Why China wants Tawang – Ranjit Bhushan

Tawang Monastery

Ranjit BhushanIt is Tawang Monastery that China covets the most—it was here that Tibetan leader Dalai Lama stayed briefly in March 1959 while escaping from his country. For the Big Dragon, taking Tawang one day is part of an unstated policy. – Ranjit Bhushan

Atop a lush, grassy mountainside in west Arunachal Pradesh sits the world’s second-largest Tibetan monastery, in Tawang.

This magnificent multi-storied Buddhist monastery presides over a vast collection of connected buildings and structures, sprawled across an entire mountainside. It is one of the last remnants of a seriously-endangered Tibetan culture.

And it is this monastery that China covets the most—it was here that Tibetan leader Dalai Lama stayed briefly in March 1959 while escaping from his country. For the Big Dragon, taking Tawang one day is part of an unstated policy.

It was also here in the Yangtze sector in Tawang last week that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops tried to “unilaterally change the status quo” with a contingent of more than 300. They were prevented by the Indian Army from crossing over, leading to injuries on both sides, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh told parliament.

The significance of the Chinese assault on December 9 lies in the fact that it was the first major faceoff between troops of the two countries since the deadly Galwan Valley clashes in June 2020, which led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number on the Chinese side — Beijing officially acknowledged four casualties.

A new low

Clearly, Sino-India relations, never too warm since Chinese incursions in Ladakh in April 2020, have become even icier.

Zorawar Daulet Singh, author of Powershift: India-China Relations in a Multipolar World, believes that “the absence of robust strategic talks between the leadership of the two nations has left bilateral relations in a deep stress and in a drift.’’

“While prime minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have met a few times since 2014, there is nothing to suggest that either side was really interested in accommodating the other side’s core interests. The disputed Himalayan border is where this rupture is being felt most visibly with each passing year,” he told Moneycontrol.

Stating that “there were no fatalities or serious casualties on our side’’, the defence minister said that “due to the timely intervention of Indian military commanders, PLA soldiers went back to their locations”.

Later in the day, PTI quoted senior colonel Long Shaohua of the PLA, spokesman for its Western Theatre Command, as saying that the clash on December 9th took place when PLA troops on regular patrol on the Chinese side of the LAC were blocked by Indian soldiers.

The larger picture for strategic analysts is more important. Is Chinese muscle flexing in the eastern sector—ie, Arunachal, also called southern Tibet by Beijing, because of the Tawang monastery—a precursor of what is to come? Or is it simply the new normal?

History repeating itself

The pattern in 2022 is somewhat repetitive of what the Chinese did in 1962. In 1962—The Battle of Namka Chu and Fall of Tawang, (1962 War: A View from Other Side of the Hill), Major General P.J.S. Sandhu (Retd) noted that “by the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the PLA had shifted its strategic focus from Ladakh to NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). By constructing the road connecting Xinjiang to Tibet through Aksai-Chin (in 1957) and securing it by establishing border posts across the road to give it sufficient depth, the Chinese had by and large achieved their aims in the Western Sector. They now turned their attention to the Eastern Sector.’’

The events that followed in the fateful days of the deadly border war then have a passing resonance to the current situation. After entrenching itself well in the western sector, i.e., Ladakh, it is likely that the Chinese are now eyeing the eastern sector, the area India regards as its very own.

The Line of Actual Control (LAC), which separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory, is 3,488 km long. It is divided into three sectors: the eastern sector, which covers Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; the middle sector, which has Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh; and the western sector, covering Ladakh.

That claiming Tawang is part of China’s unfinished agenda should scarcely be in doubt. Din Bingguo, the celebrated state councillor, director of the general offices of foreign affairs and national security group of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) central committee, and special representative for boundary negotiations with India from 2002 to 2013 stated that “the disputed territory in the eastern sector of the China-India boundary, including Tawang, is inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction. Even British colonialists who drew the illegal McMahon Line respected China’s jurisdiction over Tawang and admitted that Tawang was part of China’s Tibet.”

The McMahon Line is the boundary between Tibet and British India as agreed in the maps and notes exchanged by respective plenipotentiaries on March 24–25, 1914 at Delhi, as part of the 1914 Simla Convention. The Indian part of the Line currently serves as the de facto boundary between China and India, although its legal status is disputed by China.

Differing perceptions

Sino-Indian relations are best viewed through the prism of their perceptions: post-1947, pacifist India assumed that its natural affinity and cultural and religious links with Tibet would be respected and understood by all, including the newly formed Communist China. But China, with Mao at the helm, always viewed Tibet as its own territory and made use of India’s good relations with Tibet while it suited its needs. At the appropriate time, the Chinese accused New Delhi of harbouring “imperialist intentions” towards Tibet. This became the staging ground for the 1962 border skirmish, in which China emerged as the clear victor.

