China’s Sensitivity Towards Losing Claim Over Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh


The 81-year-old Nobel laureate and Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama’s visit to India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, has snow balled into a major diplomatic row between India and China.
The advent of this discordant chapter goes back in history to 1959, when Dalai Lama, along with tens of thousands of his disciples, had escaped Chinese oppression by fleeing from Tibet to India and India had agreed to provide asylum to the Tibetans.
The People’s Liberation Army had captured Tibet after defeating the Tibetan army in 1950 and subsequently forced the Tibetan representatives to sign a 17-point agreement with the Chinese Central People’s Government affirming China’s sovereignty over Tibet and its incorporation into China.
Although the 17-point agreement had provided for an autonomous administration in Tibet led by the Dalai Lama, but he rejected the unacceptable agreement and fled to India.
The Dalai Lama, who had initially fought for a “Free Tibet,” realized that this demand was virtually impossible for China to accept. So, he softened his stand and has been demanding for ‘real’ autonomy for Tibet under Chinese sovereignty.
Though, a Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was established in 1965, but it is essentially equivalent in status to any one of the Chinese provinces’.
There is some level of autonomy provided to the region in the areas of education and language policy, but in practice the region is ruled by a Communist Party appointed cohort that is largely Han Chinese.
The existing arrangement is completely unacceptable to the Tibetan people and their spiritual leader Dalia Lama and hence their struggle for self determination goes on till date.
Emergence of Tibet Issue
Historically, India and China have had cordial relations for more than 2,000 years. The traditional Silk Road not only served as a route for trade, but also promoted the spread of Buddhism from India to China.
The People’s Liberation Army defeated the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) of China in a civil war and established the People’s Republic of China on 01 October 1949.
India was amongst the first countries to end formal ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan), and recognize the People’s Republic China (PRC) as the legitimate government of Mainland China in 1950.
Mao Zedong, the Commander of the Liberation Army and the Chairman of the Communist Party of China viewed Tibet as an integral part of the Chinese State and was determined to bring Tibet under its direct administrative and military control.
Tibet serves as a buffer zone between India and China. India regarded the Chinese forceful occupation of Tibet as an act of aggression, while China considered India’s posture on the issue as interference in the internal affairs of the People’s Republic of China.
In order to avoid openly antagonizing the People’s Republic of China, India brokered an agreement between Tibet and China, where, Tibetan delegates signed a 17-point agreement in May 1951 recognizing PRC sovereignty but guaranteeing that the existing political and social system of Tibet would continue.
Tibet – at the Core of Worsening Indo-China Ties
In April 1954, India and the PRC signed an eight-year agreement on Tibet that set forth the basis of their relationship in the form of the Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
The critics of the Panchsheel Agreement call this as a naïve act of Indian PM Nehru, that, in the absence of a credible military wherewithal or a clear policy for defence of the Himalayan region, he saw this as India’s best guarantee of security, by way of establishing a psychological buffer zone in place of the lost physical buffer of Tibet.
The trigger for Indo-China ties to worsen was the decision taken by India to provide asylum to the Tibetan head, Dalai Lama and thousands of refugees, who sought sanctuary in Dharamsala and in Indian North East states in 1959.
Consequently, the People’s Republic of China started accusing India of expansionism into Tibet and throughout the Himalayan region. China claimed 104,000 km² of territory over which India’s maps showed clear sovereignty, and demanded “rectification” of the entire border.
The deterioration of diplomatic ties resulted in the Indo-China war on 20 October 1962. The border clash resulted in a crushing defeat of India as the PRC pushed the Indian forces to within 48 km of the Assam plains in the northeast and also occupied strategic points in Ladakh.
However, under pressure from the world community, China declared a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew 20 km behind its contended line of control on 21 November 1962.
India Toughened its Stand on Border
In late 1967, there were two skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces in Sikkim. The first one was dubbed the “Nathu La incident”, and the other the “Chola incident”, where exchange of heavy fire took place at the Sikkim outpost.
