Arunchal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu with US ambassador Kenneth Juster at the Tawang Festival
Arunchal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu (left) with US ambassador Kenneth Juster at the Tawang Festival | ANI Photo
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Itanagar/New Delhi: US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh this week was the outcome of the envoy’s own desire to visit the border district of Tawang, a region China covets and gets annoyed whenever the state hosts prominent foreigners.

“It was the US Ambassador who wrote to us saying he wanted to take part in the Tawang Festival,” Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu told ThePrint, adding that his government then decided to make Juster the chief guest at the event.

A US Embassy spokesperson said Ambassador Juster “regularly travels to the various States of India in order to carry out his responsibilities, including meeting with Mission contacts and local Indian officials to learn more about what is happening across this diverse country”.

Asked if he felt that the visit was directed against China, Khandu said: “I don’t think so.”

China claims more than 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq miles) of territory that India says is a part of its own, including Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing calls a part of “South Tibet”. It closely monitors activities in the state.

However, the US government called the ambassador’s visit “support” for India’s sovereignty, with Alice Wells, the Trump administration’s Assistant Secretary of State in-charge of South Asia, tweeting Wednesday: “.@USAmbIndia’s #Tawang visit highlights resolute U.S. support for Indian sovereignty and commitment to local partnerships.”

Stating that the ambassador was “honored” to accept the Arunachal Pradesh government’s invitation to be the chief guest at the Tawang festival, the US Embassy spokesperson said Juster and Khandu discussed “how the U.S. Mission to India can enhance its cooperation with the state”.

Also read: Satellite images show China road runs deep into Arunachal: Defence expert Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Increasing US activity in Arunachal

The US has increased its activities in Arunachal and is working jointly with the state government on developing 70 smart villages.

Juster also travelled to the Urgelling Gompa in Tawang, where the 6th Dalai Lama was born, and also met Buddhist monks and nuns at Sera Jey monastery and Brahmadung-Chung Ani Gompa nunnery.

At the same time, a US delegation led by Samuel D. Brownback, ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala Sunday. China has already said it “firmly opposes” the Brownback delegation’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

These moves come at a time when US-China relations are not at their best, with Washington calling Beijing “a strategic competitor at best that uses coercion and corruption as its tools of statecraft”.

A similar visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 by then-US ambassador to India Richard Verma had sparked a terse exchange of statements between New Delhi and Beijing.

Smart village project

Speaking about the ongoing US projects in the state, Khandu said 70 villages are being developed as smart villages, under a tie-up with Berkeley University.

The programme is being led by Prof. Solomon Darwin, executive director of the Garwood Centre for Corporate Innovation, who is known as the father of the smart village movement.

The work also focuses on helping self-help groups in the state and finding an international market for their products.

(This report has been updated to incorporate US Embassy’s comments on Ambassador Kenneth Juster’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh) 

Also read: China is reinforcing underground military facilities near Tibet-Arunachal border


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