Arunachal Pradesh: Cultural and Strategic Flashpoint For Sino-Indian Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 1

Sino-Indian relations are likely to become strained in early 2017. The Dalai Lama is scheduled to visit Tawang in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in March. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, by granting the Dalai Lama permission to visit Tawang, India is providing “a stage for anti-China separatist forces,” further warning that it would “only damage peace and stability of the border areas and bilateral relations” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, [PRC], October 29, 2016). China views the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, an area of cultural and political significance to Tibetans, as potentially destabilizing. His previous visit to Tawang in 2009, which came close on the heels of violent unrest in Tibet, was similarly criticized by Beijing (Economic Times, November 4, 2009). In the run-up to that visit, tension between India and China escalated. The Indian media reported build-up of troops on both sides of the disputed Sino-Indian border (Greater Kashmir, September 23, 2009 and, November 4, 2009).

Other visits to Arunachal Pradesh by Indian leaders and foreign officials have drawn Beijing’s ire. When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tawang in February 2015 to participate in celebrations marking 29 years of Arunachal Pradesh’s full integration into the Indian Union, the Chinese government summoned the Indian ambassador in Beijing to express “strong dissatisfaction and staunch opposition” to his trip. The visit has “undermined China’s territorial sovereignty, rights and interests,” Beijing said (Times of India, February 21, 2015). More recently, it objected to U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Verma, visiting Tawang and accused Washington of trying to “disturb peace and tranquility of border areas and sabotage peaceful development of [the] region” (Hindustan Times, October 24, 2016).

China claims 90,000 square kilometers in the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian border, which roughly corresponds to Arunachal Pradesh. But Tawang is the “focal point” of its demands in the eastern sector. Indeed, China regards Tawang as “the central question at the heart of the boundary dispute” (The Telegraph, April 22, 2012 and The Hindu, October 22, 2012). Underlying China’s territorial claims in the eastern sector are its apprehensions over Tibet. The Dalai Lama is ageing; he is 81 years old. China, which is keen to control the Dalai Lama institution and can be expected to appoint a successor when the present Dalai Lama dies. There is growing concern in Beijing over instability in Tibet and the role that Tawang could play in resisting the Dalai Lama Beijing imposes and in fueling unrest in the post-Dalai Lama era. China’s prickliness over the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit to Tawang must be seen in this context.

Tawang’s Significance

Located on the southern slopes of the Eastern Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh is India’s eastern-most state. It shares international borders with Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Tawang is at the southwest edge of Arunachal Pradesh (See map).

Arunachal Pradesh’s significance for India lies in its geography; the state extends a protective arm around much of India’s northeast. Control over Arunachal Pradesh is essential for India’s defense of the Northeast, and Tawang plays a key role in this defense. Tawang is a critical corridor between Tibet and the Brahmaputra Valley. During the 1962 border war Chinese troops invaded India through the Bum La pass, located north of Tawang town, before going on to occupy a large swath of territory in the Northeast. Indian military officials warn that ceding control over Tawang to China could culminate in India losing control of the Assam plains (Force India, January 2015). [1] Worryingly for India, the Chinese garrison town of Nyingchi, which is home to two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mountain infantry brigades, is located near Arunachal Pradesh. China’s road and rail network here would enable it to deploy soldiers along the McMahon Line very quickly (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses [IDSA], November 2008)

Tawang’s significance goes beyond geo-strategic concerns; it has strong historical, cultural and ecclesiastical links with Tibet. Its predominantly Monpa tribal population practices Tibetan Buddhism and speaks a language similar to Tibetan. Tawang is an important center of Tibetan Buddhism. The 6th Dalai Lama was born here. The town is home to the Tawang monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world after the Potala Palace in Lhasa (Times of India, October 17, 2012).

Tawang is also politically significant. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 in the wake of China’s suppression of the uprising there, he crossed into India through the Bum La pass and stayed at the Tawang monastery for some weeks. Thus, Tawang figures prominently in the history of Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule.

Growing Stridence of Chinese Claims

Historically a part of Tibet, Tawang became a part of British India only in 1914 when the rulers in Lhasa agreed to the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and British India. The Simla Convention put Tawang south of the McMahon Line and thus in British India. Yet, Tibet continued to administer Tawang for several decades. It was only after China annexed Tibet that India took administrative control of Tawang in 1951. [2]

China rejects the legality of the McMahon Line and claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of “South Tibet.” It maintains that that its position on the McMahon Line is “consistent and clear” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 29, 2016). However, “its assertive claim to Arunachal Pradesh is relatively recent” (The Wire, May 20, 2015). From the signing of the Simla Convention in 1914 till January 1959, “the Chinese never raised any formal objections to the McMahon Line; although they had many opportunities to do so.” Their main quarrel with the Simla Convention was with its Article 9, which laid out the boundaries between Inner and Outer Tibet. It was only in a letter dated January 23, 1959 that Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in a letter to his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, for the first time formally raised China’s differences with India on the border. “The Sino-Indian boundary had never been formally delimited,” Zhou said. He clarified this further in a letter dated September 8, 1959 where he said that the McMahon Line “has never been recognized by any Chinese Central Government and is therefore decidedly illegal” (IDSA, July 3, 2014).