During the whole conflict Indian losses were 88 killed and 163 wounded, while Chinese casualties were 300 killed and 450 wounded in Nathu La, and 40 in Chola.
In 1980, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved a plan to upgrade the deployment of forces around the Line of Actual Control to avoid unilateral redefinitions of the line. India also increased funds for infrastructural development in these areas.
In 1984, squads of Indian soldiers began actively patrolling the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh (formerly NEFA), which is actually north of the McMahon Line as drawn on the Shimla Treaty map.
Statehood to Arunachal Pradesh
India granted statehood to Arunachal Pradesh (formerly the North-East Frontier Agency) in February 1987. This development caused both sides to increase the troop deployment along the border, raising tensions and fears of a new border war.
The PRC relayed warnings that it would “teach India a lesson” if it did not cease “nibbling” at Chinese territory. However, by the summer of 1987, both sides had backed off from the conflict zone.
In order to find a mutually agreeable solution to the problem, six rounds of talks by the Indian-Chinese Joint Working Group on the Border Issue were held between December 1988 and June 1993.
However, no major breakthrough was ever made to break the impasse. China has off and on raked up the border dispute and has often represented against the official visits of Indian dignitaries to Arunachal Pradesh.
Arunachal Pradesh is strategically important to India as it provides a natural Himalayan boundary that protects India from China. In winter South Tibet Himalaya becomes very inhospitable and disables Chinese to hold any part in Arunachal Pradesh. This is one of the reasons why China vacated this territory even after winning it from India in the 1962 Sino Indian war.
Reason for China’s Sensitivity Towards Losing Claim Over Tawang
The Tawang region in Arunachal Pradesh happens to be the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, who was born in 1683, and is considered to be a major centre of Tibetan Buddhism.
The present Dalai Lama has visited the state six times previously, the last being in 2009. Chinese protest to his visit has been the strongest this time around.
As brought about above, Tawang happens to be one of the most significant centres of Tibetan Buddhism. It is widely conjectured that the Dalai Lama, because of his advancing age, may anoint his successor from Tawang.
In order to have a tighter control over Tibet, China wants to control future reincarnations of the Dalai Lama and in case the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is found in a traditionally Tibetan area, like Tawang, which lies outside China’s control, they fear that there could be another generation of Tibetan opposition to the Chinese rule in Tibet.
China disregards the Mc Mohan line as the legal delineation between India and China. It says that this was a demarcation agreed upon between erstwhile British Raj and Tibet.
It claims sovereign rights over the state of Arunachal Pradesh and calls it South Tibet. Most importantly, it is sensitive to losing Tawang for the reasons stated above.
The Chinese foreign ministry has now sent out feelers to India indicating that, if New Delhi agrees to concede only Tawang (and not their earlier claim of the whole of Arunachal Pradesh), Beijing can consider handing back over 30,000 sq km of land in Aksai Chin.
As a consequence of the Dalia Lama’s nine-day visit to Arunachal Pradesh starting from 04 April 2017, Beijing has threatened to take “necessary counter measures” and has said that this visit has “seriously damaged” Indo-China relations.
Competition between China and India to Assume Regional Leadership
China sees India as its major competitor that can assume the role of a regional leader and hence it wants to intimidate and isolate India in the region.
China has highly developed surface and air communication facilities all along the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), especially, opposite Arunachal Pradesh and is in the process of preparing a dozen more airfields in Tibet.
Indian side on the other hand, is highly under developed with difficult terrain and therefore, builds up, movement and reinforcement of troops will be laborious and time consuming.
Assertive stance of China on the border is an indicator that it wants to stake its territorial claims and also dissuade India from building up infrastructure along the border.
Also, by slowly biting into pieces of Indian Territory through continuous intrusions, the Chinese are observing how India’s political leadership and its security forces react to such provocations.
The People’s Liberation Army of China is training for a short and swift conflict preceded by a cyber-offensive. An offensive could involve the use of missiles, anti-satellite weapons, overwhelming firepower and control over the air space. The extent and scale of conflict would depend on Chinese motives and intent.
China’s larger strategy is to isolate India and keep it confined to the back waters of South Asia through its policy of establishing a ‘string of pearls’ by increasing its influence over all neighbours of India, like, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan and of course with its all-time ally Pakistan.
It is indulging in full scale ‘infrastructure diplomacy’ by enhancing its connectivity to our buffer states of Bhutan and Nepal, forging better economic ties with Myanmar by assisting in its gas exploration and infrastructure development in Sri Lanka and Pakistan by building ports, economic corridors etc.
Pakistan – a Dog on Chinese Leash
The major idea behind supplying Pakistan with all the hi-tech military hardware and support all its unethical actions at the global forums is to ensure that it continuously degrades India’s might and depletes its resources by fighting the unconventional low intensity war with Pakistan.
Pakistan on the other hand, has been devising innovative strategies to pitch China against India to strengthen its position against India.
In 1963, Pakistan signed a border agreement with China to illegally cede the Shaksgam Valley in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), around 5,180 sq km, to China.
China has constructed the Karakoram Highway linking Kashghar in Xinjiang with Gilgit and Abbottabad through the Khunjerab Pass in POK.
In the more recent times, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being developed to link Xinjiang province of China with the Gwadar port in Balochistan through POK. Besides the rail-road connectivity, oil and gas pipeline is also being laid to meet China’s express needs of energy.
On 13 November 2016, CPEC became partly operational when Chinese cargo was transported overland to Gwadar Port for onward maritime shipment to Africa and West Asia.
Originally valued at $46 billion, the value of CPEC projects is now worth $54 billion and will help both parties in a major way economically. Thus, China has major economic stakes in Pakistan now and will go to any extent to protect its interests.
Global Geo-political Dynamics and Regional Alliances
The recent surge in the economic and military ties between India and USA has global ramifications. Besides, India’s growing closeness with China’s arch rival, Japan, has also upset Beijing.
The Indo-US joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region that was enunciated by the Indian PM and the previous US President had oblique references to China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea, which invited unsavoury responses from China.
The Trump administration has an even more rigid view about China’s unethical economic policies and maritime aggressive posture in the South China Sea.
Therefore, China has slowly drifted towards the countries which are currently on the hit list of US, like Russia, Iran and Pakistan. This alliance is also being viewed as a counter weight to the improved Indo-US relationship and the hard-line stand of US towards China.
Similarly, Russia is looking for new trading partners in Asia after being severely hit economically by the crippling sanctions imposed by USA and Europe.
Moreover, Europe, which was the major buyer of Russia oil & gas, has now turned towards Africa and countries like Azerbaijan where abundant gas reserves are available.
Under the prevalent circumstances, energy hungry China is its best hope and is being wooed by Russia by laying gas pipelines right up to China. This critical interdependence is likely to bind these two nations more closely.
China’s role in blocking India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its rigid stand against giving permanent membership to India in the UNSC, putting a technical hold on India’s bid to designate the Pakistan-based chief of Jaish-e-Muhamamd (JeM) Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist, its pro-Pakistan position on the Kashmir issue and supplying Pakistan with military hardware are all indicative of China’s cynicism towards India’s growing influence in the region.
Notwithstanding the geo-political equation, both China and India are deeply bound together through economic interdependence. China is India’s single largest trading partner, the bilateral trade during 2016 stood at $70.08 billion.
The bulk of trade was driven by Chinese exports to India, largely comprised of electrical machinery, power equipment and telecom exports, which reached $58.32 billion, accounting for around four-fifths of the total trade.
Hence, contrary to the fears of military escalation due to Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, the situation is likely to return to normal in due course. It was very encouraging to see that the Indian government stood its ground and did not bow down to China’s intimidation.

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