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Postcard from...Tawang

November 27, 2009

Saransh Sehgal
Foreign Policy In Focus
November 25, 2009
Editor: John Feffer

The inhabitants of the remote frontier town of
Tawang, in the Himalayan foothills in the
northeastern Indian region bordering
Chinese-administered Tibet, have lived under many
flags. Anyone over the age of 62 can tell the
stories of four different empires: British,
Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian. During the 1962
war, Chinese troops briefly occupied what is
today known as the Indian state of Arunachal
Pradesh. Today, India administers the area,
though China hasn't completely renounced its claims.

Today, Tawang is once again the focus of a border
dispute between the world's two most populous
countries, now both armed with nuclear weapons
and competing for superpower status. In claiming
the region, China has disavowed the so-called
McMahon Line, a border drawn by India's British
colonial rulers in 1914 that gave Arunachal to
India. Tawang and its surroundings were under the
suzerainty of the Qing dynasty, after its armies
extended China's frontiers to Tibet and Central
Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. And if Tibet
is Chinese soil -- which is something that New
Delhi has officially recognized -- then, the
argument goes, Tawang and its monastery ought to
be as well. Meanwhile, China also occupies a part of Kashmir claimed by India.

Despite 13 recent rounds of talks on the border
dispute, no agreement has been reached.

Tawang is once again in the news because of a
visit by the Dalai Lama to a Buddhist monastery
that was his first stop after leaving China in
1959. India's growing economic and diplomatic
clout has made it more assertive in dealings with
its regional rival. The government has stood firm
in the face of Chinese protests over the Dalai
Lama's trips to Arunachal. The religious leader's
visit there is seen as a double provocation — a
challenge to China's control over Tibet and to
its claims over this part of India. Because of
strengthened economic ties between the two
booming Asian giants, however, New Delhi
acknowledged Beijing's sensitivities over the
visit by barring foreign media coverage of the Dalai Lama's trip.

The United States and other major countries have
been mum on the India-China border row. "I don't
think we have a position necessarily on his
decision to travel to this area," State
Department Spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters on
the issue of Dalai Lama's visit. "But the Dalai
Lama "is primarily an internationally respected
religious figure. He of course has the right to
go wherever he wants and talk to people that he chooses to talk to."

Saransh Sehgal, a contributor to Foreign Policy
In Focus based in Dharamsala, India, also writes
for Asia Times Online. He can be reached at: info (at) mcllo (dot) com.
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