Just a week after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trip to Beijing, where he signed a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, China has reminded India of its other border conflict: Arunachal Pradesh. The Hindu reports that China opened a new highway that links Medog, Tibet’s so-called “last isolated county,” with the rest of China. The Global Times called Medog “the last roadless county in China” – it did not mention India at all.
The opening of the highway is not a border provocation in the same way as the Daulat Beg Oldi incident earlier this year. The entire highway runs squarely through Chinese territory. However, in August 2013, Chinese troops had camped out for two days within territory that India perceives to be part of Arunachal Pradesh. Most recently, prior to Manmohan Singh’s trip to China, two athletes from the disputed region were given stapled visas to travel to China for a tournament.
Chinese developments aside, India has other reasons – many of its own making – to be concerned about the future of Arunachal Pradesh. India has faced an image problem in Arunachal Pradesh because the local population has a tendency to compare the India-provided infrastructure to the vastly superior Chinese infrastructure just across the border in Tibet. The North-East has also largely been ignored as a development priority given India’s populist politics, which bank on winning electorates primarily to the west of the Siliguri Corridor.
Arunachal Pradesh is not only geographically peripheral to New Delhi, but also in terms of its identity. India’s North-East is an immensely diverse Asian melting pot, and the prime source of local identity is derived from tribal affiliation, and ethno-linguistic factors. Indian national politics are perceived to be distant. C. Uday Bhaskar, a well-known Indian strategist, condemned what he sees to be a “pattern of episodic interest” in Indian politics to the North-East whenever an acute threat from China flares-up; there seems to be no long-term strategic vision to develop the region.
New Delhi’s handling of Arunachal’s needs can be contrasted with Beijing’s attention to Tibet. The central government in Beijing, acknowledging its strained past in integrating Tibet, invested 137.8 billion yuan in the region between 2006 and 2010 and as a result raised local GDP growth over China’s already-impressive national average. Tibet grew by 11.2 percent over that period. Tibet also experienced a boom in foreign trade and tourism.
India has attempted to develop niche tourism (such as agro-tourism) in Arunachal Pradesh. The Ministry of Tourism demonstrates an increase in budgetary attention to Arunachal beginning in 2006. New Delhi needs to take seriously the infrastructure needs of the North-East in its long-term strategy to retain its territorial integrity east of the Siliguri. Infrastructure development in Arunachal can only serve to bolster India’s Look East policy – the North-Eastern states are India’s gateway to Southeast Asia after all. Bhaskar has emphasized this point.
Infrastructure has also been a point of strategic contention between India and China. The two states continue to compete for primacy in managing the Brahmaputra river’s waters. China has plans to divert water away from the Brahmaputra and towards Xinjiang. Ahead of Manmohan Singh’s visit, a Chinese state-run think tank accused to India of provoking China by building dams to prevent this from occurring. In Arunachal Pradesh, India is keen to establish hydropower projects to bolster its prior-use claim over its natural water resources. A prior-use claim would bolster India’s right to extract the natural resources it shares with its neighbors under international law.
That India and China share a border conflict in Northern Kashmir, over Aksai Chin, is well known. Generally, the situation to the east is less discussed. Arunachal Pradesh is claimed almost in its entirety by China. The state used to be known as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and was established in 1955. The oft-recalled Sino-Indian War of 1962 saw one its deadliest theaters emerge in NEFA, where India suffered catastrophic losses. In a marked difference from Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh is home to 1.3 million people.