The organisation of the Forum a few kilometres away from the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) not only signalled Beijing’s disregard for the LAC but also its attempt to buttress its claims over Arunachal as part of Tibet (Xizang) by selecting the venue of the international meeting in Nyingchi
The dates of 4-5 October 2023 last week saw the unfolding of the 3rd Trans Himalayan Forum for International Cooperation in China's Tibetan Autonomous Region or Tibet (Xizang in Mandarin). While the conference was seemingly innocuous with its focus on issues such as cooperation in the fields of green development, capacity building and ecological cooperation[i], what raised eyebrows within the Indian strategic community was Beijing’s decision to hold the Forum in the Tibetan town of Nyingchi, just 160 km from the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh[ii], a region claimed by China as Zagnan or Southern Tibet[iii]. Besides, this decision also came in the wake of several irridentist moves since the 2020 clashes in Galwan such as the renaming of 11 districts in Arunachal Pradesh in 2023 and the recent release of a new ‘standard map’ in August 2023 showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai China regions as parts of People’s Republic of China (PRC)[iv] just days before the G20 summit in Delhi.
The above coincidences make one rethink whether the Trans Himalayan Forum was not just a gathering of countries in the proximity of the Himalayas such as Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, but part of Beijing’s grey zone warfare against India.
Grey zone warfare
‘Grey warfare’ or ‘grey zone warfare’ refers to the broad spectrum of non-military tactics and proxy strategies through which countries engage in confrontation with each other. These range from cyberattacks and economic coercion to political competition, disinformation campaigns, propaganda, and narrative wars[v]. A glance at current international events would put China as foremost among the countries with immense expertise in grey zone warfare.
In this context, the organising of the 3rd Trans Himalayan Forum was a Chinese ‘grey zone tactic’ aimed at challenging India’s sovereignty over the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The organisation of the Forum a few kilometres away from the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) not only signalled Beijing’s disregard for the LAC but also its attempt to buttress its claims over Arunachal as part of Tibet (Xizang) by selecting the venue of the international meeting in Nyingchi. This is a town not only with linguistic and cultural proximity to regions of Arunachal Pradesh [vi] but also strategically important for Chinese forays along the McMahon Line[vii].
At the same time, the Forum could also be seen as directed at India’s decision to hold the G20 Tourism working group meet in Jammu & Kashmir in May in the face of vehement protests and boycott by China which continues to see the region as ‘disputed territory’[viii]. Such Chinese actions are in blatant contradiction to calls by Foreign Minister Wang Yi for "mutual trust and respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity" in Nyingchi[ix], a jibe aimed at India in the backdrop of recent tensions.
Mismatch in words and actions
The contradictions in Chinese words and actions were further highlighted by the address of Wang Yi during the opening ceremony of the Forum. Statements such as the Chinese contribution "….to the prosperity, stability, green growth, and environmental protection in the region and ‘safeguard(ing) the blue sky, clear water and clean land for the entire humanity" as well as the aims of deepening of mutually beneficial cooperation in "jointly building a commanding height of ecological civilization"[x] do not match up to Chinese actions in the Himalayas. These include the weaponisation of the rivers originating from Tibet such as Brahmaputra through a dam-building spree[xi], the militarisation of the Galwan Valley threatening the ecological stability of the Himalayan region[xii] and the systematic destruction of Tibetan ecology and culture in the quest for mineral resources[xiii]. The above facts are glaring enough to dispel the illusion of the Forum as being anything more than an eyewash attempt by China to cover its intentions regarding the Himalayas and India.
One also cannot miss the reference to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) by Wang Yi as a site for green and low-carbon development. Such reference is aimed at legitimising and justifying the CPEC under the goal of "green development" and to garner attention away from Indian protests of the CPEC. Similarly, under the aegis of the Forum’s "green transition and sustainable economic development" Beijing could also legitimise its geo-engineering attempts such as cloud seeding and artificial rainfall (snowfall) which could be used against Indian defences[xiv] in the Himalayas.
India should also step up its own grey zone warfare tactics against China by developing unofficial ties and indirect cooperation with Taiwan in the realms of defence and stability of the Indo-Pacific. Actions such as participation of the former leadership of the Indian Armed Forces in the Taiwanese Ketagalan Forum’s Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue 2023 on August 8[xv] should be stepped up further while also inviting Taiwanese delegates as observers and attendees in forums such as Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and Indo- Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with focus on non-military issues of clean energy, climate change and sustainable development and maritime ecology. New Delhi could also pursue its grey warfare by endorsing the reports on Tibetan ecological destruction produced by the Tibetan Government in exile[xvi] as well as by organisations such as the International Campaign for Tibet in international bodies and conferences to expose the reality behind Beijing’s ‘ecological civilization’.
