Tell Beijing where to get off

China is a fine one to preach about the need to tread carefully on disputed territory, when its soldiers have been spotted in border posts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

That China has professed displeasure over a recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh by Richard Verma, the US ambassador to India, is both unsurprising and irrelevant. Beijing is merely effecting to be hopping mad, when it has no leg to stand on.

Resorting to classic 1950s Communist Party vernacular, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang pronounced that Beijing was “firmly opposed” to Verma’s visit to Tawang—how does one oppose something that has already happened?—on the highly dubious ground that it might “damage the hard-earned peace and tranquillity of the China-India border region”. Lu told a press briefing in Beijing that “any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite.” He went on: “We urge the United States to stop getting involved in the China-India territorial dispute.”

One imagines he wagged an admonishing finger as he spoke.

For all the faux umbrage, Lu’s argument is bunkum. The travel plans of a foreign envoy, even one from the US, represent no material threat to relations between India and China. Nor does Verma’s visit to Tawang in any way compromise his government’s “respect” for Sino-Indian peace. Lu knows this, and it’s not the point: Although the scolding was notionally directed at Verma, the message was meant for the Narendra Modi government. Beijing knows the ambassador would not have made the trip without New Delhi’s knowledge and blessing.

What China is reminding India, with all the subtlety of a giant dam across the Yangtze, is that it will not renounce its claims to the swathe of Arunachal Pradesh it calls “South Tibet”. If India thinks allowing ambassadors to visit might change the status quo, then it is sorely mistaken.

But there’s nothing to suggest this was India’s calculation—New Delhi views the status quo in Arunachal Pradesh quite differently. Its reaction to Lu’s pouty posturing was as bland as it was blunt: “The US ambassador visited Arunachal Pradesh, a state which is an integral part of the country to which he is accredited. There is nothing unusual in it,” said Vikas Swarup, spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

Swarup is an accomplished novelist (he wrote the book that became the movie Slumdog Millionaire) and it couldn’t have been easy to restrain himself from using much more colourful language—and from exercising an entirely different finger gesture.

Were he not shackled by diplomatic considerations, he might have mentioned that if the “hard-earned peace and tranquillity” along the Sino-Indian border is being damaged, it is not by the scheduled and advertised visit of the American envoy, but by the clandestine infiltration along the frontier by Chinese troops. There were 350 such transgressions last year alone. India’s restraint in this matter has been remarkable.

Swarup might also have pointed out that China is a fine one to preach about the need to tread carefully on disputed territory, when its soldiers have been spotted in border posts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK): Earlier this year, Chinese officers were seen in the Nowgam area, close to the Line of Control. Imagine the hyperventilating in Beijing if Verma had been accompanied by a handful of uniformed US army officers!

Other soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army have made their presence felt near the Tangdhar sector. The ostensible reason is the construction of a hydel project there by a Chinese company, but that’s not much of an excuse: Either Beijing doesn’t trust its ally, the Pakistani military, or the soldiers are there for another reason.

There will be many more excuses for a growing Chinese troop presence in PoK in the months ahead. Beijing is literally bulldozing a highway, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), through areas India regards as its own. CPEC, a $46 billion project that seeks to connect the Chinese province of Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, will pass through Gilgit-Baltistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj have expressed New Delhi’s reservations about this to Beijing, with little effect.

Nor has Beijing been especially accommodating of the claims of other nations in the South China Sea littoral, where international arbitrators have ruled against its spurious proclamations of ownership. China has opposed Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration in the area, and maintains, without explanation, that there are no parallels between its presence in PoK and India’s commercial pursuits in the South China Sea. What’s more, operating on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of law, China is building islands in disputed waters with the sole purpose of turning its claims into a fait accompli.

Two can play that game. Having dispensed with Beijing’s blather over the American envoy’s North-Eastern trip, the MEA should now consider building metaphorical islands in Arunachal Pradesh. The area is ripe for tourism, especially of the environmental kind favoured by many Westerners and a growing number of Indians. An economic corridor in Arunachal Pradesh would be welcomed by locals for the jobs and opportunities it would bring.

In the meantime, the Modi government should encourage more foreign diplomats to visit Tawang—individually, and in groups. After all, as Verma tweeted after his trip, it is a place of “stunning mountains and wonderful people”.

Better yet, why not hold an international event there, inviting all foreign envoys currently in New Delhi? Yes, China’s too.

Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.

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