Since then, China has made several U-turns. During the 1962 war, it occupied much of the North East Frontier Agency as Arunachal Pradesh was known then, but withdrew from it soon after, leaving it again in India’s control. [3] Indeed, it was even willing to give up its claims over Arunachal Pradesh. Under a package deal it offered India in 1960 and 1980 (the offer was withdrawn thereafter), China suggested that in return for India recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Aksai Chin in the western sector, Beijing would recognize the McMahon Line as the border in the eastern sector. But in 1985, during the sixth round of the Sino-Indian border talks, China for the first time pressed claims south of the McMahon Line. [4] In 1986, when India granted full statehood to Arunachal Pradesh, repeated Chinese intrusions at the Sumdorong Chu Valley culminated in serious skirmishes between the two sides.

Then in 2005, China signaled willingness to accommodate Indian concerns. Under the “Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question,” India and China decided that a settlement to the border dispute would not involve exchange of areas with “settled populations” (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, April 11, 2005). In effect, China was willing to give up its claims over Tawang, an area with a large settled population (The Wire, May 24, 2015).

But a significant turnaround in China’s position became evident soon after. In 2006, days ahead of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India, China’s ambassador in Delhi, Sun Yuxi, said that “the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory. And Tawang is only one of the places in it. We are claiming all of that” (Hindustan Times, November 19, 2006). China has also refused to issue visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh or issued them stapled visas on the grounds that they are in fact Chinese citizens (The Hindu, June 1, 2015). In 2009, for the first time ever it blocked an Indian application for loans from the Asian Development Bank for development projects in Arunachal Pradesh (Indian Express, April 14, 2009). China is also buttressing its claims by strengthening its military muscle and access near the McMahon Line. This has prompted India to step up its own military preparedness and border infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh (China Brief, September 13, 2016).

Chinese Anxieties

So what lies behind China’s increasingly strident demands in the eastern sector of its border with India? The Sino-Indian border dispute is entwined with China’s concerns over the stability of its control over Tibet. Its claims over Aksai Chin in the western sector of the LAC, for instance, were linked to its need “to assert and uphold authority over Tibet.” Following its annexation of Tibet in 1950, China needed to send in a large number of troops and civil administration to quell unrest and establish control over the region. Of the three available routes into Tibet, the route via Aksai Chin was the most convenient. It provided all-weather access to Tibet and, being unpopulated, was free from attacks by Tibetan insurgents. [5]

If China’s claims over Aksai Chin were aimed at establishing military and administrative control over Tibet, its demands on Tawang are linked to concerns over Tibet’s stability. Such concerns have grown since the 2008 unrest in Tibet (Business Standard, May 14, 2015). China is anxious that when the present Dalai Lama dies, resistance to a Beijing-appointed successor could trigger an uprising in Tibet similar in intensity to the one in the 1950s (Outlook, May 30, 2007). A Beijing-appointed Dalai Lama would be all the more unacceptable to Tibetans if the present Dalai Lama determines who his successor will be. He has said that his “reincarnation” could happen “outside Tibet, away from the control of the Chinese authorities” (His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet). Should the next Dalai Lama be “discovered” in Tawang, “a Chinese rival may not enjoy the same legitimacy” (Business Standard, April 13, 2014). Additionally, like the present Dalai Lama, he would be outside China’s control and Tawang would emerge as another rallying point for Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. [6]

In the months ahead of the Dalai Lama’s 2009 visit, discussion on the succession issue gathered momentum, triggering speculation that he would announce a successor in Tawang (Indian Express, September 3, 2008; Open, October 31, 2009 and Economic Times, November 04, 2009). There is similar speculation among Tibetan exiles about the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit (Tehelka, July 11, 2015).

Although India has consistently denied backing Tibetan insurgents and does not allow Tibetan exiles to engage in political activity on its soil, China believes it does (Hindustan Times, August 7, 2012; Hindustan Times, September 21). China’s fears are growing as India-U.S. has increased since 2005, including in Arunachal Pradesh. In May 2016, China strongly protested a statement by the U.S. Consulate-General in Kolkata that Washington regards Arunachal Pradesh as part of India (Business Standard, May 14, 2015; Arunachal Times, April 13, 2016 and Indian Express, May 4, 2016).


China’s concern over instability in Tibet underlies its claims on Tawang, which have grown increasingly strident over the past decade. This demand is likely to grow, as uncertainty over the Dalai Lama’s succession and the likely unrest in Tibet mounts. The growing proximity of India and the U.S. compounds China’s anxieties over Tibet. Under these circumstances, relations between India and China, which are already fraying, can be expected to deteriorate further. A settlement of their border dispute is unlikely in the near future.


Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times Online, Geopolitics, etc. She can be contacted at [email protected]




  1. John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 98–100.
  2. Srinath Raghavan, “The Boundary Dispute with China,” Seminar, 2008.
  3. It is possible that poor road connectivity between Tibet and Tawang, lack of supply lines and a hostile local population could have prompted China to withdraw from Arunachal Pradesh after occupying it.
  4. pp. 100–105.
  5. Ibid, pp. 80–88.
  6. Of the 14 Dalai Lamas so far, only two—the fourth and the sixth—were born outside Tibet, in Mongolia and India (Tawang), respectively and Mongolian Buddhism has close ties with Tibetan Buddhism, raising the possibility of the 15th Dalai Lama being ‘discovered’ in Mongolia. Hence, China’s sensitivity and strong response to visits by the Dalai Lama to Ulaanbaatar, as well. His recent visit prompted Beijing to take “punish” landlocked Mongolia for its “erroneous action” by suspending ongoing bilateral talks, hiking overland transit charges and blocking a border crossing between the two countries (Global Times, December 8).