(The author is pursuing PhD in International Politics from the Central University of Gujarat (CUG), India. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
[i] ‘Promoting the Harmony of Humans and Nature and Jointly Advancing Cooperation on Regional Development’, Speech by H.E. Wang Yi, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 05 October 2023 (http://ba.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/gnxw_1/202310/t20231005_11155080.htm).
[ii] ‘China to hold Himalayan forum meet near Arunachal border on Oct 4-5, Pakistan to attend’, mint, 03 Oct 2023 (https://www.livemint.com/news/china-to-hold-himalayan-forum-meet-near-arunachal-border-on-oct-4-5-pakistan-to-attend-11696325112410.html).
[iii] ‘China renames 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh, calls it ‘southern Tibet’, India Today, 04 April, 2023 (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/china-renames-11-places-in-arunachal-calls-it-southern-tibet-2355368-2023-04-04).
[iv] ‘India lodges protest with China showing Arunachal as its territory in new map’, Hindustan Times, 29 August, 2023 (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-lodges-protest-with-china-showing-arunachal-as-its-territory-in-new-map-101693315882998.html).
[v] ‘Today’s wars are fought in the ‘gray zone.’ Here’s everything you need to know about it’, Atlantic Council, 23 February, 2022 (https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/todays-wars-are-fought-in-the-gray-zone-heres-everything-you-need-to-know-about-it/).
[vii] ‘Xi makes first visit to Tibetan town bordering Arunachal Pradesh’, rediff.com (https://www.rediff.com/news/report/xi-makes-rare-visit-to-tibetan-town-near-arunachal/20210723.htm).
[viii] ‘China won't attend G20 meet 'in disputed J&K'. India's firm, powerful response’, Hindustan Times, 20 May, 2023 (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/g20-meeting-kashmir-china-opposes-attending-event-in-disputed-j-k-india-gives-firm-powerful-response-101684563914262.html).
[ix] ‘At Tibet forum, China's Wang Yi calls for territorial integrity’, Reuters, 05 October, 2023 (https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-foreign-minister-criticises-lies-about-tibet-2023-10-05/).
[x] Promoting the Harmony of Humans and Nature and Jointly Advancing Cooperation on Regional Development’, Speech by H.E. Wang Yi, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 05 October 2023 (http://ba.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/gnxw_1/202310/t20231005_11155080.htm).
[xi] Brahma Chellaney, ‘China’s escalating water war: On top of other asymmetric tactics, Brahmaputra mega-project is a new threat India faces’, The Times of India, 16 March 2021 (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/chinas-escalating-water-war-on-top-of-other-asymmetric-tactics-brahmaputra-mega-project-is-a-new-threat-india-faces/).
[xii] Dr Dhanashree Jayaram & Kurnica Bhattacharjee, ‘China’s geoengineering push dangerous for the region’, The Sunday Guardian, 19 December 2020 (https://sundayguardianlive.com/news/chinas-geoengineering-push-dangerous-region).
[xiii] ‘Written testimony by the International Campaign for Tibet for the Congressional Executive Commission on China Hearing,’ International Campaign for Tibet, 21 September, 2023 (https://www.cecc.gov/sites/chinacommission.house.gov/files/documents/Written%20testimony%20by%20the%20International%20Campaign%20for%20Tibet%20for%20Sept%2021%20CECC%20Environment%20Hearing.pdf).
[xiv] Dr Dhanashree Jayaram & Kurnica Bhattacharjee, ‘China’s geoengineering push dangerous for the region’, The Sunday Guardian, 19 December 2020 (https://sundayguardianlive.com/news/chinas-geoengineering-push-dangerous-region).
[xv] ‘China warns India on security ties with Taiwan after ex-chiefs visit island’, Hindustan Times, 01 September, 2023 (https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-urges-india-to-follow-one-china-principle-and-avoid-military-cooperation-with-taiwan-101693496124990.html).
[xvi] ‘China’s 60 years of Environmental Destruction in Tibet’, Central Tibetan Administration, 4 April 2019 ( https://tibet.net/chinas-60-years-of-environmental-destruction-in-tibet/).