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China marginalises India by holding forum in disputed territory

Updated: Mar 5

The idea for a Trans Himalayan Forum first emerged in 2014 when the Chinese Ambassador to India, Wei Wei, proposed boosting cooperation with India and promoting regional economic growth. The third Trans Himalayan Forum was held between 4-5 October under the theme 'Promoting the Harmony of Humans and Nature, Sharing the Fruits of Cooperation and Development.' However, the location where the Forum is hosted has recently become an issue in Indo-China relations.

India and China have enjoyed a healthy relationship since 1988, when then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. He began to lead the two Asian giants into a new, more cooperative era. The visit was viewed as a significant event in the history of Asian relations, as it allowed them to create a healthy international environment for economic growth and development. However, India and China's bilateral relationship faced its first serious hurdle following the Doklam incident in 2017. Later, a clash in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 led China to build a great wall. Considering the military and economic strength gap between India and China, the Galwan Valley episode has proven to be a breaking point that severely worsened the Indo-Chinese bilateral relationship. 

Considering the Chinese developments in the Aksai Chin region and Southern Tibet – close to Arunachal Pradesh – India is working to promote civil and military infrastructure to reduce and counter Chinese moves along the 4057 km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Military movements along the border have become visible in recent years, an issue watched closely by the international community. 

India's current PM, Narendra Modi, and China's President, Xi Jinping, haven't spoken in person since 2020. Xi Jinping's absence, seemingly without reason, from the 2023 G20 Summit held in Delhi, has raised eyebrows. On the other hand, India's reservation to Chinese dominance in multilateral groups like BRICS reflects a stalemate in the Indo-China relationship. Since China enjoys the upper hand, the opportunity for the normalisation of the Indo-Chinese relationship remains low.

China organised the first Trans Himalayan Forum in 2018, with countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mongolia attending. However, India was not invited to the first two editions of the Forum, as tensions were exceptionally high over border disputes. 

The Himalayan Forum was established to strengthen practical cooperation between countries in the region across multiple facets. It aimed to fortify cultural bonds, geographical connectivity, and environmental preservation. With the third Trans Himalayan Forum taking place in Nyingchi, a city in South Tibet, only 160 km from Arunachal Pradesh, close to the disputed border, this Forum had Indo-Chinese border tensions at its heart once again.

To understand the issue surrounding the location of the third Trans Himalayan Forum, one needs to understand the politics of Arunachal Pradesh. China has claimed the Indian province as part of its territory, calling it Zagnan, renamed the region Xizang, and views it as a part of Tibet. The province is the most severe point of contention between India and China. 

Renaming places is part of China's international strategy to put pressure on the nations it borders. In all, they have renamed 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, issued a 2023 standard map showing the province within its borders and denied visas to athletes from the province to attend the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023. Such moves have pushed India to lodge a strong complaint against China, further complicating the Indo-Chinese relationship.

Alongside the location of the third Trans Himalayan Forum, the special invites sent to Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan have further convoluted Indo-China relations. India continues to be missing from the forums, and the locations chosen each year reflect China's intent to keep India outside the conversation. It ensures that China's control over its interest in the Himalayan region is maintained. 

The Forum's tour of Tibet has been envisaged to counter the West's prevailing narrative regarding the province. Ironically, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued that nations must respect each other's territorial sovereignty. The statement was clearly directed towards India's objection to the Forum's host locations. As India and China continue to have a strained relationship, the Forum further reinforces India's view that relations with China have been skewed since the Galwan Valley incident. It has proven to be a catalyst for an increasingly complex relationship. 

As the world faces enormous political, social and environmental challenges, China views the Forum as a platform which embodies and promotes respect and cooperation among its members, and supports China's commitment to its development agenda. However, among the nations invited, India is conspicuously absent. 

The Qinghai-Xizang Plateau is essential to China, and it uses the Forum to promote its objectives and implement its geo-strategic policies to secure the Chinese Communist Party's rule in Tibet. As the West turns in on itself, China is working to establish their central position in the international order; and the Trans Himalayan Forum is a piece of the puzzle toward achieving its grand plan.

Image: AFB/via BBC News

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