India-China Face-off in Tawang Sector: December '22

The last reported serious clash between the Indian and Chinese troops was in Galwan River Valley in the Eastern Ladakh on 15-16 June 2020 leading to the death of several PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) and Indian soldiers. Any news of the Chinese military misadventure with India or other neighbours is neither new nor surprising owing to an ever expansionist and hegemonic policy of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Although frequent disquieting face-offs, aggressive melee or fatal skirmishes in various sectors of the Indo-Tebetan border keeps on occurring engaging the PLA and Indian troops, the recent clash on 9th December in the Tawang Sector appears to be of more serious nature and a cause of concern after over two years of relative peace across the large disputed border. According to reports, a group of PLA troops (estimated 300 soldiers) unilaterally tried to change status quo on LAC (Line of Actual Control) at Yangtse but the incursions were effective reversed by the Indian troops deployed in the area through a well-measured and commensurate response.

The episode reminds this author statement of the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that he made in 1998 in the context of another hostile neighbour Pakistan asking them to stop evil designs of hate and terror against India, saying, “we can change our friends but not our neighbours”. This is indeed a geographical reality and bitter truth that a secular and democratic India perennially faces two ever hostile countries along the most of its land border; one an Islamic Pakistan along the Western border and the other an Communist China right through the northern and entire northeastern border. While the creation of Pakistan as a nation itself was the result of communal hate and religious bigotry, ideologically the communists too seldom believe in the universally defined moral and ethical values and norms, and instead follow own evolved principles best suited to achieve their objectives. The PRC is a unique communist regime to have created its own autocratic regime and paradigm political set up that does not fit into any known classical definitions of socio-political order.

Yangtse Skirmish on 9 December 2022

The reported clash occurred on 9 December this year. A video clip of a little less than three minutes is viral on the social media wherein the Indian soldiers - some of them even using expletives in Punjabi - could be seen browbeating and thrashing up with sticks to deter rather a large number of the Chinese troops who were apparently trying to cross the LAC. As per earlier agreements between the two countries, the troops are not allowed to carry or use fire arms and other lethal weaponry within certain agreed range of the LAC and, therefore, both the troops were seen armed and exchanging sticks, staffs, clubs and so on. The video of the incident is believed to have been taken at Yangtse in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh of the Indian Territory but its vintage is not clear as any authorized or responsible agency has not taken ownership or certified it so far. However, the footage indeed suggests that several jawans from both sides must have been injured before the Chinese troops retreated or hurried up to their side of the LAC.

The news started circulating and the incident became known almost three days after the unfortunate incident. Traditionally, the Indian opposition political parties led by the Indian National Congress (INC or the Congress) spare no time to utilize any national emergency or external aggression to their favour and, true to their intention and character, when they started a public outrage against the Indian Government as well as a furor in the ongoing winter session of the Parliament, the Defence Minister of India made the following statement both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. His comments have come after having a high level meeting on the subject with concerned military and civil authorities earlier during course of the day.

"On December 9, PLA troops tried to transgress the LAC in Yangtse area of Tawang Sector and unilaterally change the status quo. The Chinese attempt was contested by our troops in a firm and resolute manner...The ensuing faceoff led to a physical scuffle in which the Indian Army bravely prevented the PLA from transgressing into our territory and compelled them to return to their posts. The scuffle led to injuries to a few personnel on both sides. I wish to share with this House that there are no fatalities or serious casualties on our side."

He also disclosed that the matter was also appropriately taken up with China through diplomatic channels. As mentioned earlier, the Sino-Indian face-offs and skirmishes at LAC are not uncommon because traditionally China considers entire Arunachal Pradesh as part of the South Tibet and also keeps on changing goal posts on border issues for its tactical advantages in spite of the fact that the Chinese occupation of Tibet and its forceful integration with the Chinese mainland in 1950 itself was illegal. Besides, the PRC is also apprehensive about the growing economic and military cooperation between India and United States as it finds a weak Indian political set up and military more convenient to fulfillment of its hegemonic and expansionist objective and goals. It is of common public knowledge how two successive previous governments of UPA led by the Congress always tried to underplay the Chinese threat at the border, nationally and internationally, and avoided own infrastructure development there to counter the adversary threat.

