Update - Special Report
08. Nov 2009

ISSN: 1864-1407

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Border games. Rectifying an inconvenient history.

The visit of the Dalai Lama to the north east Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet, has been met with furious denunciations from the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). The visit brings to the fore two issues irksome for Beijing - its Tibet problem and the Sino-Indian border imbroglio, both of which China has been able to manage since the 19th century with varying success, but never resolve to its satisfaction. The border issue, despite being often regarded as the results of India's failure to timely adopt pro-Tibetan positions, is linked less by a causal relationship to Tibet's disputed status than by a common origin, China's historic failure to deal in a judicious and sensible way with the Himalayan region as a whole. Qing dynasty China, lacking effective clout in the region but maintaining imperial hubris, chose not to cooperate with the British Empire in sorting out their relationship with the Himalayas. The British in contrast were not interested in territorial gain, but just in securing the borders of their own empire. They also wanted to promote trade and actively sought to engage China by, as an example, consistently refusing to recognise Tibetan independence. Rather than seek closure and come to terms with a generally benign independent India, the PRC chose to pursue an aggressive and uncompromising route of enforcing its claims, embedded in a vengeful discourse of re-establishing presumed past grandeur and redress perceived grievances, like the Tibet-Himalaya deal, which is at the core of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) power. Having achieved all its strategic goals in the Himalayan region following the integration of Tibet and the border war with India in 1962, the PRC has been using Arunachal, a territory widely useless to it, as a pawn in a unilaterally defined bargaining chip for a future settlement with India. India's reaction to recent antagonism over Arunachal was testimony to its growing self-confidence in facing up to China. New Delhi chose to demonstrate that Chinese pressures on the border would not provoke it, at the same time as enhancing its defence infrastructure. It let it be known that the Dalai Lama is an "honoured guest", and is therefore free to travel to any part of India, including areas claimed by the PRC. In doing this, India showed that it would maintain its moderate stance on Tibet and only accept compromises concerning the border if China gives up more than theoretical claims. Finally, it made it clear it is not prepared to accept any diktat of the 'unequal treaty' type, such as the sort China has sought to replace with its own inconclusive policies in the Himalayan region.

Parallel histories
Until the late 19th Century, the relationships between the various political constituencies in most of the Tibet-Himalaya region and the delineation of their borders was subject to categories hardly compatible with today's concepts of nation states and international frontiers. The agreement between Qing China and British India in 1890, which defined the principality of Sikkim as a British protectorate and set its northern border at Tibet, represented the first attempt to draw on more modern concepts of political cleavage over the north-south Himalayan divide(1). Up until then, Sikkim had been a tributary state of Tibet. Further attempts by the British to clarify ‘traditional boundaries' in the eastern and western sector of the Himalayas, in particular the forest-clad, vast and then largely unexplored region between Bhutan and Burma, today known as Arunachal, and the Aksai Chin, a desolated region adjacent to Ladakh, led to nowhere, neither did attempts to clarify the status of Tibet, since China, concerned by its lack of effective power in the region refused to even negotiate.

Tawang monastery
Determined to put an end to what they perceived to be an untidy situation, Calcutta, the capital of British India until 1911, began to focus on directly pressuring the Dalai Lama's government in Lhasa. This culminated in the military expedition to Lhasa of 1904. Although they were decisive in loosening the Manchu Empire's remaining grasp on Tibet, the British, consistently refused to recognise an independent Tibet. Instead, they laid out the concept of Tibetan "suzerainty" under China, as opposed to Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, a vital difference to the concept of an independent Tibet – a notion that was reaffirmed by the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1906, and not formally rescinded until 2008(2).

