TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — China’s recent renaming of the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its own territory, has again stoked tensions with Delhi and brought attention to Beijing’s aggressive expansion in the Himalayas.
A spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs slammed China’s renaming last month as a “ridiculous exercise” which did not change Arunachal Pradesh’s status as “an inalienable part of India,” according to a report by The Hindu.
Beijing claims the entirety of the province — approximately twice the size of Switzerland — as ‘South Tibet’ (“南藏”), claiming the presence of the Tawang Monastery, the second largest in all of Tibetan Buddhism, as evidence enough this swathe of the Himalayas is also an “inherent part” of Chinese sovereign territory.
Not only does Beijing not have any administrative control or recognized authority over this area, but the history of other holy sites elsewhere in the contested Himalayan region also shows how inconsistent and hollow the basis of its claims are.
One prime example is the holy Kailash Mountain. Nestled in the western corner of Tibet, this mountain is believed by Hindus to be the abode of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. Somewhat an Eastern equivalent of Delphi in Ancient Greece, the mountain is also believed to be the navel of the world — a site where Hindu pilgrims have been worshipping since pre-Buddhist times, according to academic researchers.
The area’s civilizational ties to India received international recognition when UNESCO considered the Indian portion of Mount Kailash as part of its cultural heritage site in 2019. The Indian territory is part of the broader 'Kailash Sacred Landscape', which covers an area of 31,000 sq km straddling the borderlands between India, Tibet and far-western Nepal.
Although India’s UNESCO bid has not yet been successful (and is unlikely to do so due to China’s opposition and outsized influence in the organization as a UNSC member), the administrative history of the area also affirms it as historically Indian.
Just take the last Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, who acceded to join the newly-independent Indian Republic in 1947. When Singh did so, his official title was “Shriman Inder Mahinder Rajrajeswar Maharajadhiraj Shri Hari Singhji, Jammu & Kashmir Naresh Tatha Tibbet adi Deshadhipati” which conferred on him the right to rule over Jammu & Kashmir, eastern Ladakh, and also areas inside Tibet proper, including the Menser estate, per an IDSA report.
The Menser estate was an enclave of villages clustered at the foot of Mount Kailash and the shores of nearby Manasarovar Lake, nearly 300 kilometers deep inside what is today Chinese territory.
Yet the history goes back much further to the 1684 Treaty of Temisgang that was the result of a war between Tibet and Ladakh at the time. Temisgang gave the ruler of Ladakh control over the Menser villages to ensure access for Indian Hindu pilgrims to Mount Kailash and to cover the expanses of their ceremonies.
While Mount Kailash is sacred to four different religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon — the fact Hinduism is the world’s oldest surviving religion and two of the other three faiths originated in the Indus Valley gives India a far greater historical-cultural claim to the peak than China.
Despite these deep civilizational, historic, and administrative precedents being on India’s side, Mount Kailash remains in the control of Chinese authorities today, who have repeatedly blocked Indian pilgrims from accessing the holy site in recent years. Were the Tawang Monastery — the largest monastery in all of India — to fall into Chinese hands, more of the faithful would certainly befall the same fate.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to ramp up its efforts to take more Himalayan territory. Not only is China re-exerting pressure on India’s Arunachal Pradesh, but new reports this year show it has recently built hundreds of new structures in an area disputed by Bhutan while simultaneously encroaching into Nepal’s Humla district.
It appears Beijing is not only stretching the limits of its historical claims but also ratcheting up the speed of its so-called “salami-slicing” techniques whereby it attempts to incrementally take extra territory without resorting to military force. The long-term consequences for all Himalayan nations are dire.