Is Tawang Becoming the Focus of Sino-Indian Relations?

A former top Chinese negotiator's statements on a trade-off between Tawang and Aksai Chin could mean a variety of things.

Indian army soldiers march near an army base on India's Tezpur-Tawang highway in Arunachal Pradesh May 29, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Frank Jack Daniel/Files

Indian army soldiers march near an army base on India’s Tezpur-Tawang highway in Arunachal Pradesh May 29, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Frank Jack Daniel/Files

It is not easy to interpret remarks by a former senior Chinese official on a possible trade-off between Tawang in Arunchal Pradesh, which is claimed by China, and Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by India.

Dai Bingguo, who was Beijing’s special representative or top negotiator on the border dispute with his Indian counterparts between 2003 and 2013, declared in an interview with the China-Indian Dialogue magazine recently that “The disputed territory in the eastern sector of the China-India boundary, including Tawang, is inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction.”

He went on to add that India’s refusal to meet China’s “reasonable requests” for a border compromise was the reason why the boundary problem had proved to be so intractable. “If the Indian side takes care of China’s concerns in the eastern sector of their border,” Dai said, “the Chinese side will respond accordingly and address India’s concerns elsewhere.”

Since the mid-1980s, Chinese negotiators have been demanding that India give them the Tawang tract as part of a border settlement and India has been rejecting the demand. Indian special representatives, who were the serving national security advisors (Brajesh Mishra, J.N. Dixit, M.K. Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon) had categorically told their Chinese counterparts that to even raise the issue of India ceding Tawang was to indicate that Beijing did not want to really settle the dispute. In other words, the Chinese knew that  India will not concede Tawang and yet they kept on raising the idea of a swap involving India conceding Tawang, a major  town of the state and a premier centre of Tibetan Buddhism. No Indian government could pass such a deal.

Dai Bingguo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dai Bingguo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Knowing this fully well, Dai insisted that the ball was in the Indian court when he declared that “China and India are now standing in front of the gate towards a final settlement… The gate is a framework solution based on meaningful and mutually accepted adjustments. Now, the Indian side holds the key to the gate.” However, we must enter a caveat here: It must be emphasised that Dai is now retired and it is not clear how much, if any, authority his remarks carry.

Tawang’s history

The issue of Tawang is a complex one. It is true, as Dai says, that it was culturally Tibetan in that it was the town with one of the great Tibetan monasteries, the place where the fifth Dalai Lama was born. Dai’s claim that even the “British colonialists” respected China’s jurisdiction over Tawang is ingenuous. The British position, and following it the Indian one, has been that the Tibetans exercised only ecclesiastical authority over the area, not temporal. That has been the Chinese position with regard to the authority of the Dalai Lama in any case.

In 1914, at a time when Tibet was independent, its representative agreed, at a meeting in Shimla, to place it south of the McMahon Line, which was agreed as the border between Tibet and India. A Chinese plenipotentiary who was present in the meetings initialled the agreement, though he did not finally sign it. The Chinese protests thereafter were exclusively about the manner in which McMahon had defined the Tibet-China border, not the India-Tibet boundary.

Communist China also did not raise the issue till 1959. Indeed, in 1962, China occupied Tawang and all of Arunachal Pradesh, but subsequently withdrew behind the border formed by the McMahon Line. This was in contrast to its behaviour in Ladakh, where it did not leave the territory it occupied.

Since the mid-1980s, Indian negotiators have confronted the Chinese claim that the Sino-Indian dispute in the eastern sector was more serious and that India must make concessions, possibly the Tawang tract, in order to resolve the dispute.

Dai’s interview is interesting. Last year, he published his memoirs Strategic Dialogues and there was no mention of Tawang in it. All he noted was that the “Sino-Indian boundary has never been formally demarcated, but is a traditional customary line formed by the people of the two nations”. Refusing to acknowledge the McMahon Line that was created by the Simla Accord of 1914, he said that the only accepted portion was the Sikkim boundary formed by the 1890 Sino-British convention. The McMahon Line, he insisted was “concocted” by the British and the representatives of the local Tibetan government.