The last British attempt to engage China in restructuring the region was the tripartite conference held at the North Indian hill-station of Simla (now known as Shimla) in 1914(3), which defined an ‘Inner Tibet' (roughly the regions known to Tibetans as Amdo and eastern Kham) that was to remain under full Chinese jurisdiction and an ‘Outer Tibet', adjacent to India, for which a rather fuzzy autonomy status was foreseen. It also set the eastern sector of the border between ‘Outer Tibet' and British India along a British-drawn boundary, the McMahon Line. This was not based on the ethnicity of territory but on geographical features and placed the divide on a vaguely defined ‘crest' rather than on the foothills of the Himalayas as it tended to be understood before, at least by the Tibetans. In order to counter China's refusal to accept the arrangement, the British determined that, until China ratified the Simla Accord, they would interact with ‘Outer Tibet' as a factually independent entity (which they probably intended to do anyway). Despite Tibetan protestations they again refused to formally recognise it as independent. China never ratified the accord, but maintained its general claim over the Tibet-Himalaya region.

Following Indian independence in 1947 and the advent of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, both countries went about addressing the colonial legacy, labelled by the then Indian PM Nehru "imperialist sequels". Both countries agreed to proceed while preserving the status quo, but they turned out to have deeply divergent views on what this entailed.

India favoured a course of accommodation based on the rules and practices left by the British. It prepared to deal with Tibet, the former ‘Outer Tibet', as a self-governing entity. It mapped the western border sector, including the Aksai Chin, and in Tawang district, the ethnic Tibetan region of today's Arunachal, south of the McMahon Line, they replaced the administrator who had previously been posted by the Tibetans, but with tacit British agreement(4), with an Indian officer on 12 February 1951.

China pursued a more aggressive agenda of restoring a presumed status quo ante, i.e. one that involved the perceived 'historical rights' of the Qing dynasty that existed over the region before the grasp of Western Imperialism, disregarding the quality of their actual implementation, as well as the fact that in the meantime the political conditions on the ground had evolved. This strategy however, was inherently problematic, because of the incompatibility of traditional concepts of territory, borders and administration with modern nation state practice, and, more importantly, because it ran up against local developments, particularly the Tibetans' wish to settle their own affairs.

Unilateral compromises and the making of a pawn
China swiftly altered ground realities by ending Tibet's de facto independence and absorbing it through the Seventeen Point Agreement of 1951. Irritated by the incursions of Chinese troops into Tibet, India initially facilitated Tibetan resistance, for instance by tolerating a US supply of weapons through its territory. But as soon as 1954, it willingly backed the new status quo by signing the enthusiastic Sino-Indian treaty of 1954, known as the Panchsheel Agreement, which was meant to be a milestone in the post-Imperialism era, and that unconditionally acknowledged Tibet as a part of China. The move was probably intended to accommodate China and facilitate constructive trans-Himalayan relationships to deal with its now well-perceived and ardent desire to redefine the Tibet-Himalayan settlement. But China's intransigent drive to rectify the legacy of history rather than accommodate it proved an insurmountable obstacle. Developments like the growing Tibetan resistance against the PRC, the take-over of the Minsar enclave(5) and the secret construction of a road by the PLA in the Aksai Chin, and simply ignoring India's claim over it, led to confrontation.

The only concession advanced by Beijing was the retention of the McMahon Line, but only if the 1914 accord, perceived by China as an ‘unequal treaty' and unilaterally imposed, was revoked and some territorial adjustments agreed that would delineate it as a new line. Beijing's position was meant to be a quid pro quo for the Aksai Chin. For Beijing it was an easy compromise; the territory south of the McMahon Line, then known as the North Eastern Frontier Area (NEFA), today's Arunachal Pradesh, is of hardly any strategic or economic interest to China and due to its position south of the mountain ridge, difficult to access and defend militarily. In addition, the population was understood to be hostile to China, at least since its take-over of Tibet.

Finally, in 1962, small-scale border encounters escalated into a full-fledged military conflict that swept away the ill-prepared Indian troops and ended in total disaster for India. China asserted its claim over the Aksai Chin in full and overran Indian troops in the Tawang district of NEFA/Arunachal. However, after the conflict, China unilaterally withdrew its troops from most of Tawang, probably because it had realised in full its objective of exchanging the strategically important Aksai Chin(6) for a territory valueless to China.

