The Asian Age Oct 19th, 2010
All wars commence in the mind, and escalate with words. “Zhang Nan” or “Southern Tibet”, the designation bestowed by the People’s Republic of China on India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet, is one such example. China now claims Arunachal Pradesh as its historic territory comprising the three southern districts of the Tawang Tract unilaterally acquired by the then British Empire after the Treaty of Simla in 1913. New demands, which were first articulated around 2005, initially concerned Tawang as a traditional tributary region of Lhasa, being the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama (Tsangyang Gyatso, enthroned 1697, probably murdered 1706 by Mongol guards who were escorting him to Beijing under arrest). Subsequently, a day prior to the visit of China’s President Hu Jintao to India in 2006, Sun Yuxi, the then Chinese ambassador to India, stridently reiterated in public China’s claims to the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh in a deliberately provocative gesture designed to put New Delhi on notice of Beijing’s intention to dominate the agenda of interaction according to its own priorities. In a longer-term perspective, these needlessly provocative claims could escalate to a flash point with the potential to provoke a major confrontation between the two countries, and create an existential crisis for the entire region, a contingency for which India has to prepare itself adequately.
Indian reaction has been characteristically muted, constantly choosing to soft pedal and play down the issue — a unilateral gesture of restraint regardless of the degree of blatant provocation, which exasperated many in this country. It is seen as making a virtue out of necessity, because India has neglected to build up the requisite capabilities to adopt stronger alternatives. This is surely an unenviable position for a country seeking to promote itself as a major power for a permanent seat on the Security Council.
The present Sino-Indian equation is almost irresistibly reminiscent of the run-up to the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, and provides a fascinating playback of China’s postures at that time with its disconcertingly similar sequence of claims along the McMahon Line in North East Frontier Agency (Nefa), as well as along the Uttar Pradesh-Tibet border and in Ladakh, as relics of historic injustices perpetrated in earlier days by British imperialists. A naive and militarily ill-prepared India, with an exaggerated self image of its own international relevance as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, had sought to dissuade a determined China with platitudinous Nehruvian philosophies of anti-colonial solidarity, all of which were contemptuously disposed of by “a whiff of grapeshot” on the desolate slopes of the Namkha Chu and Rezang La. India’s collapse and comprehensive downsizing in short order in 1962 was primarily because it lacked military capability vis-a-vis China, a fatal flaw which has a disconcerting tendency of repeating itself when lessons of earlier debacles wear off from the country, as they seem to be doing now. “1962 redux” is slowly grinding into gear again, with end results unforeseeable, except that an enhanced replay at some stage (2020?) can never be totally discounted. India must not repeat its follies of the past because this time around it has been adequately forewarned.
Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Parliament.
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