By Subramanyam Sridharan
On April 3, China released a new set of names in Mandarin for 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh (AP). This is a continuation of similar efforts by China in 2021 and 2017 when it “renamed” 15 and six places, respectively. As earlier, the “renamed” places include mountains, rivers, mountain passes and habitations and cover the breadth and depth of Arunachal Pradesh from Tawang in the West to Walong in the East and Upper Siang in the North to Lower Siang in the South.
India has rejected such Chinese (mis)adventures as utterly incapable of altering the ground reality, which is that Arunachal Pradesh “has always been and will always be an integral part of India”.
As a revisionist state, Chinese actions are unsurprising. So, what are China’s aims and what is it up to? Modern-day China’s 28 provinces, including Autonomous Regions, can be geographically divided into two distinct parts, the Han core which comprises of the 12 alluvial eastern provinces (from Hebei in the north east to Hunan in the south west) bracketed by the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and the non-Han periphery. China’s problems have always been its non-Han periphery. The problems stem for multiple reasons.
The emperors of earlier dynasties might have claimed whatever land they set their sights on, but the Han are unsure that minzu (ethnic minorities) in peripheries like Yunnan, Tibet, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Mongolia, Ningxia and Manchuria have been fully sinicised. An old Chinese proverb presciently declared: “The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away.”
Secondly, the Chinese covet these peripheries for their rich resources too. For example, apart from being the Third Pole, after the Arctic and the Antarctic whose water is needed to quench the arid north, Tibet also has immense reserves of minerals.
The Arunachal problem arises from China’s illegal and violent annexation of Tibet. China has been waging a long and unremitting (il) legal war of multiple dimensions over AP. For example, it has always denied visas to Indians from AP claiming that as Chinese, they did not need a visa.
In 2009 and 2021, China successfully blocked the Asian Development Bank (ADB) loans for development works in AP including for the “North East Economic Corridor”. This contrasts with China’s dismissal of Indian objections to its investments in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). China simply says that the China-PoK-Pakistan-Economic Corridor, C(P) PEC, is purely a development project, an argument it rejects when it comes to AP.
In 2009, China objected to visits by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Dalai Lama to AP. It also objected to the meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Indian PM. Peeved by a speech by the Dalai Lama in Kolkata, China postponed indefinitely the 15th round of border talks. In February, 2012, China reacted sharply to the visit to AP by Defence Minister AK Antony.
China also took strong exception to the Dalai Lama’s meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee in December 2016 as also the visit of the US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, to AP on October 22, 2016. When the Dalai Lama announced his upcoming visit to Tawang in 2017, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said: “It does no good to peace and tranquility in the border areas…” In early March 2017, China issued another warning saying: “…it will cause serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations.” An upset China postponed the Russia-India-China trilateral scheduled for April 2017. A few weeks later, the PLA attacked Indian bunkers at the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China on June 16, 2017. It became the most serious stand-off in the earlier three decades and lasted well over two months.
On November 14, 2019, China objected to the visit of Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to AP. Speaking there, Singh termed the people living on the borders as India’s “strategic assets” and said the road to a “new India” ran through a “new North-East”. China has also objected to the visit by Home Minister Amit Shah in early April this year.
Just a few weeks after celebrating 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in July 2021 and even as the Ladakh situation was raging, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unannounced visit to Nyingchi, a militarily-sensitive town only a few kilometres north of central AP’s Line of Actual Control (LAC). Speaking with Buddhist monks at Lhasa later, he urged them to “support the leadership of the Communist Party of China”, saying ominously that CCP would “actively guide the development of Tibetan Buddhism”. Later, he also met personnel of the Tibet Military District, a part of the Western Theatre Command.
These events conveyed several messages: a warning to India as Xi Jinping almost came to the AP border, a warning to Dalai Lama that China was determined to sinicise Buddhism to make it comply with “Chinese characteristics” and a potential signal to the Western Theatre Command. Soon afterwards, the Tibet Military Command performed large-scale military exercises conveying the clear activation of one more front against India.
On December 9, 2022, PLA soldiers, in an action reminiscent of Galwan in May/ June 2020, attacked Indian soldiers at Yangtse in AP, which an alert Indian Army beat back.
What could be the reasons for this muscle flexing? China’s opaque system of governance, its “bamboo curtain”, as well as the “multiple aims” with which it approaches most issues (in order to maximise its gains) make it quite difficult to analyse its moves and intentions. Some of the reasons for its latest move can be the following:
- The annual Yudh Abhyas exercise between India and the US was conducted very close to the LAC, for the first time, in Uttarakhand in November/December 2022. China lodged protests both with India and the US. As China normally engages in an “immediate punishment” reprisal, this might be related to that. Some believe that Doka La was triggered by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in 2017.
- Among non-kinetic operations during peace times, China emphasises “Legal Warfare”. So, it manufactures history and evidence to buttress its claims. The Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage of China ridiculously claims the South China Sea (SCS, or more appropriately Indo-China Sea or ICS) because of discovery of Chinese pottery and porcelain. Thus, myth-making substitutes for history in China.
- On March 16, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the US Congress to recognise AP as an integral part of India. With a consistent US stand on AP especially in the current state of play between the US and China, such a bill should have crossed a Chinese tripwire.
- China might have felt that as India holds the presidency of the G-20 as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) for 2023, it may disregard Chinese transgressions because it needs its cooperation to successfully conclude the upcoming summits. China simply took advantage of the situation, as it did in 1962 and May 2020.
- China, with its dire current economic situation, wants bigger trade with India, but Delhi has not been forthcoming. The recent visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to Delhi did not go well as India bluntly said that the relationship was “abnormal”. India also chaired the QUAD foreign ministers’ meet during the same time Qin was in Delhi. Therefore, this could be another manifestation of its “immediate punishment” approach.
- As the choice of the next Dalai Lama looms large, China wants to ensure that its choice is accepted by the Tibetans, and Tawang’s significance and the old monastery there could be helpful in Chinese calculations.
While one may never know the real reason(s) for Chinese actions, one can only infer them through the prism of its past actions, its avowed doctrines of which only some are known and by interpolating the stated goals of Xi Jinping with Chinese actions on the ground.
Past experience shows that India has to be extremely vigilant along the AP border.
—The writer is a distinguished member of the Chennai Center for China Studies. His book Space Situation Awareness and China is in print