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Home > India > News > Columnists > D S Rajan

China uneasy over PM's Arunachal visit

February 07, 2008

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The People's Republic of China has so far refrained from officially commenting on the just concluded visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] to Arunachal Pradesh (January 31 to February 1); both the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson and the state-controlled Xinhua news agency appear to have ignored the event. This looks rather unusual, considering Beijing's [Images] known practice not to miss any opportunity to reiterate their territorial claims at government levels on important occasions.

On the other hand, it is customary to entrust the job of articulating the country's policies including on territorial issues to academicians close to the party and government and in that context, the opinions expressed by three prominent scholars (in Chinese language publications) on Dr Singh's visit, assume much significance.

First, let us consider what Professor Fu Xiaoqiang of the China State Security Ministry -- affiliated to the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations has to say on the subject. According to him, on the issue of 'Sino-Indian disputed territory', the Indian prime minister is facing 'no small' pressure from the country's military, which remains concerned with the existing infrastructure backwardness throughout the Sino-Indian border. Hence Dr Singh's promise to promote economic development in Arunachal Pradesh.

He noted in this connection the justification given by the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee for the construction of roads along the Indian border. The scholar has then found an important reason for the 'slow' progress in the current Sino-Indian border talks -- that India is not willing to make suitable adjustments in its boundary position. He has remarked that if this continues, the same will not be beneficial to the development of the overall situation in Sino-Indian relations.

Sun Shihai, a scholar on South Asia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, close to China's foreign ministry, has stated that objectively speaking, the development of Indian economy including in Arunachal Pradesh, had all along been a pre-determined strategy of the Indian National Congress. The same is also the policy of Manmohan Singh government for the last several years.

He further observed that, in India's Northeast region, a comparatively strong sense of alienation has always existed, which the anti-government forces exploited. The Indian government, in response, wants to bring the region into India's development mainstream. The scholar has at the same time accused India of setting up its province, along with administrative divisions, in a 'still internationally disputed region' and declared that India's announced moves like the construction of hydroelectric power stations in the India-China 'disputed' region, is not going to benefit the ongoing Sino-Indian border negotiations.

He admitted that at present, 'some questions' have emerged in the negotiations as the talks are deepening and the issues involved are becoming sharper and the difficulties turning greater and greater. He stated that under such conditions, what is needed is that both the Chinese and Indian sides should maintain 'caution and restraint'. The CASS expert then alleged that Dr Singh's visit to Arunachal is a sequel to the anti-China policies of 'hawkish factions' in India.

Subsequent to Dr Singh's visit to China, theories advocating ' no need to kowtow before China', have appeared in India and that in such a background of political demands, Dr Singh had no option except to go to Arunachal as a measure to balance the discordant voices within the country.

The third China analyst, Professor Zhao Gancheng, director of the South Asia Research Division of the Shanghai International Affairs Research Institute, has found the 'provocative' nature of the visit of Dr Singh to the 'Sino-Indian disputed territory' as significant. Asserting that a solution to the Sino-Indian border issue would require a considerably long period to accomplish, he did not agree with the views of other Chinese scholars like Professor Shihai that Dr Singh's Arunachal visit was to balance the moves of hawkish anti-China factions in India. Professor Zhao has forwarded the following arguments that at the moment:

1. The Sino-Indian border is not witnessing any incident.  

2. During his China visit, Manmohan did not adopt any measure for compromise with Beijing.

3. The Indian internal political situation is not yet being affected by emotional factors like elections.

4. On the Sino-Indian border issue, the ruling party and other political groups inside India do not differ.

The expert then asserted that Dr Singh's important intention was therefore to convey India's stand on Arunachal, to China. Acknowledging that in spite of the excellent development of Sino-Indian relations at present, the border still remains the core issue which is highly important and emotional in both the countries, he felt that the very fact the issue could not be settled so far, goes to prove the 'comparatively low level in the mutual political trust' between the two sides. He concluded by saying that Dr Singh's visit to Arunachal will not benefit the healthy development of Sino-Indian relations and that it will also not benefit finding of an early solution to the border issue.

What can be made out of the opinions of the three scholars? The following could be important:

China by not commenting officially seems, at present, inclined to downplay the prime minister's visit. However, the feelings of its scholars that the visit is 'provocative' in nature and that both the sides should show restraint, along with perceptions that the visit could affect bilateral ties as well as the progress in the border issue, may signal the growing uneasiness on the part of Beijing over India's intentions over a long term.

Till President Hu Jintao's visit to India in November 2006, the Chinese were claiming entire Arunachal, implying that in their view, there is no dispute regarding the status of that territory. In comparison, the Chinese references since then, including in the write-ups above, have been 'Sino-Indian disputed territory', marking a nuanced positional climb down on the part of Beijing. Does this indicate China's readiness now to show some flexibility on the status of Arunachal Pradesh? This question needs to be studied in the context of what the then Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi said (November 2006) on the need for both the sides to make 'compromises' on the 'disputed' state and also of some recent Chinese signals - their description in December 2007 that the 'Brahmaputra river cuts into India at the northern border of Arunachal Pradesh' and the grant of Chinese visa to an Arunachal civil servant in February 2008.

Both India and China now endorse the line that they should look at bilateral ties beyond the border issue. That would mean tacit acceptance by the two sides that the boundary issue is going to take a long time to solve. The Chinese analysts have further confirmed such position, as for the China is concerned. Their views fit in well with the known stand of Beijing -- Premier Wen Jiabao observed at the November 2007 ASEAN summit in Singapore that a solution to the border issue is not going to be easy and would need strenuous bilateral efforts.

The Indian prime minister on his part has also noted the 'complexities' of the issue. What is however new is the message being given by China through its experts that if border talks are to progress, India should be willing to make 'adjustments to its position' during the border negotiations.

The tracing of internal dimensions of Dr Singh's visit to Arunachal by the Chinese experts (pressure from the Indian military and the need to 'balance' the moves of anti-China hawkish sections in India) seems to reflect China's doubts over the likely impact on the border talks coming from future political equations in India, especially in the context of general elections due in that country next year.

D S Rajan is director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. He can be contacted at dsrajan@c3sindia.org


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