Recently, a fortnight long joint Indo-US military exercise Yudh Abhyas-22 was held at Auli in the Indian state of Uttarakhand from 17 November to 2 December 2022. Although the said war exercise was carried out away from the LAC yet this had generated a strong reaction from China, which not only raised the issue with the Government of India but also lashed out at the US asking them not to interfere in the Sino-Indian relations. The joint exercised thus carried out was nearly hundred km away from the LAC and was in no way in violation of the 1993 and 1996 agreements between the two Asian neighbours. Thereafter it was hardly in a week’s time that PLA resorted to an aggressive posturing and unilateral attempt to forcibly change the goal post through transgression across the border in the Tawang sector leading to the recent clash which has resulted in at least six injuries on the Indian side and an unspecified but higher number of the PLA troops.

Just to recapitulate it, the 1993 agreement says that both sides would strictly respect and observe the line of actual control between the two sides. Further, no activities of the either side shall overstep the line of actual control. In case personnel of one side cross the LAC, upon being cautioned by the other side, they shall immediately pull back to their own side of the LAC. Besides, the two sides are also required to keep their military deployment in the areas along the LAC to a minimum level compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries. The agreement also provides that the two sides will not undertake specified levels of military exercises in the mutually identified zones. The 1996 agreement inter alia further stipulated that neither side shall use its military capability against the other side and no armed forces deployed by the either side shall be used to attack the other side, or engage in military activities threatening the other side or in any way undermine peace, tranquility and stability in the Indo-China border areas.

According to reports, over a hundred specially designed clubs used by the PLA and seized from them by the Indian army during the 8-9 December 2022 are being displayed by the latter in a room in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh. These clubs not only have lethal spikes sticking out but are also designed to emit bright flashes during a clash capable of temporarily disorienting the opponents. What really worked in the Indian soldiers’ favour that they did not allow the skirmish for a longer period and were able to beat back the opponents well before the fall of dusk. Another changed characteristic of the PLA troops is that they do not follow the attire of combat fatigues while breaching the line of control; instead, they now come in riot gear with body armour, shields and spiked clubs. Apparently, the Chinese troops made first attempt of incursion on 8 December at Yangtse near the sacred waterfall known as Chumi Gyatse and the following day such incursion culminated in a far more serious skirmish leading to alleged injuries and retreat of PLA troops.

Policy of Nibbling Territories in Low Intensity Conflicts

China’s territory is about three times the size of that of India although population wise they have only a minor edge over the latter. Accordingly, they have a very long land border as well as a long coastline although the inland borders are mostly mountainous, cold, remote and rather difficult to manage. They share borders with fourteen states on land, namely India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. Apart from many territorial disputes with almost all these countries, they have similar disputes with several countries at sea also owing to their tall claims with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. For instance, China claims exclusive stake over the entire South China Sea or the entire Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Ladakh, and try to nibble on the strategic territories through constantly changing stands and revising claims.

Historically, the border between India and Tibet (erstwhile independent and friendly country) was never well defined but the two countries did not have any dispute either for centuries. The problem started only after the Chinese Communist revolution and formation of the Peoples Republic of China under Mao Zedong in November 1949. Soon, they attacked and forcibly occupied militarily weak Tibetan country in October 1950. Ever since China has been selectively laying claims on vantage territories across nearly 3,500 Km long mostly Indo-Tibetan border and in the process the two countries had a full-fledged war in 1962 and serious yet localized conflicts in 1967 and 1987 too. Though the countries have evolved a formal border resolution mechanism but the same has hardly produced any viable outcome or peace due to constant shifting stand and stubborn approach of the successive Chinese leadership and PLA.

