China-India Name War Intensifies in the Himalayas

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China-India Name War Intensifies in the Himalayas

New Delhi’s plan to rename sites in Tibet – a response to China’s own renaming blitz in Arunachal Pradesh – is “tantamount to India reopening the Tibetan question.”

China-India Name War Intensifies in the Himalayas
Credit: Depositphotos

India has started a tit-for-tat nomenclature offensive to counter China’s renaming of places in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. New Delhi plans to rename more than two dozens places in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

The Diplomat has seen a complete list of the places to be renamed, provided by Indian military sources. The list is expected to be released soon after a new government takes power in Delhi next week, after the results of the seven-phase election to the national Parliament were announced on June 4.

“Prime Minister Modi has sought to win these polls on the strength of his strongman image. It is natural he will authorize the renaming of Tibetan places to live up to that image,” said former Intelligence Bureau officer Benu Ghosh, who has followed China and the border issue with India for decades.

New Delhi suspects that China’s renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh is aimed at strengthening Beijing’s territorial claim on the largest province in northeastern India, which China chooses to call Zangnan or “southern Tibet.”

The Indian Army’s information warfare division is behind this renaming of Tibetan places. It has also been debunking the Chinese names by conducting extensive research with support from top research institutes like the British-era Asiatic Society based in Kolkata.

Detailed tweets by the army circulated under its logo have challenged the Chinese renaming of the seven places in Arunachal Pradesh and efforts are on to counter each of the 30-odd places renamed by the Chinese government.

Now India’s military has also finalized a list of 30-plus places in Tibet to be given new names, reclaiming from historical records their ancient names in Indian languages. This list, sources say, will soon be made public through media as part of a global campaign to offer a strong counter-narrative to Chinese claims on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state and other parts of the disputed border. The renaming of places in Tibet will be used as tit-for-tat to respond to Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh.

The new names are backed by extensive historical research, military officials said, speaking on condition of strict anonymity.

“As and when that [the renaming campaign] happens, it will be tantamount to India reopening the Tibetan question,” said Ghosh. “India has accepted Tibet as part of China since it was forcibly occupied by Beijing, but now [the] Modi government seems prepared to change course to deflate the Chinese cartographical and nomenclature aggression.”

The Indian Army has in recent weeks organized lots of media trips to these disputed border areas. Journalists were brought to speak to locals who fiercely oppose Chinese claims and say they were always part of India.

“The ultimate target is to push through the Indian counter-narrative on the disputed border through regional and global media, anchored on both solid historical research and local residents’ vox pops,” said an officer involved in the campaign, who asked not to be identified.

In what is seen as a bid to assert its claim on Arunachal Pradesh, in March China renamed 30 places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in India’s northeastern state. The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, responsible for the establishment and naming of administrative divisions, released the fourth list of “standardized” geographical names in Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing calls Zangnan, according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based daily.

The list of places renamed by China includes 11 residential areas, 12 mountains, four rivers, one lake, one mountain pass, and a piece of land. The names are given in Chinese characters, Tibetan, and pinyin, the Roman alphabet version of Mandarin Chinese.

“In accordance with the relevant provisions of the State Council [China’s cabinet] on the management of geographical names, we in conjunction with the relevant departments have standardized some of the geographical names in Zangnan of China,” South China Morning Post quoted the ministry as saying.

This is the fourth time China has unilaterally renamed places in Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing released the first list of the so-called standardized names of six places in Arunachal Pradesh in 2017, the second list of 15 places in 2021, and a third list with names for 11 places in 2023. The fourth list contains almost as many new place names as the previous three combined.

India has repeatedly rejected China’s move to rename places in Arunachal Pradesh, asserting that the state is an integral part of the country and assigning “invented” names does not alter this reality.

In 2023, then-External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: “We have seen such reports. This is not the first time China has made such an attempt. We reject this outright.”

He added, “Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. Attempts to assign invented names will not alter this reality.”

The latest round of efforts by China to reassert its claims over the state started with Beijing lodging a diplomatic protest with India over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s March 2024 visit to Arunachal Pradesh, where he dedicated the Sela Tunnel built at an altitude of 13,000 feet.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on March 23 dismissed China’s repeated claims on Arunachal Pradesh as “ludicrous” and stressed that the frontier state was a “natural part of India.”

“This is not a new issue. I mean, China has laid claim, it has expanded its claim. The claims are ludicrous to begin with and remain ludicrous today,” he said in response to a question on the Arunachal issue after delivering a lecture at the prestigious Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore.

“So, I think we’ve been very clear, very consistent on this. And I think you know that is something which will be part of the boundary discussions which are taking place,” Jaishankar added.