Millennium Post

Another provocation

In yet another provocation, Beijing reportedly warned India that it must exercise restraint over building infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh. Evidently, this assertion comes in the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to inaugurate the Dhola Sadiya Bridge in Assam. It is India's longest bridge, spanning 9.2 km across the Lohit River—a tributary of the Brahmaputra—and connects Assam with Arunachal Pradesh. This bridge project will be followed by building a 2,000-km highway in the state at the cost of $6 billion. "We hope India adopts a cautious and restrained attitude on the issue before the final settlement of the border issue with China to jointly control disputes, safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border areas," the Chinese Foreign Ministry told IANS, an Indian news agency.

"China's position on the eastern section of the Sino-Indian border areas is consistent and clear." Reports indicate that the bridge will reduce travel time between Assam and inadequately connected Arunachal Pradesh from six hours to just one hour by shaving 165km off the on-road distance. China has often laid claims to a part of Arunachal Pradesh and calls it South Tibet, even though India has repeatedly asserted its sovereignty over the entire state. Last month, Beijing renamed six places in Arunachal Pradesh and said that doing so was its "lawful right". This blatant provocation was apparently in retaliation to the Dalai Lama's nine-day visit to Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month. China had warned India of "serious measures" after it allowed the Tibetan leader to visit areas that China considers disputed territory. China had said the visit would hurt bilateral ties between the two Asian powers. Tibet has remained a bone of contention between the two Asian countries ever since the Dalai Lama fled China in 1959, culminating in the India's defeat in the 1962 war. The Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin and its claim on Tawang district and now the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh have further complicated matters.

In response to China's provocation last month, New Delhi said that the announcement did not "make an illegal occupation legal". The Chinese tactic here is to issue "legal claims" to delegitimise adversaries. Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India, and Beijing has no business naming territory in another sovereign nation. Democratic elections are held in this state under the Constitution of India. The frontier state belongs to India, and her sovereignty over the area is internationally recognised. Moreover, the state's residents have not shown any inclination to leave India. On the question of Dhola-Sadiya, China has no business questioning India's decision to build infrastructure on her sovereign territory. The bridge project is part of the NDA government's plan to improve the state of connectivity in the Northeast, and to make the region a gateway to Southeast Asia. With the Chinese on its One Belt, One Road sojourn, India has also decided to step up regional trade and connectivity initiatives in its backyard. Admittedly, India is way behind China on this front, and project delays continue to hamper her efforts, but there is a desire on the government's part to step it up. The lack of connectivity in the region has severely hampered development initiatives, and for a state like Arunachal Pradesh which does not have a functional airport, this bridge is a boon and will help connect the state to other parts of the country. With a three-lane carriageway, the bridge is expected to facilitate the process of constructing massive hydropower projects coming up in Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi has not yet issued any official statement against the Chinese Foreign Ministry's provocations, but considering its past track record, one would assume that it will stand firm. Unlike previous governments, which were cowed down by the scars of the 1962 war, the current ruling dispensation has shown some appetite in taking on Beijing's imposing tactics.

Supporters within and outside the government have claimed that the bridge would also help Indian military troops and artillery get to the China border quickly in times of conflict. This is a misreading of the situation, and strategic experts have argued that one Chinese airstrike could render the bridge unusable in such a situation. If Indian troops need to depend on a bridge to mobilise to the border, then there's something seriously wrong with such an assessment. Moreover, China is light years ahead regarding firming up its border infrastructure and it may not be unduly perturbed by the opening of the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge for this reason
. Contextualising the bridge as part of India's larger infrastructure drive in the region that would better protect her border areas makes sense, although its utility as a trade and commerce link in the Northeast makes for a much better argument.
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