On the previous occasion, the Indian patrolling troops had noticed PLA incursions at several points in Galwan River valley, Pangong Tso (lake) area, Gogra-Hotsprings area, Muguthang in Sikkim, Depsang, and so on in May 2020. The Chinese designs at the LAC were foiled by the Indian troops at several points with their tough stand and controlled but befitting response to PLA transgressions which inter alia include a serious clash in Galwan River Valley area on 15-16 June 2020 leading to death of several Indian and Chinese soldiers. Ever since, several rounds of talks have been held between the Indian and Chinese armies and territorial issues at places like the Galwan River Valley, Gogra-Hotsprings etc. have been considerably resolved yet there are many other flash points such as Pangong Tso and Depsang that continue to pose serious threat to the border peace and tranquility. Besides, the Chinese side keeps on opening new disputes every off and on along the long Indo-Tibetan border. Since Indo-Tibetan border is comprised of mostly mountainous terrain and whoever occupies heights is usually at advantage in any faceoff. Therefore, the PLA endeavours to occupy mountain peaks and ridges wherever possible to achieve strategic advantage over the Indian Army.

There appears to be no need of highlighting similar Chinese unethical maneuvers and irritants with many other Asian neighbours too but it may not be out of context to mention the plight of tiny Himalayan country Bhutan. Under India-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship 1949, India has certain obligations to guide and advise Bhutan in its foreign policy and defence, and take necessary measures to safeguard the latter’s such interests against enemies. Although over the decades, Bhutan has increasingly asserted independent approach on these issues yet the past agreement and arrangement continues so far. In June 2017, China started illegal construction of road in Bhutanese territory of Doklam brushing aside resistance from the latter’s royal army guards. Then the Indian troops had to intervene and the consequent stand-off continued for several weeks triggering high tension and risk of full scale war between the two countries.

Ultimately, China had to concede and stop illegal construction in the Bhutanese territory and withdraw PLA troops and equipment from the site. The recent satellite imagery of the region suggest coming up of several border villages along the LAC, including a Chinese Utopian village with a number of cars and garden along the  Amu Chu in the contested territory with Bhutan. In fact, a large scale infrastructure development in the form of roads, buildings and other construction could be easily observed in many areas. Let there be no doubt that all such manoeuvres and design are aimed at consolidating their boundary claims all along nearly 3,500 km of the Indo-Tibetan as well as about 477 km contested border with Bhutan. From time to time, India sensitises Bhutan about the tri-junction area near Doklam and other places but clearly the tiny nation is no match for the belligerent and expansionist Chinese communist regime. According to some experts on Chinese matters, the construction of model villages near the LAC and in disputed territories followed by the translocation and rehabilitation of such areas by their ex-servicemen is part the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s greater vision and mission of consolidating the Han Chinese rule and presence in these areas.

However, the way Indian and Chinese troops are locked up against each other at several points across the Indo-Tibetan border, backed by a short-notice mobilization of more manpower and heavy equipment on both sides, any misunderstanding between the two armies or any serious breach on LAC on the part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily trigger a large scale confrontation and war between the two countries. The risk is more so apparent now because, leaving behind the dithering and wavering of the past Indian regimes, the present Indian government and the Indian armed forces are not willing to accept any compromise on national sovereignty and integrity due to enemy acts. It is only after the Chinese invasion and forceful annexation of Tibet in October 1950 that the frequent transgression of border by the PLA troops started into the areas traditionally under the control and surveillance of the Indian troops. The current skirmish and face-off between the two armies is one of such many past instances with the difference that the Indian troops are now handling situation with more confidence and firm resolve, which may only further annoy their ever tricky and treacherous easterly adversary.

