Hopes have been raised about a breakthrough on the border issue during the coming visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India. As if on cue from the establishment, the usual cheerleaders have declared that an agreement on the guiding principles for the boundary settlement is expected to be announced during the Summit meeting. Instead of worn-out phrases like ‘mutual adjustment and mutual accommodation’, the two sides are now looking at the actual territorial adjustments that they may be required to make. What the cheerleaders, however, are not saying is that the ‘actual territorial adjustments’ based upon ‘ground realities’ is the main problem: Even as both sides recognise the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the basis for a comprehensive border settlement, Indians prefer small modifications along the LAC to convert it into an international border, while China seeks major adjustments in both sectors — Western and Eastern — on the principle of give-and-take deal. The ‘ground realities’ are that China is an acknowledged Asian power, while India is struggling to remain a South Asian one. For this reason, let alone any breakthrough announcement, the two sides are expected to under-play the border dispute.
The sticking issue in the Eastern sector is the Tawang Tract, a traditional trade route and a Tibetan spiritual place. Situated between the Tibetan plateau and the Assam plains, the Tawang Tract can be divided into two regions with the Se La (La means mountain pass) range as a dividing line. To the north of Se La lies the Tawang town that has the great Tawang monastery, a daughter house of Drepung monastery, one of the three great monasteries at Lhasa. The sixth Dalai Lama was born near Tawang in the late 17th century. According to China, when the British left India in 1947, they had conveyed to the Tibetan authorities about their willingness to modify the McMahon Line to exclude Tawang from the Indian territories. The British had established military posts south of Se La and Tibet had administrative control over the Tawang Tract. Beijing alleges that India pursued a forward policy and took over the Tawang Tract by force in February 1951, months before the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet to ‘liberate it.’
The reason why Peking (the earlier name for Beijing) did not immediately object to India’s take-over is that the Tibetan authorities had expelled the Chinese Nationalists in July 1949 and the Chinese Communists had not yet entered Tibet. Considering the PLA was sucked into the Korean war immediately after its occupation of Tibet, China decided to postpone settlement of the Tawang Tract with India, who saw this as a fait accompli. According to China, while it may be willing to modify its position on the McMahon Line and the status of Sikkim in the Eastern sector, it is resolved on getting back the Tawang Tract. The latter will have Se La as the dividing line with the alignment running along the upper reaches of Tsari-Subansiri river with Tibetan sacred places included in Chinese territories, and going all the way east to the traditional boundary between Walong and Menilkrai with Walong going to China.