16 April 2023

India’s Tepid Response to China’s Renaming in Arunachal Pradesh Ignores Larger Consequences

All told, the MEA’s brief and tepid response to media personnel in New Delhi in the wake of China’s actions are not going to be enough to disrupt Beijing’s attempts to socialise foreign audiences into accepting and internalising Chinese claims over over Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: iStock Photo

In early April, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a notification that ‘standardized some geographical names’ in Arunachal Pradesh. This is the third time that Beijing has issued a set of Chinese names for places in Arunachal Pradesh; the first occasion was in 2017, and the next in 2021.

The latest Chinese action must also be seen from a wider geopolitical context not just the bilateral lens. Since Sino-Russian ties have recently been in the news, let us look at two recent Chinese moves with respect to Russia that might be relevant here.

One, in February, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued a new document on regulations of how to depict Chinese territories on maps. These regulations covered among other things, South China Sea, Taiwan, and Kashmir, but also required the addition of old Chinese names to eight places along the Russian-Chinese border including for the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Chinese hyper-nationalists view these areas as part of territory China lost to the Russian empire at a time when their country was weak.

Two, there are also reports that China has decided to switch from its support for Japanese sovereignty over Russian-held islands north of Hokkaido to a position of neutrality. It was Mao Zedong who had offered such support to Japan but Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently declared the change in his meeting with his Russian counterpart last month.

On the surface of it, the Chinese seem to have adopted a contradictory approach to Russia, but communist China’s record of territorial aggrandizement — from Aksai Chin to South China Sea — suggests that the switch to neutrality in the Russia-Japan case cannot yet be seen as a step towards support for Russian claims.

Taken together with China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine — for all practical purposes a case of tacit support for territorial conquest — Beijing seems to be reformulating its approaches to territorial disputes both its own as well as those of others.

It is in this larger context that India’s response to the Chinese naming exercise involving Arunachal Pradesh falls short. India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated, “We reject this outright. Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. Attempts to assign invented names will not alter this reality”. Underlining the reality is important but India’s policymakers need to think more deeply about where China is going with this process of providing Chinese names, and cannot only offer up boilerplate statements each time.

It has been pointed out before that the Chinese are engaged in this process as a way of building a legal basis for its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. These exercises are also a way of restating China’s claims of territorial sovereignty over the region. As a Chinese blogger wrote in the context of the issue of Chinese names for places within the Russian Far East, the practice would “encourage our country to recover these territories as soon as possible”.

While India does not make claim on the territory of others, surely Indians could be better informed of their own territories occupied by others? As things stand currently, however, other than the military and civilian officials who deal directly with these areas or the people who live along the Line of Actual Control or the Line of Control as the case may be, Indians know very little about ‘Aksai Chin’ and ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’ beyond just those names.

These expressions only form shorthand and offer Indian citizens no context, familiarity, or opportunities to learn more about what are parts of their own country. If India is serious about territorial integrity and sovereignty, why are most Indians unaware of the places within and details of those occupied territories? Are the languages or dialects of those areas taught to Indian security officials, leave alone ordinary citizens?

A larger implication of China’s naming exercise is that it is seeking to draw greater international attention to its claims over Arunachal Pradesh. For those countries that have little stake in the India-China boundary dispute or for foreign citizens with little knowledge, the Chinese action even if only a minor news item would at the very least force them to consider China’s claims and view the area as disputed even if the Arunachalis view themselves as Indians. This is, of course, assuming that the source of the news is not entirely one of China’s globally widespread State media such as the CGTN television network or that it is not its news agency Xinhua that provides foreign newspapers the copy. In such a case, there would simply be no mention of Indian sovereignty over the region.

Thus, to extend the argument made previously, it is not just India’s own citizens that have to be educated and informed about India’s territories but also the international public. However, Indian State-run media like the All India Radio does not have the capacity to run 24x7 programming in even such important neighbourhood languages as Chinese, Tibetan, Urdu, Pashto, or Burmese — the broadcasts are often only for a few hours a day. Meanwhile, DD India, Doordarshan’s international news channel, is no match for China’s CGTN — a quick look at the Twitter feed of the two should show the stark difference in priorities and quality.

All told, the MEA’s brief and tepid response to media personnel in New Delhi in the wake of China’s actions are not going to be enough to disrupt Beijing’s attempts to socialise foreign audiences into accepting and internalising Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh. It also does not generate confidence in India’s ability to support other countries — Bhutan or Japan, say — in their territorial disputes with China.

The MEA might wish to keep the issue low-key or worse, think China’s actions do not matter but either way, its passive response belies India’s claims to be a ‘leading power’.

Originally Published in Deccan Herald on 12 April 2023