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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China toys with India's border

June 29, 2008

By Sudha Ramachandran
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
June 27, 2008

BANGALORE -- India's frontier with China is bristling with tension.
Barely two weeks after the two countries reaffirmed commitment to
existing mechanisms for dispute settlement, and agreed to maintain
peace and tranquility along their border, a major Chinese incursion
has taken place into India's Sikkim state.

On June 16, Chinese troops came more than a kilometer into Sikkim's
northernmost point -- a 2.1-km sliver of land called Finger Point.
Only a month ago, Chinese soldiers had threatened to demolish stone
structures in the area. That warning was subsequently echoed and
endorsed by Chinese officials.

Incursions and skirmishes are frequent along the 4,057-km-long
Sino-Indian border -- an area that has not been demarcated on maps or
delineated on the ground. India and China fought a border war in
1962, which India lost. Besides a fuzzy border, the two sides lay
claim to chunks of territory.

India claims some 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin
in the northeastern corner of Jammu and Kashmir, an area which China
occupied and continues to control. Beijing is also holding 5,180 sq
km of land in Kashmir ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963.

China lays claim to around 90,000 sq km of territory in India's
northeast, roughly approximating the India state of Arunachal
Pradesh. China refers to it as "Southern Tibet".

What is worrying about the incursions over the past year, say
intelligence officials, is not just "the increasing frequency" but
also "the fact that the Chinese are making deeper forays into Indian

What has irked India about the incursions into Sikkim is that China,
after virtually acknowledging Sikkim to be a part of India, is
bringing this part of the boundary back into the border dispute. Over
65 incursions have taken place in Sikkim this year.

China's reopening of the Sikkim front and its increased military
pressure on India along all sectors of the disputed border appears to
be aimed at pushing India to concede to its demands in Arunachal
Pradesh, more specifically Tawang. And its claims over Tawang are
linked to its bid to cement control over Tibet.

Tawang is situated in the southwestern extremity of Arunachal
Pradesh. Its shares borders with Bhutan to its west and Tibet to its
north. Nestling in the eastern Himalayas at an altitude of 3,400
meters, Tawang is known for its stunning view of the mountains,
alpine weather and Buddhist monasteries.

However, it is not its dramatic landscape and tourism potential that
makes Arunachal Pradesh or Tawang a coveted piece of real estate in
China's eyes.

Indian army officers say that control over Arunachal, and Tawang in
particular, will enable China to militarily overrun the Brahmaputra
Valley and the rest of northeastern India. Tawang is a critical
corridor between Lhasa and the Brahmaputra Valley.

There is an economic angle, too. Unlike the icy Tibetan plateau,
Tawang is fertile and rich in minerals. It has the potential of
sustaining Tibet's economy.

And then there is Tawang's link with Tibetan Buddhism and its
religious and emotional significance for Tibetans. Tawang is the
birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. Perched on a mist-covered spur in
Tawang is the 327-year-old Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery, Tibetan
Buddhism's biggest monastery, after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. When
the present Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, it was through Tawang that
he made his way into India, taking refuge at the Tawang Monastery for
over a week.

The Tawang Monastery is "a virtual treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist
religion and culture" and is seen by Tibetans as the repository of
perhaps the last remnants of a Tibet submerged by Han Chinese culture.

Chinese scholars have argued that Tawang is central to Beijing's
control over Tibet. "If the border issue is not dealt well, the
Chinese central government could face problems from local Tibetan
people, who consider Tawang as part of Tibet," Professor Ma Jiali of
the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations told the
Press Trust of India in an interview in March 2007, adding that "the
Chinese government cannot afford to ignore popular feelings," he said.

This view was echoed by another Chinese scholar a few months later.
"Tawang goes beyond the territorial issue. We want to win the hearts
of Tibetans. By giving up claims on Tawang, we don't want to be seen
not to be protecting Tibetan interests," Wang Yiwei, associate
professor at Fudan University told the Indian media in July 2007.

