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US search mission in Arunachal: How will China react?

June 07, 2012 11:11 IST

The Obama administration has overcome its reservations of the last two years because of the Chinese sensitivities in this matter and decided to send US search teams back into Arunachal Pradesh, says B Raman

According to JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) of the United States, 78,000 American soldiers are still missing from World War II, 1,632 of them in the China/Myanmar/India region. It is believed that nearly 430 of these, mainly World War II pilots of the US Air Force, died in plane crashes in India's Arunachal Pradesh while carrying out air-drops in the Kachin State of northern Myanmar and ferrying supplies to the KMT troops in Yunnan.

In the beginning of 2008, when George Bush was the President of the US, the BBC reported that a US team was visiting Arunachal Pradesh  to search for the remains of the US pilots. It quoted the then US Consul-General in Kolkata, Henry Jardine, as saying that the mission  "was in its preliminary stages".

He added, "We are just going to Arunachal Pradesh to speak to various people in the government who could help in the search." The BBC reported that the groundwork for the investigation mission to Arunachal Pradesh was completed during a meeting between US and Indian officials in New Delhi in March 2008.

JPAC spokesman Major Brian DeSantis was quoted by the BBC as saying that during the meeting, the officials of the two countries discussed a tentative timeline for future investigations and identification of aircraft crash sites. He added, "Now our team is going to Arunachal Pradesh to discuss details of future operations with the defence ministry and state officials. This will be followed by site visits in early fall [autumn] to determine the scope of debris fields and evaluate unique logistical requirements associated with each site. This process sets the groundwork for future recovery teams."

These developments caused concern in Beijing, which thought that these implied US's recognition of Arunachal Pradesh -- which China claims as its territory and describes as southern Tibet -- as Indian territory.

A commentary broadcast on March 25, 2008, by the China Radio International criticised the US for its plans to search for American airmen missing in action during the Second World War, in "Arunachal Pradesh, the so-called province set up forcibly and illegally by India in Chinese territory".

Declaring that the "Chinese government has never recognised the legality of this province", it alleged that after a change in its stand (of allowing the US to undertake searches) in January 2008, India was cooperating with the US in this regard, scheduling a meeting between the two sides in New Delhi in March 2008.

The commentary claimed that the Intelligence Bureau had opposed the US idea from the point of view of the region's sensitivity, particularly in respect of entry of foreigners, but the Union home ministry had rejected the IB's reservations. 

The commentary described New Delhi's motivations in this regard as attempting to strengthen military ties with Washington and legalise the status of Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian province, expecting that this would contribute to an increase in India's weight in the ongoing negotiations with China on the disputed border. The US's motivations, according to the Commentary, were to further develop its military relations with India and use the Arunachal issue as means to restrain China's intentions.

An Indian news agency report of February 25, 2010, quoted US Consular officials in India as appreciating the cooperation of the Indian government, the Indian Air Force and the state government of Arunachal Pradesh with US defence teams searching for the remains of US  pilots in Arunchal Pradesh.

The agency report said that the searches under the Joint POW/missing-in-action Accounting Command were being conducted in different parts of Arunachal Pradesh as a humanitarian mission. The report further quoted a US Consular official as saying, "No remains have so far been found, but we will continue the search."

India Today magazine reported on July 22, 2011, that US President Barack Obama had suspended search and recovery expeditions inside Arunachal Pradesh after complaints from the Chinese side.

"Chinese concerns over what it sees as American "intrusion" into Arunachal Pradesh have prompted the Obama administration to suspend plans for recovering bodies of crewmen who went missing there during the Second World War.Two expeditions planned in 2010 and 2011 were cancelled ostensibly because of China claiming that this was disputed territory. China considers the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as 'South Tibet' and protested expeditions by India and the US to recover the bodies of over 400 US aircrew who died in crashes while flying re-supply missions between Assam and Kunming, China, during the war," stated the article.

It added, "After pressure from the families of those who perished, joint operations to recover the remains of servicemen were started by the US and India in late 2008. The operations were, however, inexplicably cancelled by both governments in 2010 and 2011. The US has also put on hold joint military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh."

Coinciding with the two-day visit of US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to New Delhi that concluded on June 6, sections of the media in India and the US have reported that the Obama administration has made a fresh request to New Delhi for permission to resume the searches in Arunachal Pradesh.

They have quoted Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, as saying, "(There has been) a request by the US, in the North-East they perhaps would like to visit some places where there are remains of perhaps what they feel  pilots who were involved in WWII. This is not a new request. We have had a similar request several years ago and at that stage we did permit some officials to visit there. They did not find anything at that time. Perhaps they have some further information (now). It is a humanitarian cause and it is dealt as humanitarian issue not only by us but by several neighbours. We need to respond in a humanitarian manner."

There has been no official announcement on this so far, but the reported media briefing by the spokesperson confirms the receipt of a request from the Obama administration for permission to resume the searches and indicates that the government of India's response would be positive.

This is a significant development indicating that the Obama administration has overcome its reservations of the last two years because of the Chinese sensitivities in this matter and decided to send US search teams back into Arunachal Pradesh. It would be interesting to see how China reacts to it.

B Raman