China toys with India's border
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's frontier with China is bristling with tension. Barely two
weeks after the two countries reaffirmed commitment to existing mechanisms for
dispute settlement, and agreed to maintain peace and tranquility along their
border, a major Chinese incursion has taken place into India's Sikkim state.
On June 16, Chinese troops came more than a kilometer into Sikkim's
northernmost point - a 2.1-km sliver of land called Finger Point. Only a month
ago, Chinese soldiers had threatened to demolish stone structures in the area.
That warning was subsequently echoed and endorsed by Chinese officials.
Incursions and skirmishes are frequent along the 4,057-km-long Sino-Indian
border - an area that has not been demarcated on maps or delineated on the
ground. India and China fought a border
war in 1962, which India lost. Besides a fuzzy border, the two sides lay claim
to chunks of territory.
India claims some 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin in the
northeastern corner of Jammu and Kashmir, an area which China occupied and
continues to control. Beijing is also holding 5,180 sq km of land in Kashmir
ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963.
China lays claim to around 90,000 sq km of territory in India's northeast,
roughly approximating the India state of Arunachal Pradesh. China refers to it
as "Southern Tibet".
What is worrying about the incursions over the past year, say intelligence
officials, is not just "the increasing frequency" but also "the fact that the
Chinese are making deeper forays into Indian territory".
What has irked India about the incursions into Sikkim is that China, after
virtually acknowledging Sikkim to be a part of India, is bringing this part of
the boundary back into the border dispute. Over 65 incursions have taken place
in Sikkim this year.
China's reopening of the Sikkim front and its increased military pressure on
India along all sectors of the disputed border appears to be aimed at pushing
India to concede to its demands in Arunachal Pradesh, more specifically Tawang.
And its claims over Tawang are linked to its bid to cement control over Tibet.
Tawang is situated in the southwestern extremity of Arunachal Pradesh. Its
shares borders with Bhutan to its west and Tibet to its north. Nestling in the
eastern Himalayas at an altitude of 3,400 meters, Tawang is known for its
stunning view of the mountains, alpine weather and Buddhist monasteries.
However, it is not its dramatic landscape and tourism potential that makes
Arunachal Pradesh or Tawang a coveted piece of real estate in China's eyes.
Indian army officers say that control over Arunachal, and Tawang in particular,
will enable China to militarily overrun the Brahmaputra Valley and the rest of
northeastern India. Tawang is a critical corridor between Lhasa and the
There is an economic angle, too. Unlike the icy Tibetan plateau, Tawang is
fertile and rich in minerals. It has the potential of sustaining Tibet's
And then there is Tawang's link with Tibetan Buddhism and its religious and
emotional significance for Tibetans. Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth
Dalai Lama. Perched on a mist-covered spur in Tawang is the 327-year-old Galden
Namgey Lhatse Monastery, Tibetan Buddhism's biggest monastery, after the Potala
Palace in Lhasa. When the present Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, it was through
Tawang that he made his way into India, taking refuge at the Tawang Monastery
for over a week.
The Tawang Monastery is "a virtual treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist religion
and culture" and is seen by Tibetans as the repository of perhaps the last
remnants of a Tibet submerged by Han Chinese culture.
Chinese scholars have argued that Tawang is central to Beijing's control over
Tibet. "If the border issue is not dealt well, the Chinese central government
could face problems from local Tibetan people, who consider Tawang as part of
Tibet," Professor Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International
Relations told the Press Trust of India in an interview in March 2007, adding
that "the Chinese government cannot afford to ignore popular feelings," he
This view was echoed by another Chinese scholar a few months later. "Tawang
goes beyond the territorial issue. 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," Wang Yiwei, associate professor at Fudan University told
the Indian media in July 2007.
If China's occupation of Aksai Chin was to consolidate military control over
Tibet by securing an all-weather overland access to Tibet, its claims over
Tawang are aimed at giving its occupation of Tibet religious and cultural
legitimacy, underscoring yet again that Tibet lies at the heart of China's
border dispute with India.
Interestingly, while China demands Tawang on behalf of Tibetans, the Tibetans
are not claiming Tawang to be Tibetan territory. Although during a visit to
Tawang in 2003, the Dalai Lama is said to have obliquely referred to Tawang as
part of Tibet, he has acknowledged several times the validity of the McMahon
Line as per the Simla Agreement (under which Tawang is Indian territory) and
recently said that Arunachal is a part of India.
It does seem that China is exploiting the Tibetan reverence for Tawang to push
its territorial claims vis-a-vis India.
"Having gobbled up Tibet, the historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese
civilizations, Beijing now lays claim to Indian territories on the basis of not
any purported Han connection to them but supposed Tibetan Buddhist
ecclesiastical influence," points out Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Center
for Policy Research in New Delhi.
"The Chinese Government has always conveniently tried to hide behind the
Tibetans on this issue," says Claude Arpi, a French Tibetologist living in
China's claim to Tawang and Arunachal is not new. During the 1962 war Chinese
troops occupied vast swathes of territory here before withdrawing to the
McMahon Line that India recognizes as its border with China. In 1987, there was
a serious skirmish at Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh.
China's assertion of claims over Arunachal has grown over the past two years.
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 that "the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory.
And Tawang is only one of the places in it". Then, in May 2007, an Indian civil
servant from Arunachal was denied a Chinese visa on the grounds that he was
from Chinese territory and hence didn't need a visa.
At negotiations Chinese officials are said to be obdurate on the issue of India
handing over Tawang to China. And along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) China
has been flexing its muscles through incursions into Indian territory.
Indian analysts have drawn attention to China's basis for its claims over
Tawang. "Beijing's claim to Arunachal Pradesh or more specifically to a slice
of it, Tawang, flows from Tibet's putative historical or ecclesiastical ties
with Arunachal," points out Brahma Chellaney. "An ecclesiastical relationship
cannot by itself signify political control of one territory over another," he
If this was a valid ground for territorial claims, then the return of Mount
Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet, which is regarded sacred by Hindus, would be a
legitimate demand that India should then press.
In 2005, India and China had agreed that "in reaching the boundary settlement,
the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the
border areas". India feels that by laying claim to Arunachal - a populated area
- China is brazenly violating earlier agreements.
India has been taking steps to underscore and strengthen its control over
Arunachal. Projects worth US$10 billion have been announced to improve the
state's economy and connectivity. Military infrastructure here is being
improved. And the disputed border in Arunachal, including Tawang, is being
opened to foreign tourists.
Will the Chinese go to war with India over Tawang? Mohan Malik, an expert on
Sino-Indian relations and professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific
Center for Security Studies in Honolulu writes:
probability of an all-out conflict is extremely low, the prospect that some of
India's road building projects in disputed areas could lead to tensions,
clashes and skirmishes with Chinese border patrols cannot be completely ruled
out. Should a conflict break out, the PLA's [People's Liberation Army]
contingency plans emphasize a "short and swift localized" conflict (confined to
the Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil conflict) with the
following objectives in mind: capture the Tawang tract; give India's military a
bloody nose; and deliver a knockout punch that punctures India's ambitions to
be China's equal or peer competitor once and for all.
chief minister Dorjee Khandu has invited the Dalai Lama to inaugurate a
super-specialty hospital in Tawang later this year. Will India stand up to the
Chinese and assert its claims over Tawang by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit?
And how will the Chinese respond? Expect sparks to fly on the issue.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in