Looking East

China: Implications of Modi’s Visit on Northeast India

26 May, 2015    ·   4879

Wasbir Hussain advocates the bigger role for border regions in bilateral confidence-building measures

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-on-optics China visit may have generated enough signals about the two Asian giants attempting to move beyond the status quo on key fronts, but in Northeast India, the mood after the trip, if anything, has been gloomy. That is because there has been no indication that the concerns of the region - that include China building mega dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) or even planning to divert the river, or the issue of people from Northeast India, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, being given stapled visas by China - were raised by India or accepted by the Chinese of their own as matters that need consideration or re-consideration.

No wonder, as the three-day visit came to a close, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi lamented over Modi not raising the issue of China building dams on the Tsangpo, close to the Indian border as the river enters Arunachal Pradesh. “By not raising the serious issue and putting it on the backburner, the Prime Minister has done grave injustice to Assam and its people,” Gogoi said. If Gogoi did some thinking aloud on the issue of dams that can deplete the quantum of water flow on the Brahmaputra, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Nabam Tuki expressed “shock” at the “inappropriate response” from New Delhi to a section of the Chinese official media showing a map of India that excluded Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and we expect a strong stand from the Centre to settle this (border) issue once and for all,” Tuki said.

If Sino-Indian ties have been held hostage by the events that led to or followed the 1962 war, the two nations will have to take the bull by the horns and make direct attempts to resolve the border issue. How long, after all, can China continue claiming the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, some 90,000-odd square kilometre of this Indian frontier state? Once again, during the Modi visit, one could see a status quoist approach on the subject. The joint statement only went to the extent of re-stating that the two sides wanted an early political settlement of the boundary question that serves the basic interests of the two countries. It said this endeavour must be pursued as a ‘strategic objective’ by the two governments.

Of course, there is a very interesting sentence in the joint statement that talks about the two nations reaffirming their commitment to “push forward negotiations on the framework for a boundary settlement based on the outcomes and common understanding achieved so far...” If a settlement has to be reached keeping in view the “outcomes and common understanding achieved so far,” one must remember the 2005 agreement between the two nations on ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question’. Article Seven of this Agreement says: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” If Beijing is to honour this 2005 commitment, China simply cannot or should not lay claim on Arunachal Pradesh that has a settled population along the border who have time and again expressed their unflinching allegiance to India as its citizens.

If Beijing can keep reiterating that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is an integral part of China, New Delhi too could have reiterated during Modi’s China trip that Arunachal Pradesh is India’s integral part, a state that has a well ‘settled population’ along the border. By saying so, India would not have gone anywhere beyond the 2005 Agreement that China has been a signatory to. Modi has proved on several occasions during his one-year in office that he is a decisive Prime Minister, something India had not seen in the immediate past. It was, therefore, not surprising to find him announcing India’s decision to “extend electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals.” Expectedly, China welcomed this move but refrained from saying whether it would reciprocate. All that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was willing to say was this: ‘China is willing to make joint efforts with India under the Chinese laws and regulations so as to facilitate the exchanges of China and Indian people and seek for new development.’ No prizes for concluding (not guessing) that Beijing was silent on the issue of providing stapled visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh wanting to visit the country to drive home its claim on the territory.

The way market forces are beginning to dictate or determine bilateral ties between nations, the border dispute between India and China can remain on the backburner for an indefinite period and there can be business as usual on other matters. But that may not be the case on the issue of waters of shared rivers between the two neighbours. China has already operationalised a unit of the 500 MW Zangmu dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo, 3300 metres above sea level. Besides, Beijing has already cleared the construction of three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo. A 640 MW dam, obviously bigger than the Zangmu project, is to come up at Dagu, around 20 km upstream of Zangmu. Two smaller dams are on the cards at Jiacha and Jiexu, also on the middle reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo. China has made it clear it would ‘vigorously’ push hydropower projects in Tibet in its current Five Year Plan (2011-15) to reduce the energy shortfall in the region. Northeast India aside, China’s massive plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo has raised serious concerns in other lower riparian states like Bangladesh. Green groups at home are mounting pressure on New Delhi to respond because they fear this would lead to reduction in the water flow on the Brahmaputra and cause other disasters like massive siltation.

New Delhi is disadvantaged because of the absence of a water treaty between the two nations. The only agreement that India and China have on the subject is over hydrological data-sharing. Once again, the Chinese have made no effort to indicate it was ready to share its plans about building dams on trans-boundary rivers. The only official mention of the subject during the Modi visit was a reiteration on providing flood-season hydrological data and “assistance in emergency management.” The two sides, of course, agreed to further strengthen cooperation through the Expert-Level Mechanism on the provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest. This actually means nothing as Beijing has been less than transparent on what its plans are on rivers that flow out to India, particularly the Yarlung Tsangpo.

Yes, New Delhi and Beijing did note the increasingly important role played by Indian states and Chinese provinces in advancing the bilateral relationship. The two sides agreed to establish a State/Provincial Leaders’ Forum and the first meeting of the Forum, attended by  Prime Minister Modi and Premier Li Keqiang, was held in Beijing on 15 May 2015. Whether the possible role of states in India’s Northeast figured in this Forum is not known, but unless border regions are factored in any confidence-building measures, the desired results may not really be achieved.