Dai pointed out that the April 2005 agreement on Political Parameters and Agreed Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Border Question was the first political document between the two nations for resolving the border issue.

China Watch_Manoj JoshiArticle III enjoined on both sides to “make meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments” with a view of working out “a package settlement to the boundary question.” Article IV noted that the two sides should give “due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests.” Article V noted that the two sides need to take into account “historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities.” Article VII said that both sides “shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.”

A simple reading of its clauses would suggest that the guidelines would eventually lead to a more or less “as is/where is” position. The only viable package was allegedly suggested by Zhou Enlai in 1960 and Deng Xiaoping in 1980 – that in exchange for India surrendering its claim of Aksai Chin, China would concede its claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

Article IV would suggest that India would do it on the basis of accepting Aksai Chin as a strategic interest for China, while the latter would agree to do the same in the case of Arunachal on the basis of Article VII.

However, as Ranjit Kalha pointed out in India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement (2014), in 2007, confronted with the enhancement of the Indo-US strategic relationship, the Chinese baulked and its foreign minister Yang Jiechi blandly told his Indian counterpart that “the mere presence of populated areas [in Arunachal] would not effect Chinese claims on the boundary”. This was followed by other measures such as the denial of a visa to an IAS officer of Arunachal Pradesh, issuing stapled visas for visitors from Jammu and Kashmir and stepping up its patrolling of the Line of Actual Control, especially in the areas where the Indian and Chinese perceptions of the line overlapped. Simultaneously, it also enhanced its nuclear ties with Pakistan to counter the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Kalha believes that “the Chinese had decided to utilize the unsettled border as a part of coercive diplomacy to put ‘pressure’ on India”.

Given the long and complicated history of Sino-Indian border negotiations, multiple possibilities flow from Dai’s interview and his specific reference to Tawang. It could well be simply the personal views of a retired senior official. On the other hand by bringing the issue of China’s claim on Tawang into the Indian public domain it could be a calculated move aimed at putting India on the defensive. Finally, it could actually presage a move back to give life to the 2005 political parameters agreement. China is currently under a great deal of pressure from internal as well as external developments. Historically these are the moments in which it becomes more amenable to settle its disputes.

There are some hints in that direction in another report of Dai’s interview which notes that China did not see India as a rival and neither did it seek to contain it. Not only was China “delighted” with the evolution of India’s relations with other countries, including the US, Dai went out of his way to laud India’s “independent foreign policy” based on its pursuit of “strategic autonomy.”

Interestingly, the Dai interview coincides with the Sino-Indian spat over the planned visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang later this year, his first since 2009. A Chinese spokesman has said that China was “gravely concerned” over the development and that it would “bring serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China-India relations.” In his remarks, the spokesman accused the “Dalai group” of putting on “dishonourable acts in the past on the boundary question.” It is not exactly clear what he meant by that.

Tawang may well have emerged as the focus of Sino-Indian relations, which revolve around the fulcrum of Tibet. Tawang is the most important monastery of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. It was the birthplace of the fifth Dalai Lama and was established at his behest in 1680-81. What the Chinese worry about it that it may be the place where the current Dalai Lama, who is 81, decides to reincarnate. Even though they insist that only they can certify a Dalai Lama, it could well lead to an invidious position from their point of view.

India has long recognised that Tibet is part of China, but their insecurities there have been fuelled by their own shoddy and, in the past, brutal, handling of their minorities. The more recent Chinese mishandling of their relations with India has resulted in New Delhi refusing since 2010 to reiterate in joint statements that Tibet is part of China. The current Indian government, which invited the Tibetan government-in-exile prime minister for the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has hardened the Indian position. In December 2016, President Pranab Mukherji became the first president in decades to welcome the Dalai Lama in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, albeit on the occasion of a function organised by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation.

At the end of the day, given India’s categorical acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, Beijing needs to accept that New Delhi has important equities in Tibet. These are not just born out of the history of Tibetan Buddhism or geography, but the fact that Tibet has been an important neighbour of India and our historical, cultural and economic interaction has been going on since antiquity.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation.