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Hindi-Chini bye bye? July 20, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

As Australia grapples with the strategic and economic implications of the Stern Hu affair, Canberra should spare a thought for India. New Delhi’s recent decision to move a squadron of its most advanced fighters, the Su-30 MK1, to Assam suggests a cruel irony. Eastern Assam was the jumping off point for the ‘the hump’ air-route over the Himalayas, the route by which China was sustained in its war against imperial Japan. In this case, however, the fighters are clearly intended to contain, not support, China.  

Reports state that four fighters of an eventual 20 have now been located at Tezpur. The fighters will be part of a growing Indian Air Force presence in the region designed to maintain aerial dominance over China in the adjacent areas of Tibet. The Indian activity is reported also to involve substantial upgrades for a number of Assamese airfields, which suggests an additional Su-30 squadron could be moved to the region. 

But why bother, given the high opportunity costs of the move, which represents on the basis of the transfer of one squadron a quarter of India’s current Su-30 MK1 holdings and half of those holdings for two squadrons?

The answer lies in the contested Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal has a population of about one million. China claims it on the basis that Beijing never agreed to the McMahon Line (see map), a border drawn up by the British but subsequently ratified by Tibet. 

The McMahon line is represented by thenorthern boundary of the area in red.  The southern boundary is approximately the one claimed by China today.  From a British map in the public domain.

The McMahon line is represented by the northern boundary of the area in red.

After the ground rules had been set for border negotiations between India and China in 2005, India assumed Arunachal was relatively secure. The ground rules stated that “in reaching the boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Given this formulation, and given China had relinquished its claim to neighbouring Sikkim, India was of the view that China’s claim related simply to Tawang, politically sensitive in Tibet as the birth-place of the Sixth Dalai Lama, and not to the whole of Arunachal.

But India was deeply shocked when one week before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to New Delhi, the Chinese Ambassador to India re-iterated the Chinese claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Why the apparent reversal? Was it simply a negotiation move to unsettle New Delhi prior to the visit (if so it worked)? Was it a profound reconsideration on the part of China, perhaps caused by some political change in Beijing? Or had New Delhi simply misunderstood the terms of the 2005 agreement?

That it was a temporary bargaining move must now be discounted. Indeed, Indian assessments generally argue that China has hardened its stance on Arunachal since 2005. China has continued with its claims persistently and firmly. It has probed India militarily along that border and strengthened its positions. It is planning to build a railway into the region, which would give it a very significant strategic advantage. It has objected to visits by the Indian prime minister to Arunachal, opposed an Asian Development Bank loan to India on the grounds that a small portion was to be spent in Arunachal and refused visas to visiting Indian delegates from that state.   

This Chinese activity appears to go further than negotiating strategies in relation to the so-called ‘swap’ scenario. According to this scenario, the border issue will eventually be settled by India giving up its claims in the western segment of the border (Aksai Chin – strategically important to China) in exchange for China giving up its claims in the east, including Arunachal Pradesh. 

The two Asian giants are also increasingly at loggerheads over trade and investment. While trade between them is growing rapidly, it is overwhelmingly in China’s favour. India has implemented a series of bilateral measures aimed at curbing Chinese imports in areas as diverse as toy manufacturing and dairy products. India has also restricted Chinese investment in sectors it considers strategically important, such as telecommunications and port development.  China is now threatening to retaliate, potentially triggering a ‘trade war’ between the two.  

The official attitude in New Delhi to China remains upbeat. But India cannot, under any circumstances, afford to lose Arunachal Pradesh. To do so would be to allow a major strategic breach of India’s traditional bulwark – the Himalayas.  It could jeopardise India’s vital water supplies and it could destabilise the entire Indian Northeast. It would be politically unacceptable for any Indian government. 

In comprehensively strengthening its aerial defences in the northeast, New Delhi is signalling that it, too, is hardening its position, and that Arunachal Pradesh is non-negotiable.


1. Rana Ganguly - July 21, 2009

China’s present regime is known to be expansionist and is perhaps the biggest threat to the region’s security and peace after Islamic fundamentalism. It has always encouraged Pakistan to engage in terrorist activities against India. It is one of the biggest proliferators of nuclear weapons and missiles technology and yet nobody wants to take it to task.

Its invasion of Tibet, a peaceful and unguarded country, in 1949 and its continued occupation is illegal. This was acknowledged and accepted by most in the global community of nations including Britain and the United States when it happened. China, however, justifies this in terms of a Seventeen-Point Agreement that it forced a weak Tibetan Government to sign at that stage at gunpoint. According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Treaties in international law are binding on the countries signing them, unless they are imposed by force or a country is coerced into signing the agreement by the threat of force. China very conveniently legitimises its annexation of Tibet by referring to the terms of this Seventeen-Point Agreement. However, the same China refused to respect treaties on concessions granted to western powers on the grounds that a weak China of yore was forced to agree to terms which were not in its interest. This is the ultimate in hypocrisy.

Tibetans did not accept that agreement and the Chinese have repeatedly violated some of these terms. “Their army was still in occupation of eastern Tibet; the area had not been returned to the government of Tibet, as it should have been.” [My Land and My People, Dalai Lama, New York, Fourth Edition, 1992, p.95]. India is perhaps the only counter balance to the nefarious designs of China in the region which the global community of nations have been insincere about, and virtually impotent to deal with in the wake of China’s rising economic might. China’s claim over Arunachal and Aksai Chin need therefore to be dismissed by India in the same vein.

Despite its myriad problems India is one of the few countries that has always welcomed with open arms refugees fleeing religious or political persecution for thousands of years and helped preserve their religious and cultural traditions. China on the other hand is looking to homogenise its society on the pretext of modernisation and at the cost of erasing the rich traditions and heritage of its different minorities-a major loss to the world.

China’s persecution of the Tibetan and Uyghur people and its intimidation of Taiwan and other smaller neighbours is well-known. The regime has been getting away with atrocities against its own people including the Tienanmein massacre. An integrated global economy perhaps cannot afford any major unrest in China. However, that should not be the prime reason to continue looking the other way while China continues being unaccountable for all the mischief it deigns and implements. Also, closer to home-it is time Australia demanded to know the details of the allegations and the judicial processes that are being used to subjugate the rights of and condemning an Australian citizen like Stern Hu to imprisonment even before being proven guilty.