Why China has shifted focus to Arunachal frontier

It would give China psychological or cultural advantage, says Indo-China expert

INDIA-TUNNEL-SELA Road to tawang: Construction work being carried out in the tunnel under the Sela pass | AFP

CHINA HAS SHIFTED its focus aggressively to the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh frontier). The main reason is that talks are going on in the Eastern Ladakh sector. The 17th round got over on December 20. In Ladakh, disagreement over some ‘disputed’ spots has already been settled; two places (Demchok and Depsang) remain to be agreed upon. In these circumstances, it would have been strange if China had intruded further in Ladakh, jeopardising the talks.

It is not the case in the eastern sector, particularly in the Tawang area, because there are [still] differences in perception in several places about the alignment of the border. After the invasion of Tibet in 1950, no agreement has been signed on the boundary. In the Tawang sector, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is disputed at three places―Khinzemane, Sumdorong Chu valley and Yangtse. It was expected that something would happen in one of these three places.

It would be more of a psychological or cultural advantage for China to capture small areas in this sector―cultural advantage because of the presence of the Tawang Gompa (monastery), the largest in India, and psychological because China claims the entire state of Arunachal as its own.

Based on my interactions, Arunachalis are a very patriotic lot, starting with Chief Minister Pema Khandu. Further, he understands defence problems. His father, former chief minister Dorjee Khandu, served in the Indian Army before joining politics. Pema Khandu is also the only chief minister to have a military adviser.

When it comes to infrastructure along the LAC, India has taken tremendous steps, but 20 to 30 years too late. Moreover, because of the nature of the terrain, India can never match China’s infrastructure. But, for a few years now, the mindset of the government has changed and serious efforts have been made to have a decent infrastructure in border districts/circles. For example, the recent opening of the Hollongi Greenfield Airport, also called ‘Donyi Polo’ Airport, near Itanagar. On November 2, a Dornier D-28 aircraft landed at the Ziro Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) in the Lower Subansiri district; commercial operations are expected to start soon. The same 17-seater aircraft is already operational at Pasighat and Tezu airports. Arunachal Pradesh now has four airports (Itanagar, Ziro, Pasighat and Tezu) and nine ALGs―Aalo, Mechuka, Pasighat, Tawang Air Force Station, Tuting, Vijaynagar, Walong, Ziro and Daporijo. A number of helipads have also been built near the McMahon Line.

While most existing roads have been improved, many new ones have been built closer to the LAC. Further, the traffic on the Bomdila-Tawang road will greatly improve with the opening of the tunnel under the Sela pass early next year.

Moreover, the government has a new grand project―the Arunachal Frontier Highway from Tawang to Vijaynagar. The 1,748 km-long highway will cost some Rs40,000 crore. It is a highly challenging project.

As told to Sanjib Kr Baruah