On the surface the recent visit of the US Ambassador Richard Verma to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh is unexceptionable, for after all he is the duly accredited US Ambassador to India and Arunachal Pradesh is a constituent state of the Indian Union. Ambassador Verma is perfectly entitled to visit any state of the Indian Union in the course of his duties, subject of course to local conditions. The US Ambassador not only “tweeted” his presence from Tawang, but was prominently photographed in the company of the Arunachal and Assam Chief Ministers. These photographs were prominently published in the media. As the MEA spokesman, perfectly legitimately, maintained “there is nothing unusual about it”. But Ambassador Verma is no ordinary diplomat and neither is Arunachal Pradesh an ordinary state of the Indian Union, for China lays claim to almost the whole of the state. China remains vociferous in its belief that this is “disputed” territory and dubs the state as “Southern Tibet”. The Sino-Indian boundary dispute is still ongoing and the subject of negotiations at the Special Representatives level. About nineteen rounds of negotiations have been held so far, but there has been little progress as the negotiating positions of both India and China are as far apart as ever.
At a most delicate moment in the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962, in a Telegram sent on 26th October 1962, by the US Department of State authorized the then US Ambassador to India, Galbraith to convey that the US “recognized the McMahon Line as the traditional and generally accepted international border and fully supported India’s position in that regard”. This assertion was indeed very welcome from India’s point of view. This was the first time that the US had given such a recognition to the McMahon Line, for earlier on 12th November 1959 the then acting US Secretary of State, Herter had publicly proclaimed that the US had NOT taken any side in the border dispute and as far as the “legalities of rival border claims were concerned the US had no views”. However, an important point to be noted is that the US, even up to present times, has not taken any position on the western sector of the Sino-Indian boundary. It still maintains a neutral stance.
The present visit of Ambassador Verma to Arunachal Pradesh and particularly to Tawang drew an anticipated sharp response from the Chinese authorities. The Chinese protested sharply both to the US as also to India on the Ambassador’s visit. But one point is very interesting in the Chinese spokesman Lu Kang’s protest statement. Lu said that “any third party with a sense of responsibility should respect the efforts made by China and India for peace, reconciliation and tranquility rather than the opposite”. Was Lu Kang hinting that the US was trying to create “problems” between India and China and thus retard the progress towards a settlement? If this line of thinking is indeed to be followed to its logical conclusion, then it becomes imperative to examine what recent US policy has been in this regard.
When the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962 over the boundary issue entered a critical phase, the US administration was debating what policy it should follow as regards the Sino-Indian conflict and on the larger question of relations between India and China. In US Department of State archives, there is an interesting document that illuminates the US position. In Document No 226 [available at FRUS 1961-63, Vol XIX, South Asia], Robert Komer a National Security Council Staff recommends to President Kennedy that “thus it is as much in our strategic interest to keep a high degree of Sino-Indian friction, as it is to prevent it from spilling over into larger scale war”.
The point to ponder is whether US policy has over a period of time undergone a change or is it still the same as recommended by Komer to President Kennedy in 1962? If latter is the case, then the visit to Tawang by the present US Ambassador, where he made every effort to be noticed, assumes a completely different connotation from an ordinary visit by an accredited ambassador. Was Ambassador Verma trying to create “complications” in Sino-Indian relations or was his visit just an ordinary visit by an accredited ambassador? The answer to that question still remains moot.