Post-Event Reactions and Responses

Several reactions and responses swiftly occurred from the national and international sources following the Yangtse incident. The Pentagon’s (US) authorized spokesperson promptly made a statement that China is continuingly amassing force and building military infrastructure along the so-called LAC which suggests the growing trend to proactively assert itself in areas directed towards US allies and partners in Indo-Pacific, and that the US is committed to ensure the security of its partners and support India’s efforts to de-escalate the situation. United Nations too promptly responded to the face-off between the Indian and Chinese troops calling for the de-escalation appealing both the countries to ensure that the tension in that area i.e. Tawang sector on LAC do not escalate further.

Following the day after the reports of face-off between the two armies along the Tawang sector emerged, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu stated recalling the 1962 war that it was not 1962 anymore and the capable Indian troops will give a befitting reply to anyone who tries to transgress into Indian Territory. On the other hand, the Indian opposition parties, particularly the Congress, tried to encash it as an opportunity as usual in finding faults with the working of government and criticizing them for showing weakness in dealing with the Chinese political leadership and PLA. The Congress leadership pressed for a debate in the Parliament on the issue and staged a walk-out along with other opposition parties in protest. The strange and amusing part of the leadership of this political party is that they have held secret parlance with Chinese diplomats and politicians in the past, obtained handsome money as donation for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation during the UPA regime and then charge the present government for weak handling or meek surrender before the Chinese leadership.

A far more surprising and interesting has been the reaction of the Chinese political leadership and media on the subject this time. Instead of the traditional verbal abuse and threatening gestures, the Chinese military simply blamed the Indian troops for illegally crossing the LAC and obstructing Chinese border patrol troops leading to the stand-off on 9 December 2022. The Chinese Ministry spokesperson maintained that the situation was stable along the unresolved border with India and that the two sides have maintained unobstructed dialogue on the border issue through diplomatic and military channels. Traditional Beijing mouthpiece, The Global Times too has so far avoided slanderous reports and, instead, has just adopted the Chinese official line of squarely blaming Indian troops for the face-off and that the PLA dealt with the situation with professional, standard and powerful measures to stabilize the situation. According to Qian Feng, a so-called Chinese scholar and expert on China-India relations, the armies have completed disengagement, situation is overall stable and some good signs of stabilization and warming up relations have emerged.

The aforesaid Chinese statements depict a clearly wrong and misleading position on ground at the LAC. The fact is that despite the onset of winter and heavy cold and snowfall in areas surrounding LAC, heavy troops and war equipment built up continues on both sides with several flash points and trouble spots. The satellite imageries and other intelligence reports suggest heavy amassment of the Chinese troops and heavy war machinery & equipment close to LAC at several points. In this context, at least eight to ten flash points exist along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh alone, including Tawang sector, where heightened tension exist between the armies with heavy deployment on either sides. Therefore, taking the aforesaid Chinese statement on its face value might prove a serious strategic blunder in an event if PLA opts to surprise its Indian counterparts in these areas.

 One could find numerous reports from the past UPA regime (2004-2014) in India where the government was found shy about infrastructure development in border areas and taking commensurate measures on reported incursions. The then UPA prime minister himself asked media at occasions not to give much cognizance and publicity to such events. Some of the clear and visible changes since 2014 during NDA regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi include a massive investment on infrastructure development of roads and allied structures, calculated and well measured tit-for-tat response to PLA adventures on LAC and quick deployment of back up troops and equipment in emergencies in support of the forward troops. The positive outcomes of such measures were clearly visible during the Doklam sector in 2017, Galwan Valley in 2020 and Tawang sector now. Following the 9 December face-off, the Indian Air Force has launched an active combat patrols of its advanced fighter aircrafts like Rafael and Sukhoi-30 over Arunachal Pradesh to detect and deal with any unlawful enemy activity.

 Key Points of Learning from Recent Incursions

 Hostilities during May-June 2020 bringing the two neighbours almost at the brink of full scale war, number of recurring violations of LAC annually and December 2022 transgression indicates that China will continue with its land grabbing policy through nibbling by resorting to low intensity conflicts. The standard Chinese tactics is of frequently changing goal posts on border issues to achieve tactical benefits across the LAC; the PLA is likely to continue its transgression and incursions hitherto fore while the Chinese diplomacy with loud talks of compliance of the joint peace agreements such as those of 1993 and 1996. To achieve this, China would never want India to be militarily strong or in any strategic partnership and cooperation with US or any other regional powers.

