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Why the US is backing India against China in Arunachal Pradesh

The US Bipartisan Resolution recognizing Arunachal as a part of India is an important move from words to actions.

The bipartisan resolution can be viewed as an active show of support from the US to India

On March 14, 2023, Senators Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) (with Senator John Cornyn, the Co-Chair of the India Caucus, as a co-sponsor) introduced a bipartisan resolution in the US Senate to recognize Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India and condemn Chinese provocations in South Asia. This resolution assumes importance in the aftermath of the skirmish in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh in December last year and the Galwan Valley clash in 2020, which led to both India and China deploying heavy troops along the western LAC.

The resolution has been welcomed as a positive step and signals a growing relationship between India and the United States at a time when China continues to aggressively posture in the Indo-Pacific (IP). However, the resolution demands a careful examination of its elements to understand the finer nuances of the Indo-US relationship in the IP and how it fares against the backdrop of China’s aggression at the Indian borders.

Breaking Down the Two Elements

The resolution includes two key elements - “reaffirming the state of Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory”, and “condemning the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) provocations in South Asia”. While the first element highlights the convergence between India and the US on the question of Arunachal Pradesh, the second element sheds light on Washington’s larger strategy for China, and in the IP, with New Delhi at its core.

Let us first understand what is happening in Arunachal. India’s well known and established position on Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India stems from the demarcation of the McMahon Line at the Simla Convention, 1914. The McMahon Line serves as the de facto boundary between China and India in the eastern sector, and more specifically, between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, from Bhutan in the west and to Myanmar in the east. The Simla Convention aimed at settling the issue of Tibet’s sovereignty and avoiding any further territorial disputes in the northeastern region, and was a convention between Great Britain, Tibet, and China. As a part of the convention, the McMahon Line was drawn, but the final draft was agreed to only by the British government and the representative of Lhasa, with Beijing not consenting to the same. It argued that “Tibet had no independent authority to enter into international agreements”. And this position by the Chinese has continued to influence Beijing on the northeastern border where it refers to Arunachal as “South Tibet”. So much so that Beijing also published a detailed map of Arunachal Pradesh in December 2021, assigning Mandarin names to geographic features and administrative regions - something that has found a mention in the text of the resolution passed by the Senate as well. It also states that the US has recognized the McMahon Line as the international boundary between India and PRC since the Indo-China War of 1962.

But what is the US’ motivation for explicitly expressing formal support for the Indian position on Arunachal Pradesh through this resolution? The current geopolitical context and the text of the resolution can answer this question.

The text of the resolution identifies the importance of Tawang and the revered Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh - it is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. With the question of the reincarnation of the current and 14th Dalai Lama becoming a moot point between China, India, and the United States, the mention of Tawang assumes salience.

While China rallies for installing the 15th Dalai Lama who will be pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), have time and again stated that the sole authority of choosing the next Dalai Lama lies with the current and the 14th Dalai Lama. Having aided the escape of the Dalai Lama to India via Nepal back in 1959, Washington has long maintained its role in Tibet. In 2020, the United States passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which makes it official US policy that the decisions regarding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation rest exclusively with the current Dalai Lama, and any interference by China will be met with sanctions. TPSA came at a time when the tensions between the US and China had been flaring up over a number of issues - Taiwan, South China Sea, the tech war, Hong Kong, and the overall aggressive posturing by China in the IP. And recently, US President, Joe Biden, also brought out concerns regarding PRC’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, in a 3-hour long meeting with Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in November 2022. And while the two sides have tried a reset in the ties that have been witnessing a downward spiral for the past few years, the recent sighting of the Chinese spy balloon and its subsequent downing by the US Air Force resulted in the cancellation of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken’s visit to China. And with it, the opportunity at a reset in ties also fell by the wayside.

