India and China are squabbling over Arunachal Pradesh, which historically belonged to neither country. This dispute came to light again, recently, when China protested the Dalai Lama's plan to visit the state. Throughout the brief history of this territorial dispute, India has chosen to be on the defensive side for all the wrong reasons.
At the 11th round of Sino-India border negotiations in 2008 in Harbin, China, then Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee awkwardly sounded optimistic and pragmatic about the establishment of a working group to prepare for the settlement of the Sino-India border issue.
He used the language of mutual understanding, mutual accommodation, and mutual adjustment, but at the time, the language of Zhou Gang, the special consultant to the Chinese foreign ministry and former Chinese ambassador to India, did not contain mutualism.
The Chinese envoy firmly emphasised that India must make a substantial adjustment in the eastern sector including returning Tawang to China as a precondition to reach any settlement. It is important to notice the words 'eastern sector' which indicates that acquiring Tawang is not the end of the dispute.
The Chinese claim over Arunachal Pradesh is based on Tibetan history. Zhou Gang did not hesitate reminding the history of Tawang in his statement. 'I cited the following example that during my tenure as Chinese ambassador to India, I made it clear on many occasions to the Indian public -- Tawang belongs to China, it is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama is 'China's Dalai Lama', who cannot be 'India's Dalai Lama.'
He conveniently did not mention that China annexed Tibet in 1949, and that was how China's claim over Arunachal Pradesh began. Indian foreign policy think tanks beginning from Jawaharlal Nehru-V K Krishna Menon to current Cabinets knew that the Sino-India border never existed until the Chinese annexation of Tibet, but they always chose to ignore the historical accounts of the disputed territory.
India's ownership of Tawang came from the Simla Convention signed between British India and sovereign Tibet on July 3, 1914. The official boundary between the two nations was named the McMahon Line to honour Sir Henry McMahon, the British foreign secretary who signed the Simla Convention from the British side. So, in order to give any legitimacy to her claim over Arunachal Pradesh, India has to give her partner in the Simla Convention a sovereign political status, at least historically.
The Chinese have flatly rejected the McMahon Line. They have been loudly claiming Indian territories to be part of China in every available media outlet, but Indian leaders have not shown the courage to remind the Chinese that in more than a thousand years of history, India never had a border dispute with Tibet until China annexed Tibet.
In 2003 during his visit to China, then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee yielded to the Chinese pressure to accept the Tibetan Autonomous Region as an inalienable part of China in writing. To Vajpayee, perhaps that was just a semantic shift, but to the Chinese it added validity to their claim over Indian territories.
India has no big card to play in this negotiation. India has sold out Tibet chiefly to China and is now paying the price of potentially losing territories in this mutual adjustment deal. Nehru's failed foreign policy of appeasing China still prevails in the Indian diplomatic book of wisdom.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government clearly demonstrated this China appeasement policy by minimising recent Chinese military incursions into Indian territories. Sensing the weakness in Indian leaders, China has become bolder in recent times, claiming Arunachal Pradesh to be part of China publicly in a greater, assertive, tone. Last year, China denied a visa to an Indian delegate from Arunachal Pradesh and also objected to Asian Development Bank funding for an irrigation project in Arunachal.
India is an emerging world power economically, militarily, and politically. Unlike the People's Republic of China, India is a democratic and morally sensible nation. The new powerful India has no reason to bend to Chinese aggression.
For her own interest, India has to resurrect the Tibet issue on the international platform and eventually bring it into the United Nations General Assembly. Several Western countries are waiting for India to take that initiative.
Tibet is India's legitimate ticket to its claim over Arunachal Pradesh and this claim is based on historical fact. The McMahon Line is the legitimate Indo-Tibet border. As a emerging regional superpower, India must show courage to present the truth for her own sake, if not for the unfortunate Tibetan people who have lost everything in this long standing illegitimate border dispute between China and India.
As a responsible law abiding nation, India has a moral responsibility to tell the truth that Tibet is an occupied country.
Tashi Phunstok is a high school teacher and Tibet activist in the US. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org