Overnight, Indian attitudes towards China were reversed following the defeat of 1962. Many Indians, not the less Prime Minister Nehru himself, had felt a sense of solidarity with China in a community that had rid Asia of Western Imperialism and was now ready to steer towards a better future, which as the biggest nations in the world they would commonly shape. This is at the origin of the ‘smart China vs. gullible India' concept that is nowadays a common place in the inner-Indian political discourse and often used by the opposition to castigate the incumbent government. The enthusiastic slogan of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai that characterised the friendship between the two Asian giants had now been replaced with a bitter rivalry; a rivalry perhaps encouraged by the long-standing Western tradition of comparing the two nations, generally to the detriment of India. From 1962 onwards, the border remained a place of regular tensions with some heavy clashes occurring in September and October 1967 at the Sikkim border, at Nathu La and at Cho La. The resumption of full diplomatic relations in 1976 did not prevent a further, relatively minor clash in Sumdorong Chu valley, Arunachal, as late as 1984.

Only Rajiv Gandhi's groundbreaking visit to China in December 1988 breathed new life into Sino-Indian relations and a working committee was set up to discuss the border issue. But the Treaty of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) signed in 1993, and some more confidence building measures that followed in 1996, all fell short of settling the frontier once for all. Despite several attempts, it proved impossible even to map the LAC, because of China's fears that it might well end up with that being understood as the final border. At the core of the dispute is the PRC's insistence that the issue can only be resolved on the basis of a ‘package solution' i.e. one that would involve both, the eastern sector, Arunachal Pradesh, and the western sector, the Aksai Chin, bordering Ladakh. India, on the other hand, seeks to deal with both sectors as separate problems, as they have historically been seen. In other words, whereas India sees the conflict primarily as a territorial dispute, it remains for China an issue of principles. Indeed, should India get its way, the PRC's decade-long strategy would appear unsuccessful, for, as an overview of the last decades reveals, Beijing appears to have never seriously envisaged a revision of the McMahon Line to the extent that it would re-incorporate today's Arunachal Pradesh.

Even before the clash of 1962, China's then foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, consistently argued, in writing as well as through public statements, that the PRC claimed the whole Aksai Chin as its own and that this position was not negotiable, whereas he gave strong hints that Beijing in return could well imagine accepting the McMahon Line and thus leave NEFA/Arunachal with India. This would be provided India would agree to some individual adjustments of a cosmetic nature so that China would not be seen as accepting what it consistently calls the "illegal McMahon Line" drawn by the colonialists. It would instead accept a new "legal" one, albeit one that would be more or less the same. Mao Zedong himself clarified this position with Khrushchev when the USSR tried to mediate between the two countries in 1959. The same position was in principle upheld by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. In other words, the PRC intended from beginning to come to a compromise, but only one it had itself crafted in advance, ignoring the obvious fact that a unilateral compromise is a contradiction in terms. From this perspective, Arunachal is and likely remains for China nothing but a pawn.

Maintaining pressure at any price
For many years however, China's claim over Arunachal was out of the spotlight, remaining in the shadow of another, apparently more promising pawn, Sikkim, which had formally become part of India in 1974-57. China never claimed Sikkim as its own, but it refused to accept India's incorporation of it, and still fairly recently listed the region as a separate independent state on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the description: "The Chinese Government does not recognize India's illegal annexation of Sikkim". Beijing's change of mind on Sikkim came with the recognition that reopening Nathu La for border trade, the pass that links Sikkim to Tibet, was in its own best interest, and so it was agreed during Indian PM Vajpayee's visit to China in 2003(8). Officially, the move was not a formal recognition by China of Sikkim as a part of India, but within a few months, China quietly gave up all claims of Sikkimese independence.

