The Chinese themselves have said that the biggest irritant to Sino-Indian relations is the unresolved border dispute. To them, it’s more of an issue than economic competition, India’s growing integration into the U.S. South Asian security regime, or Indian unease at Beijing’s cozying up to Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives at New Delhi’s expense and raising the specter of maritime encirclement.
This would seem counterintuitive, since the remote boondocks that have formed the basis of the border dispute—the desolate wasteland of Aksai Chin (China’s share of the Kashmir dispute) in the west and the multi-tribal mélange of Arunachal Pradesh in the east at the Burmese border—are already occupied by the parties that have the strongest claim. A simple swap—the Indians recognize Chinese jurisdiction over Aksai Chin and the Chinese acknowledge Indian control of Arunachal Pradal—has, indeed, been on the table for a half century.
Perpetual tensions at the border reflect the destabilizing potential of the “Tibet card” — the possibility that India will abandon its “One China” policy once the current Dalai Lama passes on and overtly or covertly support Tibetan independence activities along the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
China wants to secure its borders and also increase its ability to project power into adjoining areas in order to deter potential shenanigans by the Tibetans with Indian connivance. India, on the other hand, wants border conditions favorable to a possible play of the “Tibet Card”.
The slow-motion collapse of Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region and India’s major military antagonist, has deprived Beijing of its most important asset. The idea that, if India messed with Tibet, Pakistan would unleash hell in Kashmir with Chinese support, is a vain hope today.
With this geostrategic deterrent out of the picture, the focus has shifted to securing the physical space at the borders. Both China and India are pouring money and troops into the border region and arguing over the status of a little town in Arunachal Pradesh called Tawang.
Tawang is in the news because the Dalai Lama visited the town for the first time in six years, on November 8 to visit old friends and figuratively stick his thumb in the dragon’s eye. The 14th Dalai Lama, stayed in the 300-year-old Tawang monastery, and gave two lectures to the local Buddhist community. The visit marked the 50th anniversary of his arrival there in 1959 after a failed uprising in Tibet against China. The Dalai Lama already made some serious waves last year when he reportedly departed from his usual apolitical stance and said that Tawang—within the contested territory in Arunachal Pradesh—was part of India.
It might be noted that the Dalai Lama looks slightly out of line here.
In 1947, the Tibetan government (the Dalai Lama was at that time a youth of twelve who had been identified as the reincarnation and resided in Lhasa but had not yet been enthroned) tried to renegotiate its border deal with the British (the famous Simla Accord of 1914 between Great Britain and Tibet that generated the McMahon line but was never accepted by China) to get acknowledgment of its de facto control of the town.
In fact, the status of Tawang has been the key factor in the contested Himalayan border for well over one hundred years.
However, the true focus of international attention should be Nepal, which is careening into a political crisis as pro-Indian and pro-Chinese factions slug it out for dominance (with the barely concealed political, diplomatic, and financial support of their respective patrons).
At the same time that the Dalai Lama is visiting Arunachal Pradesh, the pro-Chinese Nepalese Maoists are threatening to bring the current, pro-Indian government down through mass action. The Nepalese Maoists, who abandoned their insurgency to participate in the political process, emerged from the 2008 elections as the largest political party in parliament.
A Youtube clip of the Maoists’ anti-government rally in Kathmandu on November 1 gives an idea of the intensity of the current political scene in Nepal.
If the Maoists succeed—which appears very likely—India will face the unwelcome prospect of Nepal edging into the Chinese camp.
Considering that, in the 1970s, India dealt with its other unruly satellite state — Sikkim — by orchestrating the overthrow of the monarchy, dispatching Indian troops to Sikkim at the request of local pro-Indian politicians, and arranging a plebiscite that voted for union with India and the extinction of Sikkimese independence by a vote of 97.5 per cent –there is no guarantee that the Nepalese imbroglio will end quickly or amicably.
Nobody, not even the Nepalese Maoists, seem interested in having this thing boil over into a regional crisis, and perhaps that’s why the whole mess has been almost invisible from the standpoint of the international media.
PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.