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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stick to basic tasks

Why are the Chinese so nervous, huffing and puffing away over something as innocuous as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s election-related visit to Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama’s spiritual journey to the revered Buddhist monastery in Tawang? These demarches were preceded by a gratuitous statement that Arunachal is part of China and India should best back off from there.

This bluster, sometimes expressed though the columns of party journals, targets India for not responding to China’s boundary ‘concessions’ and for adopting a hegemonistic attitude towards its neighbours, Pakistan and Nepal included. The Sino-Indian boundary is still ‘disputed’ and while negotiations are in progress, the matter has not been settled and hence the status quo ante, as perceived by Beijing, must prevail.

The facts are otherwise. China has dragged its feet on boundary demarcation, refusing to exchange sector maps as settled through talks so as to avoid inadvertent incidents of innocent trespass. It has also blandly gone back on one of the agreed principles of understanding, namely, that settled border areas shall not be brought into question during the boundary talks. It has violated this seminal principal by claiming ‘possession’ of all of Arunachal, particularly Tawang, and adopting ludicrous rhetorical positions.

India does not need to be unnerved by such conduct that betrays a sense of uncertainty and anxiety over the situation in China’s borderlands in Tibet and Xinjiang which remain restive. Arunachal went to the polls once again and registered a 75 per cent vote in a democratic process that Communist China does not understand and deeply fears.

China has done remarkably well in many ways. But it is replete with inner contradictions and social disharmonies. Economic liberalism and modernisation do not go well with a tight party dictatorship, the suppression of religious freedom and rural-urban and regional disparities. All monoliths are solid until they crack.

There has, however, been too much media and right-wing hype about alleged Chinese designs on India by projecting growing capabilities into malevolence. This mix of jingoism and fear is immature. Chinese military modernisation and technological displays are impressive but India has no need to match either of these in numbers or idle showmanship.

Ours is not an aggressive posture and the Chinese have a shrewd idea that 1962 is ancient history and adventures are best avoided. This does not mean that India should not improve its border infrastructure and connectivity and uplift living standards in all outlying regions.

Talks welcome
If Manmohan Singh meets the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Bangkok on Oct 23 on the margins of the East Asian summit, this should offer opportunity to iron out recent wrinkles in bilateral relations. Among these is a new red herring being dragged across the trail as a result of reports that the Chinese plan to dam the Tsangpo river at Zangmu with an installed capacity of 450 MW.

Even if this be true this is probably a modest run-of-the-river hydro project with little consumptive use and no hint  of diversion northwards. Such a project would be fully within China’s right to build.

Indian news reports continue to be singularly ill-informed about Tibetan geography, topography and hydrology. The water resources ministry must take the rap for such national ignorance, which has deeper roots in the downgrading of geography as an educational discipline. For one thing, the Tsangpo (Siang/Dihang in Arunachal) is confused with the Brahmaputra (which is formed in Assam after the confluence of the Siang, Luhit, Dibang and Noa Dihing, all substantial rivers in their own right). So the ‘Brahmaputra’ is not being diverted anywhere and will not ‘run dry.’ In any event more than 70 per cent of the run-off of the Brahmaputra is generated south of the Himalayas.
Reference is made to a report by Li Lung, ‘Tibet Water Plan to Save China’ (2005), through the Great Western Route Project, by diverting over 200 billion cubic metres of water from Tibet to North China, 120 BCM of this coming from the ‘Brahmaputra basin.’ This diversion is proposed at a far higher latitude in Tibet.

The possibility of harnessing the great U-Bend of the Tsangpo as it drops into India from Tibet is also confusingly discussed as a possible source of pumping power for moving water north. While many old time generals and ideologues have commended the Great Western Diversion Project, a number of technical experts, economists and ecologists have panned this a fantasy.

So while India keeps a wary eye on water resource developments in Tibet, it does not need to become hysterical and thrown off balance and diverted from the real tasks of diplomacy and development. Earlier reports of floods form extreme river surges in Arunachal and in the Sutlej Valley were mistaken for Chinese mala fides. They were in fact the result of debris/glacial lake outbursts in remote Himalayan Valleys.

These, with glacial and permafrost melting and aberrant weather, is going increasingly to impact the entire Himalayan-Karakoram region on account of climate change. Cooperation in meeting this common challenge is what India and China should be talking about.


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