View of Tawang town
Since then, the focus of contention has returned to the eastern border sector, and hence Arunachal Pradesh. This is particularly apparent through Indian press reports about border incidents, not just in Arunachal Pradesh, that are described in loaded terms at various emotional levels. Words like "transgressions"; "incursions"; "intrusions"; and "violations" are common. Indian media most frequently report 400 as the number of border incidents that took place over the period 2005-8, in Arunachal and other places. However, that there were 140 of these reported in 2007, a relatively quiet year in political terms, as opposed to 2006 and 2008, indicates that an often assumed link between political turbulence in Tibet and border incidents is a mere sophistry. In the tumultuous Olympic year 2008, for no clear reasons, between 65 and 70 cases were reported up to June 2008 in the co-called ‘Finger Area' of Sikkim(9). According to The Indian Express, Chinese troops destroyed a makeshift bunker at Doka La near the Sino-Sikkim-Bhutan frontier in May 2008. The same newspaper recapitulated in August 2008 the major recent incidents. More recently, in late summer 2009, rocks were allegedly spray painted with red characters marking the place as Chinese territory close to Gya on the Ladakh sector, i.e. well inside the Indian controlled area and clearly outside any contentious territory.

Although much is being written about such incidents, most of them escape the scope of any serious fact-based assessment. Just about all of them are off limits to non-military personnel, and the Indian authorities deny independent witnesses access to the sites of presumed border incidents. Certain details also raise serious concerns about accuracy. For instance, in the majority of reports about incidents the distance from the line of control is specified. But these measurements are questionable as in most places the line of actual control is not clarified. Nor does the practice amongst Indian journalists of reporting border incidents more often during and around the times of regular Sino-Indian border talks contribute to their credibility. Neither does the fact that they are used effusively by opposition politicians and their sympathisers to expose the alleged incompetence of the government in protecting Indian territory and national pride. Although being built on the back of Indian perceptions of an on-going enmity with China, they reflect more the domestic Indian political climate rather than bi-national relations. Finally, with additional alleged details emerging and bouncing between different sources, the few seemingly available facts, where available at all, become difficult to assess, casting doubts about the veracity of many reports, and beyond that whether they are wholly bogus in the first place, pseudo-incidents staged by some agent provocateur. For instance, reports about the incident in Ladakh of summer 2009 claimed that inscriptions in red paint on the rocks marked the place: "Part of Red China". This vocabulary however hardly corresponds to any current Chinese self-depiction. The outdated expression of the Cold War era is however still in use in India, particularly among the Tibetan exile community(10).

There is little doubt that Chinese border troops at times intentionally venture beyond the line they know the Indian side are regarding as their border, and considering the wide reporting of it by the Indian media, Chinese authorities will also be well-informed about it. It is therefore highly unlikely that these incidents happen without the tacit agreement of higher authorities. However, rather than elusive and passionately discussed "intrusions" and "transgressions", it is official and semi-official statements with clear sources and wording, along with well-documented moves by the PRC at international forums, that are used to express China's position that the current state of the border is temporary and waiting definition.

On a diplomatic level and to all international bodies, Beijing has always taken great care to reiterate its claim over Arunachal, which it ponderously calls the "East Section of the China-India Boundary, which India calls Arunachal Pradesh", or simply "Southern Tibet", or more bluntly the "so-called Arunachal". Chinese officials also regularly mention, as official PRC maps do, that China claims Arunachal in its entirety. On the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to New Delhi in November 2006, Beijing's ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, told an Indian television channel: "The whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it". In May 2007, India cancelled a delegation to China after one of its members was denied a visa because he was from Arunachal, and "hence Chinese". In summer 2008, Beijing managed to delay projects to be funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), on the grounds that some of the funds would have been allocated for the "disputed region" of Arunachal. Although India could eventually gather enough support to push through the projects in question, it later emerged that China had succeeded in having the ADB agreement reworded in a way that recognised that the region is disputed.

