By Namrata Goswami
China has upped the ante against India once again vis-à-vis its territorial claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. In early January, China denied visa to Group Captain Mohonto Panging, a senior Indian Air force officer hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, who was to be part of a 30 member Integrated Defence team travelling to China under a bilateral defence exchange programme. Ironically, the visit, starting January 10, was meant to be a Confidence Building Exercise and an offshoot of the Annual Defence Dialogue. India did not cancel the visit per se but instead sent a truncated 15 member military delegation that did not include Mohonto Panging.
It must be noted that this is not the first time that China has signalled its territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh by denying visa to an Indian citizen from the state. In May 2007, China denied visa to Ganesh Koyu, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from Arunachal Pradesh, who was to be a part of a 107 member IAS officer study visit to Beijing and Shanghai. China pointed out that Koyu is a Chinese citizen since he belongs to Arunachal Pradesh and hence could visit China without a visa! The same logic appears to have motivated the Chinese action this time around as well.
It is disturbing that China’s increasingly assertive posture on Arunachal Pradesh is being carried out against the backdrop of its increased militarization in Tibet. According to a 2010 US Department of Defense report, China has replaced its old liquid fuelled, nuclear capable CSS-3 intermediate range ballistic missile with “more advanced CSS-5 MRBMs” and has vastly improved its border roads in the eastern sector bordering India, which will considerably enhance PLA movement. Intercontinental missiles such as the DF-31 and DF-31A have also been deployed by China at Delingha, north of Tibet. On the border with India, China has deployed 13 Border Defence Regiments totalling around 300,000 troops. Airfields have also been established at Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka, which are in addition to the existing six airfields in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, for supporting fighter aircraft and enhance the PLA’s airlift capability.
In response, India has upgraded its own military presence in the eastern sector by its decision to deploy the 290 km-range Brahmos supersonic cruise missile in order to strengthen its defence posture vis-à-vis China there. A five year expansion plan to induct 90,000 more troops and deploy four more divisions in the eastern sector is also underway. Already, there are 120,000 Indian troops stationed in the eastern sector, supported by two Sukhoi 30 MKI squadrons from Tezpur in Assam (See Figure I).
In an article in the PLA Daily last year, China had expressed concern about this Indian military upgrade in the eastern sector viewing it as directed at China. If that be indeed the case, refusing a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh, while aimed at scoring a political point with India, creates obstacles towards the very confidence-building that China hopes to see in the eastern sector.
It is to be noted that the India-China territorial dispute in the eastern sector had led to a border war in 1962 which resulted in India’s defeat by China. The memories of that defeat continue to linger in the psyche of the Indian military establishment. While both countries have avoided a conflict since then, the cause of that border war – a disputed 1,080km border and China’s territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh – stands unresolved.
Many strategic analysts argue that the Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh coupled with the unresolved eastern border could result in a future conflict between India and China. Such a scenario is, however, unlikely for three fundamental reasons. First, China and India are nuclear weapon states with 340 nuclear weapons between them (China with 240 and India with 100). Nuclear deterrence will play a critical role in averting all out war. Second, leaders of both countries would be cautious about any “war talk” due to the physical proximity between the two countries and realise that the consequences of any war would be tragic for both. Third, even conventional land warfare between India and China would be difficult due to the high mountainous landscape. The only caveat here is the possibility of aerial warfare, but nuclear weapons’ deterrence dynamics will play a role here as well.
To be sure, one of the main irritants in India-China relations, and closely tied to China’s territorial claim on Arunachal Pradesh, is the presence of the Dalai Lama and the “Tibetan government-in-exile” in India. The Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh was the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century and is the second largest Tibetan monastery after the one in Lhasa. It could well be that the 14th Dalai Lama may choose his successor from the Tawang monastery. If this were to happen, the international questioning of China’s legitimacy over Tibet will continue. Consequently, China perhaps believes that its aggressive posture on Arunachal Pradesh will deter India from overplaying its Tibet card, which includes 120,000 Tibetan refugees living in India.
If the Dalai Lama factor is indeed propelling China’s recent posture on Arunachal Pradesh, it has all the makings of becoming a self fulfilling prophesy. It is well known that India provided asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 for purely moral reasons and has consistently expressed its recognition of Tibet as part of China. Yet, it appears that China suspects that there is some diabolical Indian plan to use the Dalai Lama to undermine China. As a result, it has turned aggressive on Arunachal Pradesh. This in turn has led some Indian strategic analysts to argue that India should develop the Dalai Lama card to counter China. Thus, the situation has the potential to come full circle.
It is however important for the peace and prosperity of both India and China that they do not descend into such a negative dynamic. It is in the interest of both countries that the 2005 India-China framework agreement is the most viable framework to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChinaupstheanteinArunachalPradesh_NamrataGoswami_170112