The road up to the Se-la Pass winds its way tortuously along a steep mountainside. The temperature drops below zero and clumps of pine trees give way to a barren, rocky landscape. At a small Tibetan Buddhist shrine at the actual pass prayer flags flutter in the icy, howling wind. From Se-la, the road continues downhill, to the valley of Tawang - but even that “valley” has an average elevation of 2,700 metres. Welcome to the neuralgic point of two Asian giants.
Located in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang’s rugged, inhospitable terrain was once the scene of a fierce and bloody war between India and China in 1962. Now, with their re-emergence on the world scene as regional superpowers, it is once again in the spotlight. The issue is not about a piece of barren land, if ever it was, but a broader contest for recognition. The presence of the exiled Dalai Lama in India makes Chinese control of Tibet appear incomplete, while India takes pride in its multi-ethnic, secular democracy that can offer a home to the Tibetan spiritual leader. Chinese involvement in anti-Indian insurgencies in the Northeastern part of the country is tied up with the struggle over Tibet and territorial sovereignty. It is a witch’s cauldron that could erupt and threaten the stability of the region.
China lays claim not only to Tawang but to most of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls “Southern Tibet”. Official Chinese maps show the border where the plains around the Brahmaputra river end and the foothills of the Himalayas begin. India regards the MacMahon Line as the border, which is named after a colonial era British foreign secretary and follows the crest of the Himalayas. That, today, is also the so-called “Actual Line of Control” between China and India.
India rests its claim on the fact that the MacMahon Line was agreed to by Britain and Tibet as part of an accord signed in the Indian hill station of Simla in 1914. China, which took part in that conference and initialed but never ratified any agreements, has an entirely different interpretation of what happened in 1914. In a letter sent in September 1959 to then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, China's Premier Zhou Enlai stated that the MacMahon Line was never discussed at Simla; it was the outcome of secret negotiations between the British and Tibetan delegates, "behind the back of the representative of the Chinese Central Government".
At the heart of the problem is the status of Tibet. For centuries, China has considered Tibet part of its domain and, as such, it claims that the "region" cannot enter into international agreements with Britain or any other country. To reassert its claims, Chinese forces entered Tibet in 1950. India countered by extending its administration up to the MacMahon Line. In 1954, the area became the North-East Frontier Agency, NEFA. Relations between China and India became even tenser after the Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. He crossed the border near Tawang, a predominantly ethnic Tibetan area where the 6th Dalai Lama was born.
Open warfare erupted three years after the flight of the Dalai Lama. Several divisions of Chinese troops poured across the border, into Tawang and beyond. Within weeks, the Chinese had conquered all the territory it claimed in NEFA - and then withdrew to the Line of Actual Control. They clearly wanted to demonstrate that they were able to assert their territorial claims, if they so wished. India was humiliated, and the scars of the 1962 war still linger in the Indian psyche.
In 1972, NEFA became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh - “Land of the Dawn” in Sanskrit - and, in 1987, it was declared a state in the Union of India. On both occasions, China, perhaps out of diplomatic necessity, issued lame protests. The main issue was, and still is, the fact that the Dalai Lama has been able to maintain a government in exile in Dharmshala in northwestern India. And when the Dalai Lama in November 2009 paid a visit to Tawang, the Chinese were furious. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India. No doubt, the memory of the March 2008 anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was also fresh in Beijing’s mind. The Chinese accused the Dalai Lama and his movement of being behind those riots - and now he had the audacity to travel to an area, which China claims should belong to its “Autonomous Region” of Tibet. Of course, the Dalai Lama recognises this as Indian territory.
The Indians said the visit was of a purely religious nature - and that the Dalai Lama, as an honoured guest, was free to travel anywhere he wanted in the country. But many Indians were also furious with the Chinese. In August last year, D.S. Rajan, director of the Chennai Institute for China Studies, publicised an article that had allegedly recently appeared on a Chinese website. The author, Zhan Lue - a pen name meaning “strategy” - was said to have argued that India could not be considered a nation rooted in history, but “relies primarily on Hindu religion for unity”. China, therefore, should join forces with different nationalities like the Assamese, the Tamils and the Kashmiris. Then, India would fall apart and China could also recover “Southern Tibet”.
It is unclear how official that website was; Indian newspaper columnists seemed to believe that it belonged to a think-tank close to the Chinese foreign ministry, while sceptics pointed out that its exact status was obscure. Indian external affairs spokesman Vishnu Prakash also told reporters at the time that the article in question appeared to be an expression of some individual opinion, and not a reflection of official Chinese policy.
The Indian media for its part played up what is perceived as “a Chinese threat”. Around the time of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, the Indian media made it seem as if another war with China was imminent. During this author’s visit in December there were no signs of any unusual military activity in Tawang. “If fighting were to break out, my unit would be the first to be hit by bullets. But do I look worried?” said an Indian army officer speaking strictly off the record.
The only noteworthy Chinese activity seems to be that of a number of “incursions” - i.e., army units leaving some rubbish or other traces of having been present south of the Line of Actual Control. India’s response has not been to send reinforcements to Tawang but to increase aerial surveillance over most of Arunachal and to build “advanced landing grounds” equipped with radar systems.
Beijing’s fury about the Dalai Lama’s recent meeting with President Barack Obama is a fresh reminder of China’s sense of vulnerability over Tibet and the role India plays in hosting the Tibetan leader. Contested Chinese rule over Tibet against the backdrop of rising economic and military power of the two neighbors does not promise any demilitarisation of Tawang where the fluttering Buddhist flags belie the sense of peace and calm.