A complex web of history, geography, early 20th-century British intrigue, and subterfuge were the triggers. At both ends of the Himalayas, no-man’s lands still separated China and India when the two became independent in the mid-twentieth century; their quarrel arose from the need to translate those zones into lines, and from the failure to agree on a method.

There were two major areas of contention between the two countries—Aksai Chin and the McMahon Line. By 1958 the two no-man’s lands, which the imperial era had left at opposite ends of the Sino-Indian frontier, had been occupied. On the NEFA side by India (the McMahon Line) and on the northwestern side by China (Aksai Chin).

The Aksai-Chin conflict burst into the open after an Indian patrol discovered a road that China had built in the area. This road established a vital link between Xinjiang and Tibet, which was critical to the Chinese Army’s war logistics in Tibet.

There followed a spate of events and decisions, the sum of which was that on October 20, 1962, China attacked Indian troops, who had been ordered into a suicidal mission under a so-called Forward Policy, by “experts” who had not travelled east of Guwahati. Within a month, the Chinese had decimated, routed or taken Indian soldiers prisoner, with no organised military force left either in NEFA or in Aksai Chin.

Fallout of the 1962 war

If there was one positive fallout of the 1962 debacle, it was the late realisation that India must never lower its guard, underlining the need to deploy sufficient military and logistics capabilities to respond to any surprise from China.

As a result of India seeking and getting support from the Americans in 1962, the Pakistanis protested in alarm at the arms supply, but when the aid did not stop, decided to try and shake Kashmir out of India’s grip by force. This set off the three-week Indo-Pak war of 1965.

In other words, the 1962 China invasion paved the way for the Indo-Pak war in 1965, which changed political dynamics, affiliations and geopolitics in South Asia for times to come.

Cultural assimilation

Policy planners in New Delhi realised that India had been too engrossed in its heartland to open up contacts with the remote North East, leading to significant policy changes in the region, like the introduction of Hindi as a link language in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, best represented in Tawang.

Arunachal Pradesh has since become a flourishing centre of Hindi in the North East. Hindi is also the language of debate in the state legislative assembly and about 90 percent of the people in the state speak this language, commonly associated with the Gangetic plains, points out Rajib Sagar, an education department official in Arunachal Pradesh.

“The state’s first sustained exposure to Hindi came during the 1962 Indo-China war. Indian soldiers, most of them from the Hindi belt, enlisted locals to carry food and ammunition. The porters’ use of Hindi slowly spread to their families and neighbours,” he told Moneycontrol. “Add to it, official policy. Arunachal’s schools follow the three-language formula laid down by the Centre, offering compulsory instruction in English, Hindi, and a third language. But no matter what medium students choose, Hindi is decidedly the language of conversation.”

Infrastructure along the border

Along with this cultural integration, the government started a phase of infrastructure building along the border, which was a late start. After dithering for close to five decades after the 1962 conflict, when planners thought the best way to slow down a Chinese invasion would be to offer them no infrastructure, there has been a change of plans.

That phase has now given way to a vigorous buildup on the LAC, which, not surprisingly, is one of the principal objections of the Chinese. In 2008, the Manmohan Singh government authorised the construction of 73 strategic roads along the borders, a process that gathered momentum with the arrival of the Modi government in 2014.

India has built 2,088 km of roads in areas bordering China in the last five years, spending Rs 15,477 crore, the government told the Lok Sabha in July.

China, too, has upgraded infrastructure at its bases close to the LAC, including dual-use airports, with the construction of hardened shelters for its fighter aircraft and longer runways. Over the last few months, China has built a bridge over Pangong Lake, in Indian territory under its occupation since 1958. According to reports, it plans to construct a new highway along the LAC with India.

With such a frenetic buildup on both sides, it would be a bit naive to conclude that China favours “peace and tranquillity”, a constant refrain in joint Indo-China official communiques.

Lt. Gen. R.K. Sharma (Retd), a former adjutant general, characterises four distinct takeaways from last week’s scrap. One, he says such a large number of PLA troops cannot be routine—it had to be a PLA battalion tasked to occupy a ridgeline in an attempt to unilaterally change the LAC; two, Yangtze Bridge, in proximity to Tawang, is inalienable to China’s interest; three, the 600-plus well-organised Chinese villages in the eastern sector need careful monitoring, as they could be used as launching pads for military operations. Four, Indian units being poised to react to such situations in real time indicates excellent preparation and training.

General Sharma also has a word of caution. “Chinese designs must not be ascribed to simple rationale like the Indian Parliament being in session, plans to construct a 1,800-km-long road parallel to the LAC, India being chair of the G-20, steady economic growth or recent joint exercises by Indo-American troops in Uttarakhand. … They clearly have designs over the populated Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh,” he told Moneycontrol.

Clearly then, India has a lot on its hands. A democracy has too many things to contend with and protecting inaccessible, frozen frontiers is one of the elements, albeit an important one. – Money Control, 17 Decemeber 2022

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent senior journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University.

India and China clash on Dec 9, 2022 at Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

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