 It is evidently clear that China is not interested in resolving border issues and is likely to continue military friction and low intensity adventures all along nearly 3,500 km of the LAC in an attempt to destabilize India both internally and externally. As a matter of fact, except for intermittent aggression and occupation of the peaceful Himalayan country (Tibet) during the medieval period, Tibet was never a part of China. Forceful occupation of Tibet in 1950 does not suo moto give any legal right or sanctity to the Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and other Indian territories of the Himalayan border. Therefore, those people in India who think that Chinese problem will not aggravate if India remains tolerant and underplay LAC violations, are patently wrong. On the contrary, the Chinese hegemonic and expansionist ways can be checked only through commensurate measures and befitting responses by a strong military and a committed political leadership.

Many left-leaning and left-centric politicians, intellectuals and strategists in India argue that India should avoid being close to US and allies lest it will adversely impact its relations with the countries like China and traditional ally Russia. In support, they even cite past events and alignments, including the US hostile act of sending their naval Enterprise Carrier force in the Bay of Bengal during the Indo-Pak War of 1971. These people forget that the international relationship is based on the concurrent evolving mutual interests and ever changing world order, and not merely on the basis of past events and arrangements. For instance, over a period Russia and China have come very close and India too needs to expand its military and economic cooperation with West, including the latest technology in military and civil sectors. Today, China has emerged as a serious threat to India and US and even during the 1962 war, this was the US, and not Russia, that supported India.

 China is not only perennially bothering India across its nearly 3,500 km ill-defined border with Tibet but also endeavouring to encircle and keep a tactical watch over it though satellites and enhanced presence through its military bases in the Indian Ocean. According to reports, the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is already numerically the largest navy in the world. Further, China is constantly strengthening its naval base at Djibouti and deployment of the Chinese submarines along with its survey and hydrographic ships in the Indian Ocean has become a regular feature since 2017. Similarly, China has acquired Hambantota port from Sri Lanka on a 99 years lease in lieu of the latter’s defaulted Chinese loans and massive Chinese investments are also underway in the Gwadar port now owned by Pakistan in the Arabian Sea. Ultimately, these bases and ports are likely to be used against the Indian interests and more so during the escalation of hostilities; hence, the Indian strategic cooperation with US and QUAD in the Indo-pacific zone appears to be the need of hour.

 Another emerging key point is that India’s long term dependence on foreign technology for its military purposes is not only cost prohibitive but also unreliable and risky in view of the present complex political, economic and military world order. Therefore, building own indigenous manufacturing capacity is more advisable and the need of hour for country’s long term stability, uninterrupted supplies and optimum defence capability. Apart from upgrading and augmenting defence capabilities, it is also equally important to fast track the development of infrastructure across the entire LAC with the belligerent China so as to facilitate quick and unhindered movement of troops and supplies in emergent situations. Similarly, the gathering of intelligence for the military purposes has improved with time but a lot more is still needed to upgrade it so as to receive advance reliable inputs about the intentions of PLA on the LAC.

 Last but not the least, the opposition political parties in India and allied media and intellectuals also need to change their mindset vis-s-vis serious threats emanating beyond the borders. The experience of last few years indicate that be it from Pakistan or China, the external threats emanating from the enemy lines are so often utilized as opportunity by the opposition political parties, and their supporters and sympathizers to destabilize and embarrass own government. They need to learn and make distinction between “opposing the ruling party or Prime Minister Modi” and “opposing the nation itself”. Opposing one’s political adversary is okay in politics but this opposition should not grow to an extant where one is perceived pitted against the nation’s interest itself. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in India these days where the actions and reactions of the opposition parties are often found in furtherance of the cause of enemy instead of own nation.

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More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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