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Arunachal Pradesh: Meeting China’s Claim in the Eastern Himalayas

Last week, Chief Minister Nabam Tuki of the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh led a delegation to Canada. He attended the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce in Toronto and participated in the Brand India Expo in Ottawa. Meeting prospective investors and government officials, he highlighted the potential of Indo-Canadian cooperation in his state for tourism, forestry, hydroelectricity, and mining.

Arunachal Pradesh, which means “land of the dawn-lit mountains” in Sanskrit, is one of India’s most fascinating areas. Located in the Himalayas, and with some of the highest biodiversity in Asia, it is an attractive location for eco-tourism; Lonely Planet already lists it as the 4th best place to visit on Earth. Its population of 1.4 million people includes an ethnic mosaic of 82 officially recognized tribes. The town of Tawang, at an elevation of over 3000 meters, is home to Tawang Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet, and the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706). The current Dalai Lama stopped at this monastery on his flight from Tibet in 1959.

Yet, there are troubles in Shangri-la, especially as China claims the region as “South Tibet.” In 2006, just before Chinese Premier Hu Jintao visited India, the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi stated that the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. In 2007, China denied a visa to an Indian Administrative Service officer slated to join a delegation to Beijing and Shanghai, claiming that he is from Arunachal Pradesh and thus a Chinese citizen who does not need a visa to enter the country. In 2009, China tried to block India’s request for a U.S. $2.9 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank, effectively bringing this territorial claim to an international forum for the first time. In 2009, China protested the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as well as a separate trip by the Dalai Lama, to Arunachal Pradesh. This past January, India cut in half the size of a military delegation after China denied a visa to another officer from the state. Last month, China protested the visit of India’s Defence minister A.K. Antony to the state.

The India media often report People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursions into the region. In this tense context, Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan side of the border has provoked similar Indian military expansion in Arunachal Pradesh.

Like similar demands over the unpopulated Senkaku Islands of Japan, China uses historical arguments to counter legal arguments backed up by a paper trail of international treaties. The 890 km border between India and Tibet, known as the McMahon Line, was settled in 1914 in the Simla Accord, signed between Britain and the still-independent Tibet. Although the boundary was reaffirmed by India after Independence, Chinese forces occupied parts of Arunachal Pradesh during the Sino-Indian War of 1962-63. China rejects the legitimacy of the Simla Accord, saying that Tibet was not an independent country at the time and was thus incapable of signing international treaties. In their view, the territory is South Tibet, and thus an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.

Indian analysts, who still remember the Sino-Indian War, view this territorial dispute as a real security threat. Tawang, the main town claimed by the Chinese, is located near the Siliguri corridor (the “chicken-neck”) that connects India to its turbulent north-eastern region, where China has reportedly supported separatist insurgence. Indian security experts thus fear that China could occupy Arunachal Pradesh, cut off the strategic corridor, and encourage unrest in the northeast. Although India and China signed an agreement in April 2005, promising to settle their territorial disputes peacefully, Chinese actions have done little to assuage Indian concerns. Chinese actions in northeast India make it difficult to believe China’s rhetoric of non-interference in other countries. Furthermore, Chinese military build-up in Tibet makes it appear that China emphasizes military might over international treaty law.

China’s oft-asserted claims to Arunachal Pradesh, like those to other disputed regions, contribute to an impression of Chinese irredentism. Irredentism, a nationalist ideology advocating annexation of neighbouring territories on ethnic or historical claims, has often contributed to war in recent history. The German Anschluss of Austria and annexation of the Czech Sudentenland in 1938 are European examples that highlight the danger of states challenging the status quo by trying to enforce irredentist claims. Because of its Tibetan connections, Arunachal Pradesh is likely to be important to China for the foreseeable future. In fact, it would not be a surprise if the next Dalai Lama were born in Tawang. To a certain extent, “Free Tibet” already exists in Arunachal Pradesh. This makes the region somewhat of an irritant to China, which is still challenged domestically by resistance against its domination over Tibet.

As a relatively small power, there is little that Canada can do to convince China to abandon its territorial claims. In fact, attempts to ‘contain’ China would probably be less conducive to peace than concerted policies to engage China as an equal partner in an emerging multipolar world order. The goal should be to increase incentives for cooperation, while simultaneously raising costs for unilateral attempts to change existing administrative boundaries.

Keeping this in mind, Canada can contribute to a solution if Canadian companies accept the invitation of Chief Minister Nabam Tuki. As Dr. Namrata Goswami of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi has argued, the people of Arunachal Pradesh are concerned about Chinese threats, but also face important challenges, especially in infrastructure development. If Canadian companies can help Arunachal Pradesh with the infrastructure needed for sustainable development, transportation and eco-tourism, Canada can strengthen its relationship with India, a fellow Commonwealth member and democratic ally, while contributing to the economy in both countries. This investment would confirm international support for India in Arunachal Pradesh, and make less probable the Chinese invasion feared by many Indians. Such a project would take political will—perhaps even some assistance from CIDA—but would have lasting benefits for generations.

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