Irony, thy name is China. Speaking at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, at the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Panchsheel agreement between India, China and Myanmar, China’s President Xi Jinping reassured his Myanmar counterpart, and India’s vice-president Hamid Ansari that China would never try to “impose its will (on them) no matter how strong it becomes". Xi added that “China does not subscribe to the notion that a country is bound to seek hegemony when it grows in strength. Hegemony or militarism is not in the genes of the Chinese."

A couple of days before this “heartening" speech full of rhetorical goodwill, a provincial press called the Hunan Map Press released a map which showed Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China, specifically the province of Tibet. The Chinese have long referred to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet.

While an Indian state was being widely shown as part of China, India’s vice-president was reaffirming his faith in the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the Chinese.

The only worthwhile protest this incident provoked, rightfully, came from the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, who condemned this aggressive step when he pointed out that China’s action had become part of a “routine". He asked the Union government to resolve the territorial dispute with China.

The ministry of external affairs’ response was to say that “all issues of importance" were taken up with the Chinese authorities during vice-president Ansari’s visit and that “cartographic depictions" don’t change ground realities.

Don’t they? Aren’t maps the medium through which we understand geographical limits of nations? Don’t they give us the clearest sense of what units combine to make a country? So is it of no consequence that the Chinese think it is not out of the ordinary to depict Arunachal Pradesh as theirs, or that the Indian government thinks this does not require condemnation in the strongest terms?

Of further consequence is the fact that a spokeswoman of China’s foreign ministry saw nothing alarming about a provincial-level press arbitrarily redrawing the country’s borders. Hua Chunying said, “the newest map is not intended to provoke criticism, but rather, to make it clear to the Chinese public…the goal is to serve the Chinese public".

The clarity of the Chinese government’s statement is in sharp contrast to the silence and resigned outlook of the Indian central government.

President Xi Jinping’s statement notwithstanding, it is precisely China’s economic and military might which drives its aggression in territorial disputes, be it with respect to Arunachal Pradesh or islands in the East and South China Sea (which also the new map showed as Chinese territory).

Similarly, India’s defence and economic weakness vis-à-vis China are illustrative of our reluctance and inability to even register a protest against its unilateral redrawing of maps. Many foreign publications and friends of China in India have for long criticized India’s “lack of realism" in drawing maps—specifically with respect to Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin. It is to be noted that the latter is under Chinese occupation and serves to link its two rebellion prone provinces of Tibet and Sinkiang. Now that China has done the same thing, there is not a whimper from these publications and eminent commentators. Maps matter and Indians know that.

Equally alarming is the possibility that the callousness on the part of the Union government is because the state in contention is in the northeastern part of the country, a region routinely excluded from mainstream policy debates and discussion. Some years ago, The Economist published a map of India which showed control of Kashmir split between India, China and Pakistan. The outrage over the map led to The Economist being forced to circulate the magazine in India with white stickers over the objectionable portion. Interestingly, that map showed Arunachal Pradesh as a disputed region as well, but Indian anger was directed towards the misrepresentation of Kashmir. India’s reactions to misrepresentation in Jammu & Kashmir and Aksai Chin are remarkably different.

The Union government is as responsible to the people of Arunachal Pradesh as it is to the rest of the country. It is worrying for India and evident to the Chinese that New Delhi does not have the military or economic might to prevent a full scale aggression by Beijing. However the Union government is only making matters worse by accepting China’s “cartographic invasion" as routine and not giving voice to the concerns of India’s citizens living in Arunachal Pradesh.

Do China’s maps reflect its hostile intentions towards its neighbours? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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