As well official organs, Beijing also uses its proxies to push its claims. Professor Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations told the Press Trust of India in an interview in March 2007 "the Chinese Central Government could face problems from local Tibetan people [if Tawang was not dealt with as part of Tibet]". This view was echoed by Wang Yiwei, associate professor at Fudan University, in July 2007 who said: "We want to win the hearts of Tibetans. By giving up claims on Tawang, we don't want to be seen not to be protecting Tibetan interests". Interestingly, a report from August 2009 by the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao claimed China was "prepared to give up" its claim on Arunachal provided India would allow it to hold on to the Aksai Chin and cede "just 2,000 sq km" of territory. The Times of India reported that the Chinese foreign ministry rejected the report as "groundless" and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations even was complicit in the pretence that it actually reflects India's position on the border dispute. This assertion appears to have been devised to confuse both countries positions on the past, while hinting at an apparently reasonable solution to the mess; the one China has been aiming at for six decades now.

Indian authorities demonstrate serenity and determination
With bilateral trade valued at $18.7 billion in 2005 - 2006, up from $260 million in 1990, and despite the differences between the two Asian giants, until the global crisis of 2008, China's GDP and its annual growth were roughly three times that of India, while its foreign reserves exceeded India's by six times, India is China's third most important trade partner. The reality is that China and India's economies have grown to be so heavily interdependent, that a serious conflict over their respective versions of Himalayan history is probably the last thing either nation could ever envisage. Seen in this context, both sides seem to have tacitly agreed to put their differences over Tibet and the Himalayan border on hold while moving on in other, currently more vital aspects of their relationship.

It is the PRC, however, which still remains keen to remind India and the international community that this apparent agreement to disagree still does not equal a final acceptance of the status quo as long as no treaty has been signed. It does this chiefly by regularly playing the Arunachal card. One could not think of a better opportunity for that than the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang, knowing that this will inevitably generate a response from the Indian side while exciting the fervour of Chinese nationalists. Recent alleged border incidents, as well as the Dalai Lama's visit, have indeed unleashed a frenzy of activity from Indian and Chinese bloggers and contributors to various Indian, Chinese and international websites. As might have been expected, prior to the visit, furious reports about Chinese incursions proliferated in the Indian press, flanked by many editorials by prominent leaders of the Indian opposition. As late as the 04 November, just a few days before the visit, the Indian Express came out with new reports on presumed remote sensing "confirming" the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra, thus reigniting the controversy about a possible diversion of the river, which, if ever realized, could deprive India of one of its most vital sources of fresh water. Whether these reports are based on Indian research or Chinese attempts to pressure Indian opinion will probably never be known.

Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
What is certain is that the Indian government, which has tended to react to Chinese pressure in a rather defensive way in the past is now switching to a more relaxed attitude, a sign of its increasing exasperation, as well as its will and capacity to react in a dignified way, clarify and uphold its positions on both Tibet and the border. Referring to border tensions in the run up to the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang, and reinforcing a previous statement by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao on 19 September 2009 played down Indian press reports. "Contrary to popular perception, the situation along the border has remained peaceful for decades", she said. She stressed that there was "no significant increase" in incursions across all sections of the 4,000 km border between the two countries. "This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for years", she said. National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, who is also India's special representative for border talks with China told the news channel CNN-IBN: "In terms of numbers of incursions, there has been hardly any increase. Occasionally inroads are a little deeper than what might have been in the past. I don't think there is anything alarming about it". Speaking to reporters in Chennai, Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, General Deepak Kapoor said: "As compared to last year, they [the reported border incursions] are almost at the same level. So there is no cause for worry or concern. I request the media to restrain and not overplay". With that, the three most relevant Indian officials were candid in confirming that the Indian authorities are fully aware of such incursions, but will not be provoked. Meanwhile India is slowly upgrading its military capacities close to the relevant border sectors. This has involved conducting military exercises in the north-east and reopening the Nyoma air strip in Ladakh in September 2009, amongst other moves, while denying that these measures are connected to any current tensions.

