The idea of a Trans Himalayan Forum first emerged in 2014 when then Chinese Ambassador to India, Wei Wei, proposed the concept to boost cooperation with India and promote a Trans Himalayan economic growth region. It received praise from prominent analysts like C Raja Mohan but wasn’t materialised as it kept India outside, reflecting growing differences in Indo-Chinese ties. As the third Trans Himalayan Forum was organised between 4-5 October, under the theme ‘Promoting the Harmony of Humans and Nature, Sharing the Fruits of Cooperation and Development,’ its location has become an issue in the Indo-China relationship.
Indo-China relationship: Overview
India and China have enjoyed a healthy relationship since 1988 when India’s PM Rajiv Gandhi visited China, which began a new era for the two Asian giants in their bilateral ties. Such a visit was viewed as a major event in the history of Asian relations, as it allowed them to take the path of economic growth and development in a healthy environment. The road to success of the India-China bilateral ties faced its first jolt following the Doklam incident in 2017. Later, a clash in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 formed a great wall which was earlier broken down following the 1988 visit with the intent to improve the India-China relationship. Considering the wide gap in military and economic strength and size between India and China, the Galwan Valley episode has become a watershed moment which has worsened the Indo-Chinese bilateral relationship.
Considering the Chinese developments in the Aksai Chin region and Southern Tibet – close to Arunachal Pradesh – India is promoting civil and military infrastructure to reduce and counter Chinese move along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). As such, moves have started to become visible, a concerning issue that is being watched closely globally. Meanwhile, India’s PM Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping have barely spoken in person since 2020. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the 2023 G20 Summit held in Delhi without giving any reason for his absence has raised eyebrows. On the other hand, India’s reservation about Chinese dominance in any multilateral group or bloc like the BRICS reflects a stalemate-like situation in the Indo-China relationship, and China is enjoying the upper hand. Thus, the scope of normalisation of the Indo-Chinese relationship remains low.
China, Arunachal Pradesh, the Trans Himalayan Forum, and its impact
China organised the first edition of the Trans Himalayan Forum, which was held in 2018 and saw Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mongolia as attendees, on the other hand, India was never invited for the 2018 and 2019 editions. The Trans Himalayan forum was established with the objective of bolstering practical cooperation between countries in the region across multiple facets. It aimed to fortify cultural bonds encompassing ecological conservation, geographical connectivity, and environmental preservation. The third Trans Himalayan Forum took place in Nyingchi, a city in South Tibet, China, 160 km from Arunachal Pradesh, India, close to the disputed border, and has become a source of tension in the Indo-China relationship.
To understand the complexity around the location of the third Trans Himalayan Forum, there is a need to understand the issue of Arunachal Pradesh first. As China referred the Indian province as part of its territory and renamed it Xizang, and viewed it as a part of Tibet – call it Zagnan – and Arunachal Pradesh/ Xizang continues to be a bone of contention between India and China. As labelling and renaming are part of China’s strategy, and in 2021, it renamed 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, issued a 2023 standard map showcasing the province as its part and also denied a visa to athletes from the province to attend the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023. Such moves pushed India to lodge a strong complaint with China; however, such developments have only complicated the Indo-Chinese relationship.
In such a situation, the location of the third Trans Himalayan Forum and a special invite to Pakistan along with Mongolia and Afghanistan has made the Indo-China convoluted. India continues to be missing from the forum despite its geographical location, reflecting China’s intent to keep India outside the forum. It ensures China’s reach and control in the Himalayan region are maintained to address its vested interest in the region. As the forum witnessed a tour to Tibet to counter the West’s narrative about the province, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued that nations must respect each other’s territorial sovereignty, and such a statement and development was directed towards India’s objection to the forum’s location. As Indo-Chinese ties are going through a strained phase, the conclusion of the forum supports India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s’ view that the situation between India and China has been abnormal since the Galwan Valley incident.
As the world is facing challenges like clash of civilisation and on environmental fronts, China views the forum as a platform which embodies and promotes respect and cooperation among its members, which fits with China’s commitment towards development agenda. However, the nations it invited, the absence of India, highlights China wants to promote Chinese control and rule with like-minded nations. With the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau is essential for China to thrive and survive, China has used the forum to promote its objective and implement its geo-strategic policies to keep the humanitarian issue of Tibet hidden and secure the Chinese Communist Party’s rules in the country. As West argues, China is working hard to establish a rule-based international order that fits with its interests, and the Trans Himalayan Forum can be viewed as a piece of such a grand plan.
About the Author:
Kashif Anwar, is a Research Analyst at Global Strategic & Defence Analyses (GSDN), New Delhi, has an M.Phil in International Studies. His area of research interests is China, the US, India, geo-strategy, geo-economic, military technology, and geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific region. He has presented research papers at Jamia Millia Islamia and the Christ (Deemed to be University) Delhi NCR and published his papers in The Geopolitics, Modern Diplomacy, Financial Express, Policy Watcher, The Geostrata, The Defence Horizon Journal, Centre for Air Power Studies, EurOpinion, Global Strategic & Defence News and the Rise.