Explained | What is behind China’s renaming spree?

Why has it ‘standardised’ the names of more places in Arunachal Pradesh? What has been India’s reaction to the move? How will it impact relations? Has China hardened its stand on the border dispute? Have such ‘standardisation’ moves happened before?

April 09, 2023 01:25 am | Updated April 12, 2023 12:06 pm IST

Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on April 5, 2023.

Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on April 5, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On April 2, the Chinese government announced it would “standardise” the names of 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh. The Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing published a list of 11 places along with a map showing the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. While India dismissed the renaming, which is a largely symbolic move and unlikely to have any tangible on-the-ground impact on the border dispute, it has underlined a hardening Chinese stance on the boundary, the dim prospects of any meaningful progress in the long-running talks, as well as the current strained relations between the neighbours.

What are the places on the list?

The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs notification announced 11 “place names for public use”, in Mandarin, Tibetan and English (pinyin transliteration of the Chinese names). These include five mountain peaks, two more populated areas, two land areas and two rivers. All of the 11 sites are on Indian territory, and the southernmost is close to Itanagar. The Chinese government referred to the location of the sites as “Zangnan”, or “south Tibet”, which is how it refers to Arunachal Pradesh. China claims as much as 90,000 sq km in the eastern sector of the India-China boundary, covering the entire State.

The list of names follows a new rule on the management of place names by the State Council, or China’s cabinet, that came into effect on May 1 last year, according to the Party-run Global Times, which said the regulation “requires strict management over the naming and renaming of localities and sites” and standardising names.

Is this the first such renaming attempt?

This is the third time China is issuing names for places in Arunachal Pradesh, a gesture seen as provocative by India and one that has coincided with periods of strains in relations. In 2017, the first list of “standardised” names was issued for six places in Arunachal, which was then seen as a retaliatory move after the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visited the State. The second such list was issued in December 2021, more than a year into the crisis sparked by China’s multiple transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) starting in April 2020. The second list coincided with a new border law passed by the Chinese government that called for various Chinese civilian and military agencies to take steps to “safeguard” Chinese territory, including through such administrative measures. The second list had 15 places, including eight towns, four mountains, two rivers and the Sela mountain pass.

Zhang Yongpan, a leading border expert at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times in an earlier interview that the renaming lists, as well as the border law, were “important moves made by the country to safeguard national sovereignty, better maintain national security and manage border-related matters at the legal level amid regional tensions, including frictions with India.” The border law, which took effect on January 1, 2022, contains 62 articles covering delineation and border defence as well as immigration, border management and trade. The issuing of new names is related to Article 7, which calls for promoting border education at all levels of government.

What is behind China’s moves?

As with the two previous cases, India rejected the Chinese announcement. “Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. Attempts to assign invented names will not alter this reality,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

More broadly, the moves from Beijing point to a hardening of its stand on territorial disputes, which are now seen less as matters to be resolved diplomatically and bilaterally, but as questions of China’s sovereignty. Besides the renaming, the new border law as well as the new regulations from the State Council all underscore how under current leader Xi Jinping, the protection of national sovereignty and territory has been mandated under various laws. This has also driven more activity along the borders from local-level authorities, such as stepped up programmes to build new civilian settlements (including some that have come up on territory disputed by both Bhutan and India) as well as other border infrastructure.

What will be the impact on the boundary dispute?

Though this symbolic gesture may have little real impact on the ground, it, at the same time, also does reflect how the situation along the borders, described by India as “stable but unpredictable”, is the most concerning since the normalisation of ties between India and China in 1988, when they agreed to shelve differences and maintain peace along the boundary. Both sides also took tentative steps towards a permanent settlement, by appointing Special Representatives (SRs) in 2003 to find a solution to the dispute. This was, however, predicated on maintaining peace and tranquillity through a range of mechanisms set up by both sides. China’s 2020 transgressions have, however, left those arrangements in tatters. A large number of troops from both sides, for the first time in decades, have been stationed permanently in forward areas. Discussions to disengage have moved slowly, and both are yet to reach an agreement on Demchok and Depsang after having disengaged in four other friction areas.

In the eyes of most observers, the most realistic permanent package settlement is one that would see minor adjustments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in both the western sector, where India sees China as occupying as much as 38,000 sq km in Aksai Chin, and in the eastern sector, where China claims as much as 90,000 sq km in Arunachal. Differences in the middle sector are less complex. The “swap” in the west and east tacitly suggested by then leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was also along these lines.

Beijing, however, has increasingly been vocal about its Arunachal claims and its officials have said any settlement would require India to give up territory in the east, a departure from the Deng suggestion and an unthinkable prospect for any Indian government. The renaming and issuing of “standardised” names by the Chinese government — which has essentially conveyed to the Chinese public that the eastern sector is also non-negotiable for China — has only underlined the hardening Chinese stand, which has left prospects of a settlement dimmer than ever.

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