NEW DELHI • India plans to invest billions of dollars to populate a remote north-eastern state it has neglected since fighting a war with neighbouring China more than five decades ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is finalising blueprints for a US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion) highway in Arunachal Pradesh, which is also claimed by China. Construction on the 2,000km road will start as early as 2018, Mr Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs, said in an interview.
"If China is developing on their side of the territory, we should develop on our side," Mr Rijiju, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, said at his New Delhi residence last Saturday. "India has failed the people living along that border. We are now taking very concrete steps in that direction."
Prime Minister Modi has taken a more assertive stance towards China as he seeks to constrain its territorial ambitions, while still attracting investment to strengthen India's economy.
In addition to developing the north-east, he has sided with the United States in calling for stability in the South China Sea and bolstered ties with Sri Lanka after it voted out a pro-China government.
Arunachal Pradesh, which means "Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains", is an area in the Himalayas the size of Austria tucked between China, Myanmar and Bhutan.
It has 1.4 million people, less than 1 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population, and a third of them live in poverty as hydropower, coal and mineral resources sit undeveloped.
In 1962, India and China fought a four-week war over their Himalayan border. Chinese troops operating at high altitudes advanced into Arunachal Pradesh and another disputed area to the west.
The war ended when China declared a ceasefire and withdrew to the McMahon Line formed by Britain and Tibet in 1914, which serves as the de facto border today.
Since then, China has developed nearby areas. The Tibet autonomous region today boasts over 7,000km of highways, all-weather road and rail links to China's heartland, five airfields and a fibre optic network that connects nearly all towns, said Delhi Policy Group.
Arunachal Pradesh, by contrast, has been forgotten. It was connected to the national railway network only last year, the nearest commercial airport is in another state and large swathes do not have power or telecommunications.
While the state has more hydropower potential than what is currently installed in all of India, less than 1 per cent has been developed. Only 29 per cent of the region has paved roads, compared with a national average of 62 per cent, according to the Central Electricity Authority and a report by PwC.
"We have reversed that policy because it is a huge geographical tract and very strategic," Mr Rijiju said of the failure to develop Arunachal Pradesh. He said Mr Modi has allocated more resources to build schools, clinics and bridges there, and is planning to boost telecommunication and transport networks.
Mr Rijiju stressed that India's moves should not be seen as a challenge to China.
"I don't want to link it to China," he said. "We are not doing anything to disturb relations. It is not in terms of challenging or competing with China, but in terms of securing our own territory."
The highway project should strengthen economic ties between India and China instead of dividing the nations, Mr Rijiju said.
China may not see it that way. "The Chinese government has never recognised the so-called Arunachal Pradesh unilaterally established by India," Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said in a February statement.
China calls the area South Tibet and has repeatedly asked India to "refrain from actions that complicate the boundary issue".