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Name of the game

China’s renaming of places in Arunachal linked to stepping up of territorial claims

Name of the game

Strategic: China’s new land borders law came into force on January 1. PTI



P Stobdan

Senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group

China ‘standardising’ names of 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh cannot be overlooked as a routine exercise. The six places standardised in the first lot in 2017 are Wo’gyainling, Mila Ri, Qoidêngarbo Ri, Mainquka, Bümo La and Namkapub Ri. In India, they are named Urgelling, Daporijo, Upper Siang District, Menchuka, Bum-La and Namka Valley.

India and China may get into a cartographic battle if China is able to enforce global search engines and websites to use standardised Chinese words.

China had justified the renaming being done on the basis of its historical, cultural, and administrative jurisdiction over the area. It said the names existed since ancient times, where ethnic Momba and Tibetan Chinese lived for generations, and their standardisation was done in accordance with regulations issued by the State Council.

Global Times then wrote, ‘China has been making efforts to solve the territorial disputes with India, but over the past decades, India has not only increased migration to the disputed area and boosted its military construction there, but it also named Arunachal Pradesh, China’s South Tibet, as a formal state of India in 1987.’

This time, more places are being added, including eight residential areas: Sêngkêzong and Daglungzong in Cona County, Mani’gang, Duding and Migpain in Medog County, Goling, Damba in Zayu County, and Mêjag in Lhunze County. The four mountains are Wamo Ri, Dêu Ri, Lhünzhub Ri and Kunmingxingzê Feng while the two rivers are Xênyogmo He and Dulain He, and a mountain pass is named Sê La, in Cona County. All these names have cultural and military significance.

No clear explanations have come from officials, but experts have explained through Global Times that ‘after Zangnan (Arunachal) was illegally occupied, the Indian government has established some illegal names in the area, but the right to name places in the region should belong to China.’ They added that the naming of places and the adoption of border law are being made to ‘safeguard national sovereignty, national security and border management.’

In 2017, Chinese experts were quoted as saying that standardisation was a sign of ‘China’s growing awareness of the geography in South Tibet.’ Clearly, Beijing has had scant historical records about borders until recently when they possibly gained access to Taiwanese archival records and maps. Possibly, the Tibet experts have found new sources to prove China’s historical, cultural and administrative control over ‘South Tibet.’

The renaming of six places in 2017 came weeks after the Dalai Lama visited Tawang. This was viewed in India as a retaliatory move by Beijing. But it was done with a much greater aim at reaffirming China’s claim over the Tawang monastery, which was controlled by the Ganden Phodrang (Tibet government) and functioned under the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa from 1681 to 1952.

The Tibetans too asserted that they enjoyed sovereign control over Tawang even while the area fell south of the McMahon Line. Lhasa continued to appoint twin authorities’ bla gnyer (abode manager) of Tawang Monastery and rdzong dpon (governor) of Tsona Dzong until the ‘status quo rights’ document was signed by Tibetan officials and the Government of India on July 8, 1952.

The change of Ugyenlling to Wo’gyainling is significant because Tsanyang Ghatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, was born here in 1683. While doing so, China wanted to underscore the point that the area is significant because it is the birthplace of the Dalai Lama.

India’s MEA said the move by Beijing ‘does not alter’ the fact that Arunachal was an integral part of India. In 2017, Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu responded by saying, ‘China has no right to rename our cities... every inch of Arunachal Pradesh belongs to India... let them rename. How does it matter? It’s like you renaming your neighbour. It does not change his name.’ Yet, the renaming cannot be dismissed as a play of nomenclature. India and China have changed the names of places to reflect a certain political narrative. If China applied Sino-centrism as a tool for cultural dominance, India too has played the name game before. Tawang was a part of NEFA until it was Sanskritised as ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ (land of the rising sun) coined by Sri Bibhabasu Das Shastri when it became a UT in 1971, and later a state in 1987.

The Chinese have Romanised the spelling of Mao Tse Tung to Mao Zedong. But China’s renaming drive is linked to stepping up of its territorial claims. In the past, its objection was confined to visits by Indian leaders — Presidents, PMs, and senior ministers — to Arunachal.

China has been confiscating thousands of maps that failed to depict Zangnan (Arunachal) and Taiwan as part of China. The latest move comes weeks after the US State Department appointed Uzra Zeya as the new Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. She has been authorised to coordinate US policy on Tibet and oversee activities relating to environment and water resources of the Tibetan Plateau. Zeya is being appointed under the US Tibetan Policy Act that had been lying vacant during the Trump administration.

The latest move seems also a part of China’s new land borders law that came into force on January 1. The law, enacted by the National People’s Congress in October, provides the PLA full responsibility to take steps against ‘invasion, encroachment, infiltration, provocation’ and safeguard territory. China has reportedly built 628 ‘moderately well off’ villages along the LAC, stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal.

India and China may soon get into a cartographic battle if China is able to enforce global search engines and websites to use standardised Chinese words. China may even use these names as reference points in its border negotiation with India in the future.

It could also have a cultural angle. Any attempt at Tibetanising or Sinifying names in the Himalayas serves China’s interest, for the epicentre of Tibetan culture is in China. One shouldn’t be surprised if the pattern follows in Ladakh as well.


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