In this essay, I try to place Arunachal Pradesh in the larger context of the India-China border dispute by looking at contemporary developments in the region and the actions of the Chinese state, led by the all-powerful Communist Party, in the recent past.
2022 began with a positive note as Indian and Chinese soldiers stationed along various border posts of the 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) exchanged sweets and greetings with each other on New Year’s Day. However, on the same day, a controversial ‘Land Border Law’ of China also entered into force, adopted in October 2021 by the National People’s Congress, China’s titular parliament.
This move by China has effectively upped the ante on the ongoing border stand-off with India, which is underway since the past one-and-a-half years, particularly in the Ladakh sector of the LAC. The broader aim of this law is to give a legal cover to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) expansionist project, cutting across the LAC and also the borderlands along the smaller Himalayan states of Bhutan and Nepal.
Today, the LAC is the de facto boundary line between India and China, and arguably the world’s longest disputed border, lying between Tibet and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the union territory of Ladakh.
New Chinese names for places in Arunachal
Preceding the new border law enforcement, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs announced on the day before New Year’s Eve that it is assigning a new set of ‘standardized names’ for fifteen places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, including eight residential areas, four mountains, two rivers, and a mountain pass.
The Chinese refer to Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Zangnan’ and also considers it as an extension of the southern portion of Tibet, covering eleven out of the twenty-five districts of the north-eastern Indian state.
The Chinese ministry added that the move is in accordance with regulations on geographical names issued by its cabinet, the State Council. The Chinese state-run media has hinted that more such symbolic moves could be followed up in the future, which amounts to further doubling down on unlawful territorial claims in the pretext of standardization of names.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded to the recent Chinese move by stating that ‘Arunachal Pradesh has always been and will always be an integral part of India’, and that the assigning of ‘invented names’ to places in the state does not alter this fact on the ground. This is the second attempt by the Chinese ruling establishment in Beijing to rename places in Arunachal Pradesh in the past five years.
The first such attempt came in April 2017 with the renaming of six places in the state, shortly following the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in western Arunachal, something that annoys China every time a political or diplomatic dignitary in India visits the area. Tawang is home to India’s largest Buddhist monastery and also the largest monastery outside of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Moreover, the Sixth Dalai Lama hailed from Tawang and there are also speculations on whether the next Dalai Lama might be named from this historic place of Tibetan Buddhism, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will attempt to place a subservient puppet Lama in Lhasa after the passing of the current Lama, who is based in Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, since 1959.
Construction of border village dwellings
China launched a border village construction plan in 2017, along the Himalayan borderlands touching India and Bhutan. In the same year, Indian and Chinese soldiers stood eyeball-to-eyeball in a 73-day stand-off in the Doklam tri-junction with Bhutan, triggered by China’s attempt to construct a road in the area, which Indian troops protested and eventually managed to halt.
News reports from January and November 2021 citing satellite imagery shed light on China’s illegal construction of village dwellings in the Upper Subansiri and Shi-Yomi districts of Arunachal Pradesh in a bid to reinforce its claims on the Indian state, even as military-level talks to defuse tensions in the friction areas of the LAC’s Ladakh sector were still underway.
Chinese belligerence over Bhutan and Nepal
It has to be noted that it is not just India’s Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh that faces the brunt of the CCP’s broader expansionist project aimed at cementing its legitimacy at home, but the smaller Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan as well, that are landlocked between China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and India.
Satellite imagery from November 2021 has showed that four new villages were built in a span of one year by China in Bhutanese territory, spanning across an area of 100 square kms. There have been similar reports in the previous years as well.
Similarly, Chinese construction activities have been reported in the Humla district of western Nepal, wherein eleven houses have been built by China, during the tenure of former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who has been accused of taking a pro-China stance. Shortly after taking up the reigns in mid-2021, the current PM Sher Bahadur Deuba has constituted a committee to study the matter in detail.
Both these countries lack the required resources and manpower to stand up to Chinese bullying and are struck between two giant Asian neighbours, amid which they struggle to maintain a balance.
However, Bhutan stands firm on the Indian side as the latter offers training to its military and diplomatic corps. Recently, China has been mounting pressure on Bhutan to settle the land border dispute between the two countries.
Spill-over effect of Xi’s ‘China Dream’
Right from taking over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the de facto Supreme Leader of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping has been following a highly contentious and adventurous expansive policy throughout China’s land and maritime neighbourhood as part of what he calls the ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, an essential component of the realisation of his so-called ‘China Dream’.
This is being achieved by instigating hyper-nationalism at home in a series of continuing propaganda campaigns, thereby causing spill-over effect in the neighbourhood as the party doubles down on China’s historical claims on its borderlands, belonging to or controlled by other neighbouring countries today, many of which are dating back to the long-bygone Chinese imperial era.
Border infrastructure gets a boost
In July 2021, Xi Jinping paid a surprise visit to the Tibetan border town of Nyingchi, located less than 20 km from the border with Arunachal Pradesh, in the first instance since he took over as the CCP’s top-most leader ten years ago. General Secretary Xi also visited Tibetan capital Lhasa in the same month, where he also inspected the newly constructed Nyingchi-Lhasa section of the broader Sichuan-Tibet railway line.
This was Tibet’s first high-speed rail network connecting the two provincial capitals, which became operational in the previous month. This is one of the several infrastructure projects being developed in the southern and south-eastern parts of Tibet, near the border with Arunachal Pradesh.
In a reciprocal move, India too has been engaged in infrastructure development to secure its border with Tibet, right from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.
General Secretary Xi’s visit came as a precursor to the 70th anniversary of what the CCP’s propaganda division calls the ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’ and what the global community regards as annexation of Tibet or the disaster of the loss of Tibetan independence.
The Chinese promise of economic development comes at a heavy cost, as the distinctive traditions and culture of Tibet and its distinctively unique form of Buddhism are staring at an ethnocide, meaning the systematic and deliberate extermination of culture of an ethnic group, which are being increasingly subjected to Sinicization or Hanization by the CCP, thereby destroying its true and original form.
China’s current Five-Year-Plan (2021-2025) includes critical projects to build the first dams along the lower reaches of River Yarlung Tsangpo, known as the Brahmaputra in India, which will have consequential impacts on the downstream Indian states, including Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, as a threat of possible flooding looms large.
The bigger picture
Putting all these contemporary developments into perspective, the renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh and the new land border law are the latest in a series of measures taken by the CCP ruling establishment in Beijing as a continuing expansionist tactic and state policy, thereby revealing its imperialistic and historical revisionist bent of mind.
China has never come to terms with the British-era McMahon Line between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet that was demarcated in 1914 following the Simla Convention of that year, which later merged with the LAC. Today, this line overlaps with the eastern sector of the broader LAC. With the rise of an assertive China in contemporary times, led by an expansionist CCP, the spotlight is back on Arunachal Pradesh.
With the existing set of confidence-building measures between Beijing and New Delhi fading into oblivion, there is still a need for fresh ones. The looming prospect of yet another Galwan-like incident in Arunachal Pradesh or anywhere else along the LAC has to be dodged effectively through diplomatic means and channels. Needless to say, a military solution would prove disastrous for both sides.