Two-and-a-half years after Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in deadly hand-to-hand combat at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh in the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), their troops faced off at the Yangtse area near Tawang in the eastern sector of their disputed border.
“On December 09, 2022, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops contacted the LAC in Tawang sector, which was contested by [India’s] own troops in a firm and resolute manner. This face-off led to minor injuries to a few personnel from both sides,” the Indian Army said in a statement on Monday after reports of the incident emerged in the media.
“Both sides immediately disengaged from the area,” the army said, adding that the crisis at the face-off site was defused with commanders holding a flag meeting to restore peace and tranquility.
The face-off at Tawang comes even as tensions triggered by the Galwan clash on the night of June 14-15, 2020, continue to run high. Both sides are reported to have over 50,000 soldiers each deployed along the icy Himalayan frontier in Ladakh.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told the Indian Parliament that PLA troops “tried to transgress the LAC” in Tawang to “unilaterally change the status quo in the area.” A “physical scuffle” followed, and Indian soldiers “compelled them to return to their posts.”
There is concern that the Indian government is downplaying the Indian casualties. Singh told parliament said that there were “no fatalities or serious injuries” on the Indian side. But military experts claim “serious casualties on both sides,” with at least 35 Indian soldiers injured.
The Tribune’s Ajay Banerjee, who broke the story about the Tawang face-off, pointed out that “The location of [the] clash is important. China has been repeatedly trying to take control of a 17,000 feet high peak” in Tawang.
“So far India is [in] firm control of [the] peak,” he tweeted.
Ingressions by soldiers of one side into territory claimed by the other are not uncommon along the LAC. The border is fuzzy, and patrol teams routinely run into each other.
However, the Chinese ingression on December 9 at Tawang was not due to any fuzziness in the border but the outcome of a “planned attempt” by China to take control of the 17,000-ft (5,180-meter) peak, a senior commander in the Indian Army’s Eastern Command told The Diplomat. Apparently, the PLA attempted to take control of this peak in October 2021 as well, which also culminated in clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers.
Recent years have seen a rise in run-ins between Indian and Chinese soldiers since both sides are patrolling up to their claim lines. Additionally, since the Galwan incident, when fatalities were reported from the LAC for the first time in 45 years, incidents involving physical engagements between the two sides have increased. Physical clashes in Naku La in Sikkim in January 2021, for instance, left soldiers on both sides injured.
The entire border between India and China is disputed. Additionally, the two sides claim chunks of territory in the other’s control. India claims some 45,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin in the western sector of the border, which China occupied in the 1962 war, while Beijing claims an area of around 90,000 square kilometers, roughly coinciding with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, in the eastern sector.
China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet. During the 1962 war, it took control over vast swathes of this territory but then pulled back, raising questions among Indian experts over how serious it really was in claiming this territory.
Noted Sinologist Claude Arpi told The Diplomat recently that China’s interest in Arunachal is to gain leverage in a future settlement of the border. “For Beijing, it is a bargaining chip for an eventual ‘swap’ and the recognition by India of the occupation by China of Aksai Chin,” he said.
Indeed, till the mid-1980s China pushed for India to endorse Beijing’s control over Aksai Chin in return for Beijing accepting India’s control over Arunachal.
If in the initial post-1962 decades China downplayed its interest in Arunachal, that was because it was consolidating control over Aksai Chin, which is important to its control over Tibet. That done, Beijing turned its gaze to the eastern sector.
Since the mid-2000s, China has been asserting claims over what it calls Southern Tibet too. In addition to building its military muscle and connectivity infrastructure along the eastern sector, it has sought to strengthen its claims over territory here through a variety of measures, including providing Chinese names to 15 places in Arunachal. Beijing has also strongly objected to Indian moves to improve its own infrastructure here and visits by Indian leaders, the Dalai Lama, and U.S. officials to Arunachal have evoked sharp criticism, even warnings from Beijing.
Arunachal is important to China because control over it is vital for India’s defense of its Northeast. And Tawang in particular is critical to this defense. The strategic Bum La Pass, through which PLA troops invaded the Northeast in 1962, lies north of Tawang town.
Tawang has cultural, religious, and ecclesiastical links to Tibet as well. The Tawang monastery is not only the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world after the Potala Palace, but also it has political significance to Tibetans, as it was at this monastery that the present Dalai Lama stayed for several weeks after escaping from China in 1959. It is therefore an important site in the history of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule.
China’s grip over Tibet may be tight now but its control could be challenged by mass unrest and protests in the post-Dalai Lama era. Tawang could emerge then as an important site for rallying resistance in the Tibetan exile community — hence, the increasing attention that Beijing is paying to Tawang.
So what sparked the December 9 Chinese ingression at Tawang?
Since the start of the military standoff in Ladakh, experts have been warning that China could apply pressure in Arunachal Pradesh to force India to thin its deployment in the western sector.
China’s ingression at Tawang could indeed be linked to the situation in Ladakh, where tensions have not abated. Sixteen rounds of talks between senior Indian and Chinese commanders have led to disengagement of troops from “friction areas” at Galwan, Pangong Tso, Gogra, and Hot Springs. But Chinese troops remain in control of Depsang and Demchok. It is possible that the ingression at Tawang is aimed at getting India to concede more of China’s demands in Ladakh.
However, it is more likely that the Chinese ingression is in response to the November 17-December 2 India-U.S. Yudh Abhyas military exercises at Auli, which is just 100 km from the LAC’s central sector in Uttarakhand.
China had objected to the joint exercises, which focused on high altitude and extremely cold climate warfare, claiming it violates the India-China agreements of 1993 and 1996.
With its ingression at Tawang, Beijing has signaled yet again that there will be costs to the mounting India-U.S. cooperation, especially in the Himalayan heights close to Tibet.