If China's occupation of Aksai Chin was to consolidate military
control over Tibet by securing an all-weather overland access to
Tibet, its claims over Tawang are aimed at giving its occupation of
Tibet religious and cultural legitimacy, underscoring yet again that
Tibet lies at the heart of China's border dispute with India.

Interestingly, while China demands Tawang on behalf of Tibetans, the
Tibetans are not claiming Tawang to be Tibetan territory. Although
during a visit to Tawang in 2003, the Dalai Lama is said to have
obliquely referred to Tawang as part of Tibet, he has acknowledged
several times the validity of the McMahon Line as per the Simla
Agreement (under which Tawang is Indian territory) and recently said
that Arunachal is a part of India.

It does seem that China is exploiting the Tibetan reverence for
Tawang to push its territorial claims vis-a-vis India.

"Having gobbled up Tibet, the historical buffer between the Indian
and Chinese civilizations, Beijing now lays claim to Indian
territories on the basis of not any purported Han connection to them
but supposed Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical influence," points out
Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"The Chinese Government has always conveniently tried to hide behind
the Tibetans on this issue," says Claude Arpi, a French Tibetologist
living in India.

China's claim to Tawang and Arunachal is not new. During the 1962 war
Chinese troops occupied vast swathes of territory here before
withdrawing to the McMahon Line that India recognizes as its border
with China. In 1987, there was a serious skirmish at Sumdorong Chu in
Arunachal Pradesh.

China's assertion of claims over Arunachal has grown over the past
two years. On the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to New
Delhi in November 2006, Beijing's ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, told
an Indian television channel that "the whole of the state of
Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the
places in it". Then, in May 2007, an Indian civil servant from
Arunachal was denied a Chinese visa on the grounds that he was from
Chinese territory and hence didn't need a visa.

At negotiations Chinese officials are said to be obdurate on the
issue of India handing over Tawang to China. And along the Line of
Actual Control (LAC) China has been flexing its muscles through
incursions into Indian territory.

Indian analysts have drawn attention to China's basis for its claims
over Tawang. "Beijing's claim to Arunachal Pradesh or more
specifically to a slice of it, Tawang, flows from Tibet's putative
historical or ecclesiastical ties with Arunachal," points out Brahma
Chellaney. "An ecclesiastical relationship cannot by itself signify
political control of one territory over another," he argues.

If this was a valid ground for territorial claims, then the return of
Mount Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet, which is regarded sacred by
Hindus, would be a legitimate demand that India should then press.

In 2005, India and China had agreed that "in reaching the boundary
settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their
settled populations in the border areas". India feels that by laying
claim to Arunachal - a populated area - China is brazenly violating
earlier agreements.

India has been taking steps to underscore and strengthen its control
over Arunachal. Projects worth US$10 billion have been announced to
improve the state's economy and connectivity. Military infrastructure
here is being improved. And the disputed border in Arunachal,
including Tawang, is being opened to foreign tourists.

Will the Chinese go to war with India over Tawang? Mohan Malik, an
expert on Sino-Indian relations and professor of Security Studies at
the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu writes:

"Although the probability of an all-out conflict is extremely low,
the prospect that some of India's road building projects in disputed
areas could lead to tensions, clashes and skirmishes with Chinese
border patrols cannot be completely ruled out. Should a conflict
break out, the PLA's [People's Liberation Army] contingency plans
emphasize a "short and swift localized" conflict (confined to the
Tawang region, along the lines of the 1999 Kargil conflict) with the
following objectives in mind: capture the Tawang tract; give India's
military a bloody nose; and deliver a knockout punch that punctures
India's ambitions to be China's equal or peer competitor once and for all."

Arunachal's chief minister Dorjee Khandu has invited the Dalai Lama
to inaugurate a super-specialty hospital in Tawang later this year.
Will India stand up to the Chinese and assert its claims over Tawang
by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit? And how will the Chinese
respond? Expect sparks to fly on the issue.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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