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How to counter China on Arunachal Pradesh

By B Raman
October 14, 2009 14:09 IST
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India should avoid countering China's renewed rhetoric on Arunachal Pradesh. Instead we should be vigilant and quietly strengthen infrastructure and our defences, writes strategic affairs expert B Raman.

As the time approaches for the proposed visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh next month to open a hospital built with contributions from the Tibetan exile community, China has stepped up its rhetoric against India. The recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh to canvass for the candidates of his party in the just concluded elections to the state assembly on October 12 has been used as a pretext for the renewed criticism of the Indian policy on Arunachal Pradesh. Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to the state has been projected as his visit to the so-called Southern Tibet.

China never fails to bring on record its protests and concerns over the visits of Indian leaders to Arunachal Pradesh for whatever purpose. The fact that it has done so after the recent electoral visit of Dr Singh should not, therefore, have been  a matter of surprise and undue concern. What is disturbing is the kind of language used by a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign office in commenting on the visit and the even stronger language used by the Global Times, in an editorial (external link) on the subject on October 14. The Global Times is a sister publication of the Chinese Communist Party-controlled People's Daily.

The fresh campaign against India on the subject was triggered off by comments of a spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry Ma Zhaoxu, who was quoted by the Global Times as saying on October 13 that China  was 'seriously dissatisfied' by the visit of the Indian prime minister, who was accused of 'ignoring China's concerns by visiting southern Tibet'. The Global Times quoted the spokesperson as saying further as follows: 'China and India have not reached any formal agreement on the border issue. We demand that the Indian side pay attention to the serious and just concerns of the Chinese side and not provoke incidents in the disputed region, in order to facilitate the healthy development of China-Indian relations.'

There has been a difference in the translation into English of the spokesperson's remarks by the BBC and the Global Times. While the BBC quoted the spokesperson as telling India 'not to trigger disturbances in the disputed region', the Global Times spoke of the spokesperson telling India 'not to provoke incidents in the disputed region'.

The editorial of the Global Times titled 'Indian PM's visit a provocative move' described the visit as a 'provocative and dangerous move' and alleged that the visit was designed to put the area under India's de facto administration. It accuses India of encouraging the 'immigration of more than one million Indians to the region' and warns: 'India, however, will make a fatal error if it mistakes China's approach for weakness. The Chinese government and public regard territorial integrity as a core national interest, one that must be defended with every means....The disputed border area is of strategic importance, and hence, India's recent moves -- including Singh's trip and approving past visits to the region by the Dalai Lama -- send the wrong signal. That could have dangerous consequences."

The conventional wisdom is that since any military confrontation could affect China's economic development and its aspirations of rising as a major power on par with the US, Beijing will restrict itself to angry rhetoric and will not indulge in any ground action in the Arunachal Pradesh area. This wisdom has some validity, but overlooks the fact that China is feeling increasingly insecure in its peripheral areas because of the recent violent uprisings by the Tibetans last year and the Uighurs this year. Its increasing nervousness and feelings of insecurity in its border areas could lead to irrational and unpredictable reflexes vis-a-vis the Arunachal Pradesh issue.

We should avoid countering China's renewed rhetoric with our own rhetoric. While maintaining our cool, we should press ahead with the construction of the infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh and strengthening our defensive capabilities there without talking about them from the roof-top. We should not advise the Dalai Lama not to visit Tawang. When he visits Tawang, we should pay close attention to his personal security. The period before and after his visit should call for extra vigilance from our side.

China may not indulge in any ground action till the visit of US President Barack Obama to China next month. What it might do after Obama's visit is a matter which needs close monitoring.

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B Raman