Why China’s playing hardball in Arunachal

DNA’s ongoing investigation shows new links to Tibet make Aksai Chin inconsequential and China is no longer interested in an east-west swap.

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Why China’s playing hardball in Arunachal


DNA’s ongoing investigation shows new links to Tibet make Aksai Chin inconsequential and China is no longer interested in an east-west swap.

HONG KONG: In Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, a player who rapidly advances pawns along the ‘Han-Chu border’, or the centreline of the board, can derive  strategic advantage.
The allegations that Chinese troops had made “incursions” into India in Arunachal Pradesh, and that Chinese authorities denied visas to government officials from the border state, invoke concerns in Indian quarters that China is playing out a grand strategy to gain spatial advantage, even as bilateral talks on the border dispute stretch interminably.

What is China’s game plan in Arunachal Pradesh, and how has it evolved over the decades since the  military defeat it inflicted on India in 1962? How does this gameplan fit the larger objectives of the border dispute negotiations, and the bigger context of bilateral relations between the two emerging giants?

“China is determined to find a resolution to the border dispute with India,” says Ding Xueliang of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing. “China sees India as an important power from an economic and geopolitical viewpoint, and wants a better relationship with it.”

Such articulations of goodwill, often tend to get drowned by the high-decibel — and public — grandstanding on the border dispute. Repeated Chinese claims that the 90,000 sq km tract of land on the eastern wing of the Himalayas, which broadly corresponds to Arunachal Pradesh and which has been under Indian administration since the 1940s, is Chinese territory have only given rise on the Indian side to a Great Wall of Distrust.

Curiously, it was only as recently as in October 1985 that the Chinese side staked its claim to this ‘eastern tract’ — current-day Arunachal Pradesh — seriously for the first time.

Until then, China had conveyed the impression to Indian leaders on several occasions that although it did not recognise the validity of the McMahon Line (the British-delineated borderline between India and China), it was willing to abide by a reciprocal formulation: China would acknowledge Indian sovereignty in the ‘eastern tract’ if India would abandon its claim to Aksai Chin, the 38,000 km tract of cold desert in Ladakh in the western Himalayas that China had brought under its control when its army “liberated” Tibet in 1951.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Tibet wasn’t as well-connected by road-and-rail networks as it is today, control of Aksai Chin was of strategic importance to China in order to establish its authority in the combustible erstwhile kingdom. Likewise, for India, control of the ‘eastern tract’ was critical for it to maintain its hold on the fissiparous northeastern region.

But India rejected this ‘east-west’ swap proposal on the principled ground that Chinese ‘concessions’ in the eastern tract were not concessions at all since China had never administered this area and had no right over it. And from its perspective, Aksai Chin was Indian territory that had been “illegally occupied” by China.

Since October 1985, however, China has claimed right over the entire eastern tract, in present-day Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Chinese negotiators have even turned their original swap proposal on its head, and have subsequently claimed that China would be willing to make concessions in the western tract (that is, Aksai Chin) if India reciprocated by giving up its claims in the eastern tract (that is, Arunachal Pradesh)!

What accounts for this change in game plan? Was it a bargaining strategy?

“It isn’t just a strategy,” says Ding, “it’s a historical perception: the view (that the territory of Arunachal Pradesh is China’s) is widely shared by Chinese officials.” Also, he adds, even though Chinese leaders (unlike their Indian counterparts) don’t face the pressure of electoral politics, they too are accountable to parliament and the Communist Party apparatus for their actions. “If too many concessions are made, there is bound to be a lot of finger-pointing and charges of betrayal of national interest.”

In fact, China’s about-turn on the east-west swap proposal may be linked to its changed geopolitical needs. With the completion of numerous road and rail links to Lhasa from other parts of China, and the heightened accessibility to Tibetan areas, Aksai Chin doesn’t hold the same strategic significance that it did in the 1950s and 1960s.

And in terms of natural resources, Aksai Chin is the place “where not a blade of grass grows,” as Jawaharlal Nehru once dismissively said. In contrast, Arunachal Pradesh has mineral and timber resources, and is also a potential source of hydroelectric power.

But above all else, China perhaps feels that given its increased stature on the world stage in recent decades, and its capacity to work the levers of ‘soft power’, it no longer has the compelling need to make the kind of concessions it might have made in an earlier time. Perhaps it’s decided that it pays to play hardball.

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