The Dalai Lama waters a plant during his visit to Tawang district in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, on April 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika
The Dalai Lama waters a plant during his visit to Tawang district in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, on April 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika

The town of Tawang on the border between northeastern India and China is situated in South Tibet, known by India as Arunachal Pradesh. It has great symbolic significance in Tibetan Buddhism as the second-largest Buddhist monastery in the world is located here. Tawang district covers 2,085 square kilometers and has a population of about 50,000.

The highway passing through this district toward the eastern part of the disputed border area of Aksai Chin is of immense strategic importance for China as it could potentially be part of a link between Tibet and Xinjiang via a national highway.

Most people in Tawang have Chinese features and have no ethnic or cultural links with India. They also lack suitable job and education opportunities. Mainstream media never talk about the possibility of India returning Arunachal Pradesh to China, even though the region has had closer affinity to China and the locals had no say in the matter when it was assigned to Indian jurisdiction in the early 20th century.

India has been in possession of this region since the British came up with the McMahon Line and separated this southern extension of Tibet from China in 1914. Some 90,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory was ceded to India, which later increased migration there to alter its demographics and constructed military installations.

This dispute remains a major hurdle for Sino-India relations and no consensus has been achieved despite 16 rounds of border talks. It is high time the two countries resolved their differences and found some mutual ground.

This insensitive demarcation of borders was typical of the British rulers back then. They had a tendency to leave unfinished business wherever they ruled or had a military presence. Divisions were made in such a way that the affected countries could not resolve the resulting issues easily. Needless to say, dialogue or negotiations can never be successful if deliberate provocations and political gestures continue without abatement.

In a recent move, the Indian government went ahead and organized a visit by the Dalai Lama to the disputed border town of Tawang despite multiple warnings and public censure from Beijing. During the tour, the Chinese Foreign Ministry even summoned Indian Ambassador Vijay Keshav Gokhale and lodged a protest against the visit. Ministry  spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “We demand [that] India stop using the Dalai Lama to do anything that undermines China’s interests, and we also demand [that] the Indian side not hype up sensitive issues between India and China.”

As a follow-up gesture, Beijing also proceeded to rename or “standardize” the names of six places in South Tibet, or what India calls Arunachal Pradesh. The new official names are Wo’gyainling, Mila Ri, Qoidêngarbo Ri, Mainquka, Bümo La and Namkapub Ri. As Professor Xiong Kunxin from Minzu University of China has explained, “The standardization came amid China’s growing understanding and recognition of the geography in South Tibet. Naming the places is a step to reaffirm China’s territorial sovereignty to South Tibet.” These historical names have a symbolic value and quietly reaffirm the Chinese claim on these regions.

In the ensuing war of words, Indian cabinet minister M Venkaiah Naidu declared that “every inch” of Arunachal Pradesh belonged to India and China had “no business” renaming any Indian place.

These developments are nothing new. On the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s last visit to the disputed region in 2009, China registered its disapproval by ceasing to recognize Indian passports of people born in the disputed region. Instead, travel permits were issued and attached to passports. while maps of the disputed territory were included in newly issued passports by both the countries.

Upping the ante now, this territorial dispute has also become a cultural and linguistic one. The only step left after this sort of disagreement is the military option if the issue remains unresolved.

Originally, it was India that started the renaming of disputed territories when it named the region previously known as North East Frontier Agency for administrative purposes to Arunachal Pradesh in 1987, just to establish its occupation.

The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 and found asylum in neighboring India. Meanwhile simmering tensions between India and China culminated in a short, bloody war. China emerged victorious but bilateral relations have remained strained ever since.

The Dalai Lama’s presence in India is a constant source of tension and Sino-Indian ties have remained dangerously unpredictable. Normalization of ties is virtually impossible considering the militarization at the borders. Standoffs and skirmishes often take place between Chinese and Indian soldiers.

A major irritant is that this time around, the Dalai Lama’s visit had an important reason. The Buddhist leader is growing old and he needs to name and anoint a successor to ensure the rebellion against Chinese occupation of Tibet continues after him. The visit was made to establish links with the people there so a successor could be found. The appointment of any new Dalai Lama would synergize the Tibet independence movement further. The Dalai Lama emotionally addressed the locals and Indian Home Minister Kiren Rijiju joined in, saying: “Arunachal Pradesh is an inseparable part of India, and China should not object to the Dalai Lama’s visit and interfere in India’s internal affairs.”

Meanwhile, surreptitiously India has accelerated military preparations in case of a limited war with China. The 17 Corps regiment comprising 90,000 soldiers with two high-altitude divisions, 59 Division at Panagarh and 72 Division at Pathankot, was raised to face the Chinese army in case of any incursion from across the border.

India has also initiated survey work for a broad-gauge train track to be laid to Tawang, in further disregard of China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. Indian analysts such as Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore believe that China has shifted emphasis from the west to the east as it symbolically hardens its position on all territorial disputes. “It is linked to Beijing’s perception of a geopolitical environment which is moving increasingly in its favor,” he has said.

Additionally, India recently upgraded its defense infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh at Tawang and Dirang with two advanced landing grounds and four more for the rest of the state, ostensibly for civilian flights to facilitate tourism in the area, knowing full well that China disapproves of foreign visitors to the disputed region.

It remains to be seen whether the dispute over South Tibet/Arunachal Pradesh becomes the final straw. Long Xingchun, director at the Center for Indian Studies at China West University in Beijing, has said China is resolute about not making any concessions to India, and the renaming of places was not merely in retaliation to the Dalai Lama’s visit but meant a lot more.

“Some radical Indians believe India’s military strength has seen rapid growth and are eager to triumph over China in potential armed clashes,” he said. “In fact, India had more advantages in 1962, and it should learn from its erroneous strategic judgments and carefully evaluate the current international situation.”

Thus the dispute remains a potent time-bomb waiting to explode at any time. Other underlying tensions such as Beijing’s construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and preventing India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group have exacerbated the issue, and the opportunity to solve the issue with dialogue is fast receding into the background.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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