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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

India-China Row Over Arunachal Pradesh: A New Irritant or Mere Posturing?

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by John S. Moolakkattu

China had always been a paradox for India, and a potential threat the country had downplayed as long as Pakistan was seen as the main adversary. After the 1962 war, India had exercised moderation while dealing with China as it did not want encirclement by two hostile countries. China had been obsessed with the presence of the Dalai Lama in India, particularly after it became sensitive to global public opinion in the wake of its economic reforms. The country also seemed to be uneasy at the increasing closeness of India with the US, and the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal last year.

The most recent provocation came when the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Arunachal Pradesh, a State in the far-flung region of North-East India bordering China, to campaign for his Congress party in the elections to the State Legislative Assembly held in October this year. India had been suspicious of Chinese support for insurgents in North-East India, which had declined in the nineties following improvement in bilateral relations. The proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to the Tawang monastery in the State in November this year is another irritant in the relations between the two countries. Tawang has always been seen by China as part of Tibet and now of China. The visit of the Dalai Lama is interpreted as aimed at rebuffing the territorial claims of the Chinese in the region. The Dalai Lama, who has won praise for his non-violent approach to the resolution of the dispute over Tibet and is favourably disposed to some kind of internal self-determination, is seen as a villain by the Chinese establishment. Despite the Indian efforts to control the activities of the Tibetans in the country in deference to sensitivity of the Chinese, more is demanded of the Indians by the Chinese establishment.

The Indian Foreign Ministry responded to the Chinese protest quickly by saying that Arunachal Pradesh is an “integral and inalienable part of India”. There is a general feeling in China that the claim to Arunachal Pradesh should not be given up and must be pursued with greater vigour. The recent troops build-up on the border by India following reports of incursions by the PLA and the renovation of an airfield close to the border has also added to the ire of the Chinese.


From India’s point of view, some of China’s actions are provocative and cause anxiety. This includes making references to Kashmir as an independent country rather than as an integral part of India, issuing separate Chinese visas on paper rather than on the Indian passports to residents of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, rising number of anti-dumping cases, implicating Indian companies in a fake drugs scam, attempting to block a loan to India from the Asian Develoment Bank a part of which was to be used for a water project in Arunachal Pradesh, and assisting Pakistan to upgrade a cross-border highway and set up a hydroelectric venture in the Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, which India claims as disputed territory. Other irritants include undermining India’s bid for a place at the UN Security Council, trying to keep India out of an Asian economic community and engaging in academic discourses exploring the possibilities of dismemberment of the country.

How does one interpret events like this? Do the Chinese rake up issues like Arunachal Pradesh to undermine India’s economic strength by creating a security dilemma? Is the Indian reaction a sort of counter-posturing, or a defiance of China in its onward march to superpower status in the world? Militarily, China is very strong in terms of the size of its Army, Navy and Air Force, although there are doubts about the quality of its military equipment. With respect to nuclear technology and the delivery mechanisms, China has considerable edge over India. Its economy is growing at around eight per cent despite the global financial crisis. The country needs huge quantities of raw materials for its expanding industries. As a nation, the Chinese constitute the largest single group in terms of ethnicity anywhere in the world.

China has been emboldened by its successes in getting many countries to toe its line. Recently, its influence was brought to bear on the South African Government to refuse a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference of the former Nobel Laureates in the run-up to the world cup next year. As long as the Communists in India were supporting the Congress-led government, they could exercise a moderating influence over the Government’s Chinese policy. With that gone, the Indian government will act toughly, a prospect that can make the relations between the two countries contentious.

In recent years there has been considerable expansion of trade between India and China. Trade between the two countries is now worth over $ 50 billion. Neither country is keen on upsetting their economic relations. Whatever economic successes China may have, its lack of democracy is its greatest weakness. China will not risk a war with India because, unlike in 1962, India can no longer be taken for granted. Leaving aside Communist China’s push into India in 1962, the country has not fought major wars in the last five decades. Despite the commitment of the Indian Prime Minister and President Hu Jintao to keep the India-China relationship on course, there is a feeling that the relationship has become more cautious, as is evident from the recent instruction given to the Indian forces to be more alert on the China frontier.

Meanwhile a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between India and China on October 22 to cooperate in the area of climate change and in renewable energy. This suggests that the type of relationship that is likely to emerge is one of tension interspersed with instances of cooperation. The logic of rational choice is perhaps more developed as far as the Chinese are concerned, and the country is unlikely to engage in adventurism in its relations with India on this count. Whatever may be the weaknesses of India, there is some strength in the country that China cannot match. It is, after all, a functioning democracy of sorts, a factor that China should recognise and work towards if it wants to survive in this complex world.

The author is the Gandhi-Luthuli Chair in Peace Studies, School of Politics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, Republic of South Africa.

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