Xi Jinping in Tibet: What India Needs to Look Out For

It is noteworthy that Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping started his visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) last week by flying into Nyingchi. This is because on Chinese maps, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is shown as part of the Nyingchi and Lhoka prefectures in TAR.

It should not be surprising that Beijing keeps a close eye on what it considers sensitive territorial issues. However, it would be incorrect to assume that the only kind of Chinese transgression into Indian territory is of the military sort. China’s civilian infrastructure build-up in TAR or Xinjiang is almost always seen in India as being also of military use, as indeed they could be. But their other uses must not be ignored. Nor should pronouncements from the Chinese leadership on matters of culture or the environment be dismissed merely as propaganda aimed at Tibetan and other minorities in TAR. They also have value as propaganda aimed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at India’s border populations.

Consider Xi’s itinerary at Nyingchi. His visit to the Nyang River, a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River, was mentioned specifically in the context of ‘ecological preservation’. On a visit to a city planning hall, he called for scientific urban development, while a visit to a village homestead saw him inspecting even the toilet as part of China’s own ‘toilet revolution’. Also important in TAR and other Tibetan areas like the Qinghai province is the promotion of cultural capital such as local handicrafts. These activities form part of Xi’s signature poverty alleviation campaign.

Meanwhile, Xi’s using the train to travel from Nyingchi to the TAR capital of Lhasa is a prominent example of the pace and high quality of physical infrastructure development in the region. From the beginning of construction of this section of the railway to its initial run in June took less than seven years. Nor is it an isolated example. 

Another important project close to the LAC that was finished in a similar time frame was a 67-km road connecting Pad Township in Nyingchi with Medog County (opposite Upper Siang and Dibang Valley districts in Arunachal Pradesh) with an altitude difference of nearly 2,900 meters between its highest and lowest points and a tunnel through the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon. Remember also a January news report that showed how the Chinese had in about a year’s time rapidly built up a village in Upper Subansiri district well within the Indian LAC claim. Physical infrastructure in TAR is of such quality that China is using the province as part of its expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative into Nepal.

All this is not to say that the Chinese state is an exemplar in its approaches to development in its minority areas. All across the Tibetan plateau, the Chinese have exploited mineral resources and hydroelectric potential and in the process tried to ‘civilise’ nomadic populations by pushing them into permanent settlements according to centrally-determined, one-size-fits-all conceptions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’.

India’s border populations have no illusions about China but they are not unaware of the political value they and their homelands hold for the Union government in New Delhi. They are just as aware of the economic value of their natural and cultural resources and their complaints about New Delhi’s policies and inefficiency are not insignificant. 

Arunachal society cutting across ethnic identities appreciate the many infrastructure development projects in their state and can often be heard complaining about the long delays in most projects actually reaching fruition. However, they also have equally important concerns about the environmental impact of these projects — from the scores of dams, large and small, dotting Arunachal Pradesh’s landscape to the Trans-Arunachal Highway — such as, for instance, the lack of proper environmental impact assessments as mandated by law

Meanwhile, Indian security agencies appear to prefer simple solutions to ones that involve complex arrangements with their civilian counterparts. Consider, for instance, the growing restrictions on border communities over the years from accessing their traditional pasturelands in Ladakh or hunting grounds in Arunachal Pradesh. The latter approach is, in fact, the exact opposite of what the Chinese have adopted.

In October 2017 during the 19th National Congress of the CPC, Xi, in a letter to a Tibetan herding family in the village of Yumai in Lhoka, stated, “[g]razing and guarding the border is your duty”, and encouraged them to “[c]arry on the patriotic spirit, so that more herdsmen will take root in the snow-capped border… and be the guardians of our holy territory.” What was for decades known as a ‘three-people township’, as of May had “more than 200 residents in 67 families.” 

Arunachal Pradesh might have its first ever Cabinet minister in the Union government with current Minister of Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju, but India’s border communities remain on the periphery in more ways than one despite growing tensions with China. 

New Delhi ought to give greater thought to the level and pace of its own infrastructure projects and attempts to improve social and economic indicators in Arunachal Pradesh and other border areas. And it must do so in a manner distinct from the Chinese by also preserving the environment and cultural heritage of its people. It is time India showcased the power of its own example more strongly to China’s border populations.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Xi Jinping in Tibet — Part 2: Implications for India’, Moneycontrol, 29 July 2021. 

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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