Arunachal Pradesh: Nodal Point for Act East Policy

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
February 16, 2019


When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh recently, China’s response was rapid and straight.  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying issued a statement that  “China’s position on the Sino-Indian border issue is consistent and clear. The Chinese government has never recognised the so-called Arunachal Pradesh and resolutely opposes the activities of Indian leaders to the eastern section of the Sino-Indian border” and went on to warn that  “China urges the Indian side to bear in mind the common interests of the two countries, respect the interests and concerns of the Chinese side, cherish the momentum of improvement in bilateral relations, and refrain from any action that may lead to the escalation of disputes or complicate the boundary question.”

India’s response was feeble and administrative to China’s tough messaging and obnoxious to warning. The Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement that the state of Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India. Indian leaders visit Arunachal Pradesh from time to time, as they visit other parts of India” and that “this consistent position has been conveyed to the Chinese side on several occasions.”

Could the Indian response have been better? Could it have been a little more upfront? China is not making a sound legal point, but just a historical and intellectual argument in its claim over Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal has been part of India since time immemorial and there are mentions of it in Indian epics, such as Mahabharata. When China considers it as part of China on historical basis, so can India. Is China’s claim older than Mahabharata? History is selectively used by China to stake claim of sovereignty over waters in South China Sea and over land along its border regions with little respect to claims and history of other nations. To suit their interests, the Chinese leaders for long spoke about the “century of humiliation”, now they have almost stopped repeating this mantra. The current usage of history by China is to claim sovereignty over lands that are not in Chinese control or that have been occupied by it. The Chinese government is not in a hurry to amicably resolve territorial disputes, since it is at an advantageous position. Nor is it prepared to discuss issues of sovereignty in South China Sea multilaterally, since it cannot coerce smaller countries in multilateral forums.

It is outlandish and bereft of credible history when China says that Arunachal Pradesh is South Tibet, since even Tibet is a disputed territory and the Tibetans within Tibet are tight leaped about Tibetan independence out of fear and the Tibetans in exile are not in a position to fight with the emerging superpower. Actually, India accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet in view of ground realities and not because of historical facts. If China reverts to history, should not India do so and rethink on its position on the Tibetan issue?

It is perhaps in the interest of India and China not to stretch history too far as it would not serve any useful purpose. Part of the Sino-Indian tensions can be resolved, if only China takes a position on Arunachal Pradesh on ground realities and not on its one-sided interpretation of history. If it plays the history card, so should India. China must realise that people of this state are proud of being Indian and China cannot conceivably change their identity.

The Government of India has off late taken some serious steps to build transport infrastructure for the benefit of people, for commercial purposes and even keeping in mind security requirements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated building of a tunnel in Sela Pass to ensure fast movements of goods and people. There are also plans to build 44 more strategic roads in border areas, including in Arunachal Pradesh. Steps are being taken to provide mobile phone connectivity in the region as well. The Prime Minister also inaugurated opening of a 24/7 DD news channel and a Film and Television Institute, which is going to be the third such institute in the country after FTII in Pune and SRFTI in Kolkata.

All such initiatives by the Government of India in the backdrop of loss of Asian Development Bank loan due to indirect Chinese pressure and influence over prospective foreign investors. Still, India should lie low and seek to promote Arunachal Pradesh as the nodal point to connect India with Southeast and Northeast Asia. The government of India can think of inviting foreign investment in this North Eastern state from key countries with attractive tax benefits and other concessions. One of the best ways to counter Chinese propaganda is to showcase the state as an attractive destination for foreign investors.

India should encourage the American and European companies to weigh in the paybacks of doing business, making investments, producing goods and other related activities in North East India in general and Arunachal Pradesh in particular.