China renames Indian place names to support its territorial claims

The name doesn't do the thing.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
31 March 2024 Sunday 16:25
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China renames Indian place names to support its territorial claims

The name doesn't do the thing. But if there is no name, there is no case. This is how China understands it, which remains committed to making official the Tibetan and Chinese toponyms of several localities and geographical features under Indian administration, to support its territorial claims. The latest batch is found in the vast Himalayan region that New Delhi calls Arunachal Pradesh and China, South Tibet.

Beijing's claims on the southern slopes of the Himalayas are maximalist and far from reality. In Arunachal Pradesh, they affect 21 of the 24 districts (all except the three in the southeast populated by Naga tribes). That is, an area as large as Austria or Castilla-La Mancha, although with less than one and a half million inhabitants.

China argues that Arunachal Pradesh ("land of the rising sun") is a newly invented Sanskrit toponym for a land that never had a Sanskrit past, nor any relationship with the ethnicities, languages, cultures or religions of India.

While India argues that, today, in none of its eight northeastern states is Hindi spoken as much as in Arunachal, having become the lingua franca for a heterogeneous multitude of peoples and tribes. India, on the other hand, due to its federal tradition - opposed to Chinese centralism - usually respects vernacular place names, without translating or versioning them.

In reality, only one of the districts of Arunachal, Tawang, is historically Tibetan, in ethnicity, language and religion. Another district, West Kameng, whose capital is Bomdila, is so in its northern half. In a final negotiation, everything indicates that China would be content with recovering Tawang, but Indian predisposition is null. Although the Dalai Lama still said in 2008 that "Tawang is Tibet", from that date he added the tagline, "Arunachal Pradesh is India."

Tibetan Buddhist culture is so deeply rooted in Tawang that, in fact, the sixth Dalai was born there in 1683. The Communist Party of China fears that the current Dalai Lama - about to turn ninety - will one day play a trick on them by being reincarnated in Tawang. the monastery itself, beyond its control.

This is the fourth installment on the matter from the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs and also the most extensive. The first, in 2017, consisted of only 6 official place names, the second of 15 and the third, a year ago, of 11. In addition to the traditional Tibetan name, its version is made official in Chinese characters and in pinyin, the official Latin transcription of these last.

The list, published on Saturday, will come into effect on May 1, with the warning that from then on "citing foreign language place names that may harm China's territorial claims and sovereignty rights" will only be possible "with prior authorization." " The same order calls "Zangnan" as "the southern tip of the southwest of the Xizang Autonomous Region", that is, Tibet.

India calls it Arunachal Pradesh and insists that "making up names does not change reality." The Chinese philological offensive seems to be a reaction to Narendra Modi's visit to the area on March 9 to inaugurate the Sela tunnel, which brings Tezpur closer to Tawang. Although a modest project by Chinese standards, for India it is its tunnel built at the highest altitude, at 4,000 meters. Its kilometer and a half guarantees communication throughout the year, for civil and military vehicles.

On the same day of the inauguration, the deputy spokesperson for the US State Department, Vedant Patel, a native of India, also stressed that Washington "recognizes Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory."

The visit to Arunachal by the Indian Prime Minister led to a diplomatic protest from Beijing, which was described as "ridiculous" by the Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar. A diplomat of great prestige, although in the circles of New Delhi it is known that key foreign policy decisions are made by the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, a Hindu nationalist close to Modi's BJP.

This sudden Chinese love for the Tibetan language may be surprising, given the increasing cultural assimilation of Tibet (Bod in Tibetan, Xizang in Chinese). His reasoning is that if the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of China, so must the southern fringes that came under the control of New Delhi after the departure of the British.

The Chinese therefore reject the MacMahon line, signed by them in 1914 with an envoy from Lhasa, taking advantage of the political chaos in Beijing. No government of the People's Republic of China has recognized this treaty, nor has the Republic of China, whose historical claims to the Himalayas - as well as to the China Sea - are even more substantial.

It should be remembered that, under the government of Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee, also of the BJP, Beijing closed an agreement by which it recognized Indian sovereignty over Sikkim, in exchange for Indian recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. However, New Delhi has continued to shelter the Dalai Lama and the self-styled "Tibetan Government in Exile", much to Beijing's chagrin.

China has agreed on the delimitation of its land borders with all its neighbors, who are not few, except India and Bhutan. In the latter case, progress is being recorded, after twenty-five rounds of talks, since the 1990s. Last October, a Bhutanese foreign minister visited Beijing for the first time and declared that a deal was within reach, "in one or two more rounds." Bhutan would be open to a land swap, but everything will depend on the green light from New Delhi, which has in mind the vulnerability of the narrow Siliguri corridor, which links its northeastern states with the rest of India.

The Himalayan kingdom was already willing to sign a pact with Beijing in 1996, but India prevented it. India has so far not allowed the landlocked kingdom to maintain diplomatic relations with China or any of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The moment chosen by Beijing for this new toponymic delivery also coincides with the pre-campaign of the Indian legislative elections. Territorial disputes are a double-edged sword these days. In 2019, a brutal attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir justified an Indian aerial bombardment of alleged terrorist bases in Pakistani territory, with enormous electoral benefits for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India also has territorial claims that may seem extemporaneous, on the gigantic Aksai Chin plateau (a Turkish name that does not make things easier for it), nominally part of the former principality of Jammu and Kashmir, but incorporated into the Chinese Xinjian.

Nearby, in the rugged heights of Ladakh, the Indian army does not forget the 2020 border skirmish, with pushing and blows, in which its soldiers bore the brunt, with around twenty dead. Although the 1962 war, in which the People's Liberation Army reached Tawang, from where it withdrew voluntarily, is still less forgotten. Not so in the icy desert of Aksai Chin.

Outside India, services as popular as Google Maps present the delimitation of Arunachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir with ellipses, avoiding giving the reason to any of the parties. The same thing happens in Kalapani, a triangle under Indian control claimed by Nepal.

Google Maps does not work in China, but national alternatives, such as Baidu, adapt to Beijing's cartographic fiction, including almost all of Arunachal Pradesh on the map of China, with part of Tibet. In the same way that, in the cartographic fiction that is disseminated in Indian schools and media, India borders Afghanistan.

(Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted the local folk attire, as is his custom, also on his March visit to Arunachal Pradesh)