India, on the other hand, while having accepted Tibet as a part of China in 2003, hosts more than 70,000 Tibetans in the country. As a result of the Dalai Lama’s escape from China in 1959, India accepted the Dalai Lama with open arms and established the seat of the Tibetan-government-in-exile in Dharamshala, a small hill station in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This exodus also resulted in the Indo-China War of 1962, where China made deep inroads into Indian territory across the McMahon Line. However, it retreated towards its pre-war positions after the unilateral ceasefire was announced. This is where India’s concerns regarding Arunachal and the Chinese aggression stem from - China still claims the territory of Arunachal Pradesh in entirety and has even objected to visits by the Dalai Lama and other leaders - something that the resolution text again recognizes. And the Chinese paranoia springs from its fear that India might play the Tibet card against it to exert pressure. Plus, the Galwan Valley clash in 2020 and the skirmish in the Tawang sector in 2022 between the two has only raised India’s suspicions regarding China’s intentions.

And with no de-escalation in sight along the western border of the LAC, the US support through the introduction bipartisan resolution can be termed as a welcome diplomatic win for India. It is also worthy of note here that New Delhi has also been pushing its stature as the country where Buddhism was born and naturally, Arunachal carries a lot of salience for India’s soft power diplomacy. And it is no secret that China, at the same time, also wants legitimacy for its rule in Tibet and has been pushing for adoption of Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese communist characteristics. This, undeniably, pegs both the neighbors against each other in the northeastern region and requires India to exercise caution.

Moreover, with Beijing emerging as the key competitor to Washington and wanting to call the shots instead of the West, has led the United States to take a keen interest in what happens with the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as a way to counter the Chinese influence in South Asia and the IP. And last but definitely not the least, the United States, while identifying India as a “global strategic partner”, understands the meaning of lending support to New Delhi and putting New Delhi at the core of its IP strategy.

The Bipartisan Resolution - Will It Be Enough?

Fundamentally, it needs to be understood that the bipartisan resolution in the US Senate is an “introductory” stage, which essentially means that it still remains to be seen whether it gets passed in the Senate. Plus, given the fact that it is a “simple resolution” or S. Res., it is not binding under law and will only convey a collective intent of the Senate on the question of Arunachal Pradesh. And while it will prove to be a major diplomatic ammo for India, the situation with China is at a stage where New Delhi and Washington need to move from words to action. In this regard, the resolution text yet again offers 3 key mechanisms on how this could be done.

Firstly, it talks about “committing US assistance to the region” and also “encourages like-minded international partners and donors to likewise bolster their assistance efforts to Arunachal Pradesh”. This recommendation can prove to be a game changer in the north-eastern sector and an important answer could be Japan. Northeast India is where Japan’s Free & Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and India’s Act East Policy converge. Currently, Tokyo funds various infrastructure and renewable energy projects in northeast India through its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the tune of $1.865 Bn, as of January 2021. And while logistical and political challenges remain an impediment, the opportunity for Japan in the northeast remains high and has the potential to overcome these hurdles. Similarly, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) can further boost its efforts in the region for India to carry out development projects there. This should be the single most important agenda for New Delhi since it allows Beijing to manufacture an anti-India narrative in the region solely because of the low level of development.

This brings us to the second key answer - the Indo-US defense cooperation. A major impediment to the development projects and the overall stability of the region, is the issue of security. With the region having witnessed the skirmish in the Tawang sector in 2022, and the Doklam standoff in 2017, it is imperative that India strengthens its defensive and offensive capabilities to successfully deter a rapidly modernizing Chinese army. The US can play a defining role in helping India realize this goal. The future focus should be on better defense technology exports to India (jet engines), emerging critical technologies, information sharing, and defense interoperability bolster India’s defense preparedness along the borders.

Thirdly and lastly, the Indo-US engagement at multilateral forums such as the Quad, I2U2, East Asia Summit, alongside ASEAN and others, will set the tone for the future maturation of the bilateral relationship. The year 2023 offers multiple opportunities for India and the United States to further strengthen their relationship as New Delhi will be hosting the G20 Summit in September as the grouping’s president; and US Defence and State Secretaries Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken will also be traveling there to attend the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. By putting the above mentioned points on a priority agenda, India and the United States can not only counter Chinese aggression in the region, but also transcend the various challenges that the South Asia region and the IP as a whole faces today.


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