Sino-Indian ties strained over Arunachal Pradesh: India's China policy is slowly changing

How seriously should India take the Chinese threat over Tibetan the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Tawang and other places in the frontier state of Arunachal? Is this just sabre-rattling by hardline editors of the state run Global Times, or should India take it more seriously, keeping in mind the fact that the press in China reflects the views of the Communist Party of China?

Analyst Alka Acharya, believes India must pay attention to what the Global Times is reiterating over and over again. "So long as India maintained the status quo and kept everything to do with the Dalai Lama at a non-official level, China was ok. There would be a strong reaction as happened during the Tibetan leader's visit to Tawang in 2009, but beyond that, Beijing let it pass." Earlier, Delhi was careful to maintain this protocol. Ministers in government did not attend the Dalai Lama’s program. Last December, for the first time, the Dalai Lama was invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a function and met President Pranab Mukherjee.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Acharya said that this month’s travel by the Dalai Lama was qualitatively different. For one, the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu made the comment that Arunachal shares a border with Tibet, not China. He obviously implied that Tibet is not part of China. Whether Khandu did it with the blessings of the Centre or whipped it up himself is not known. But it is unlikely that a chief minister of a BJP-ruled state would be shooting from the hip on a sensitive issue like this, that too during the Dalai Lama’s visit. This will be seen as Delhi going back on its commitment to a one China policy. Is India actually trying to reverse the policy which was in place since the 1950s? Unlikely, considering not even the US President, the mercurial Donald Trump has dared to do so. Soon after taking over as President, Trump put through a phone call to Taiwan’s president, but since then has been steadily retracting his steps. Since his meeting with President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump has been all praise for China, and appreciative of Chinese sanctions on North Korea.

India’s frustration with China stems from the fact that it has repeatedly batted for Pakistan at the UNSC, by quoting flimsy technical issues over slapping sanctions on Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Azhar Masood. The JEM is already a UN-sanctioned group, but Delhi had moved to include Masood in his personal capacity. What great difference that would make remains open to question. But the fact is that India is angry at this. The other issue is China repeatedly blocking New Delhi’s entry to the Nuclear Supplier Group, a position India had sought after signing a landmark civil nuclear agreement with the US.

Besides this, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which involved building infrastructure projects in PoK (which India claims as its own) has soured ties with China. New Delhi in turn wants to irritate Beijing. The Dalai Lama visit to Arunachal was one way of paying back China. Beijing hit back this week by announcing Chinese, Tibetan and English names to six areas in Arunachal. Justifying the move, a Chinese official said that these names reflect China’s historical, cultural and administrative jurisdiction over the area. China claims the entire state of Arunchal as its own, and over the last ten years has been pitching hard for Tawang, the old monastery town, which it claims as part of South Tibet.

MEA spokeman Gopal Bagley’s sharp retort to the Chinese move was to say at the weekly news briefing conference, "Assigning invented names to the towns of your neighbour does not make illegal territorial claims legal. Arunachal Pradesh is and will always be a part of India."

Both India and China have upped the ante. "If you want to push the envelope, China will do the same," said Acharya. She does not believe that Beijing will at the moment do anything drastic, but will incrementally keep pushing the envelope. India’s determination not to be part of Xi Jinping’s pet one belt one road project, is somehow colouring its vision. Delhi cannot expect all its smaller neighbours to follow suit, considering China is willing to pour money into much needed infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the extended neighbourhood. "The CPEC is crippling India’s strategic imagination," said Alka Acharya.

Considering that Kashmir is on the boil and the Modi government is so far relying mainly on force to deal with the agitation, things may take a crucial turn in the Valley. China in the past had been patronising north-east militant groups, but had stopped doing so for over three decades. That tap can be opened again if necessary. India and China need to sit down and talk before things take an unprecedented turn. The mistaken notion that many within the ruling BJP believe that China respects only a strong leader needs to be dismissed.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 10:17:48 IST

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