as the Xisha and Nansha islands or the Senkaku islands which they dispute with Japan as the Diaoyu islands. So Aksai Chin which India claims as being part of Jammu & Kashmir is occupied by China and is said to be the southwestern part of the Hotan Prefecture of Xinjiang."
Why China may not go to war with India
Where we must be careful in distinguishing Chinese strategy in South China Sea from Arunachal Pradesh is that it may not prefer a military confrontation with India. Apart from mercantile benefits that it enjoys due to a huge trade imbalance with India, controlling the ladders of escalation of even a limited war against a nuclear-armed nation is fraught with difficulties. Besides, it is not in China's nature to advertise geo-strategy.
The editorial published on Friday in Global Times, where it issues a naked threat of war against India should be reason enough to believe that the intention is intimidation, not prior warning of an impending war.
It writes, "India seems to have become trapped in its stubbornness to measure its strength with China. But territorial disputes cannot be settled by comparing which side is stronger or which country has more leverage. Otherwise, there is no need for Beijing to sit down with New Delhi at the negotiating table… It is time for India to do some serious thinking over why China announced the standardized names in South Tibet at this time. Playing the Dalai Lama card is never a wise choice for New Delhi. If India wants to continue this petty game, it will only end up in paying dearly for it."
The message is clear. China is already in war against India except that this is psychological warfare, designed to dominate the adversary in a mental game of one-upmanship. The motto here is dominance. This is part of China's larger geopolitical strategy. If it can extend its regional domination over its biggest rival in south Asia, that gives China'e hegemony unquestionable heft.
India would do well to note it and upgrade its strategic infrastructure along the Sino-Indian boundary line but should not get sucked into a game of issuing provocative statements. A clear, calm head and understanding of each other's red lines should be enough.
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