As far as the visit itself is concerned, the Indian government has been keen to clarify the routine nature of it – it is in fact the fifth visit by the Dalai lama to Arunachal; the current one was postponed from October 2008 to March 2009 and then to November - that India exerts full authority over the province and the Dalai Lama is free to travel throughout India. The Prime Minister even took the unprecedented move of telling the Chinese leadership during international meetings in Bangalore and Bangkok that the Dalai Lama is an "honoured guest" in India, thus confirming New Delhi's position towards the Tibetan leader and the difference in India's attitude to China's towards him. The Prime Minister can be relaxed at having the vast majority of India's public behind him, as a poll by the magazine Outlook revealed 73% of respondents stating that the Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader, not a political one, while 71% agreed that his presence in India has an adverse impact on India-China relations, an apparent contradiction with which most Indians seem willing to live.

1: The first clearly defined modern borders that were established in the region were imposed by the treaty of Segauli in 1815, through which the British set a limit to Nepal's expansion along the Himalayas. These were however borders on the well mapped east-west axis. Delineating borders on the north-south axis was far more arduous because they involved China, the terrain was hardly known nor were the complex relationships between regions within the mountains.
2: This decision of the British Government, though controversial, just reworded its long practiced de facto stance on Tibet, i.e. the acceptance of the Himalayan region as being a part of China, while it maintained the, at least stated, position that Tibet should enjoy autonomy. In fact, the new formula seems to apply to the whole Tibetan area, while, strictly seen, the obsolete sovereignty vs. suzerainty concept only applied to the former 'Outer Tibet' which more or less corresponds to what is today the Tibet Autonomous Region.
3: The Simla Accord was the culmination of 75 years of effort by the British to 'pacify' the 'tribes' that lived in the thick forests of the south Himalayan slopes and time and again launched attacks on Indian peasants in Assam. This, rather than territorial gain, appears to have motivated British ambitions to control the region.
4: That the British had tolerated a Tibetan administrator sent by Lhasa in Tawang for about four decades underlines that they were happy not to interfere with local affairs, as long as the borders of their empire, and consequently its security, were not endangered.
5: Minsar was an extraterritorial enclave in the Kailash region in west Tibet under the administration of the former kingdom of Ladakh. Ladakh lost independence to the Kingdom of Jammu in the mid 19th century. Jammu and Kashmir became part of India following independence, thus placing Minsar legally under India's sovereignty.
6: The corridor is strategically vital for China, because it links Tibet with Xinjiang.
7: Though at the margins of the framework defined by international law, the accession of Sikkim to the Indian Union ended a civil-war-like situation and was later endorsed by the democratically elected Sikkimese parliament.
8: The agreement was criticised for expressly recognising Tibet as a part of China. However, this declaration was of purely diplomatic value, since it only reiterated the terms of the Sino-Indian treaty of 1954.
9: The 'Finger Area' is aberrant because, for some reasons, it does not appear to follow any geographical pattern.
10: Reports about Chinese incursions across the border tend to be highly speculative and reflect little knowledge of realities on the ground. An article in the Asia Times in June 2008 for example alleges: "Unlike the icy Tibetan plateau, Tawang is fertile and rich in minerals. It has the potential of sustaining Tibet's economy". The speculation most frequently associated with the perceived Chinese threat to India concerns the diversion of the Brahmaputra, a project shelved by the Chinese authorities, without ever even having reached any serious planning stage, and for which there are no visible preparations on the ground, except for dam projects related to electricity production, as on many other rivers all over Tibet. Even former Indian Defence Minister George Fernandez, a leading China sceptic within the Indian establishment and a declared Tibet supporter, in an interview with the magazine Force in 2003, deplored the fact that the media unnecessarily overplayed border transgression incidents.

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