The Tawang clash on December 9 has inspired different versions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) attempt to ‘gain’ access to commanding heights of Yangtse, which virtually dominates the heavily defended Tawang bowl. Its strategic value was identified by a former Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji, following the Sumdorong Chu intrusion in 1986 by the PLA which led to India’s second effort at Forward Posture in Arunachal Pradesh.
One account says the PLA’s stealth operation tried to dislodge Indian troops occupying Yangtse. Another description suggests the PLA was only establishing its claim by presence, leaving the usual telltale signs in the area. The unofficial ground version is different.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament that Chinese troops attempted to transgress the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Yangtse sector and unilaterally change the status quo. This was contested by our troops, resulting in a scuffle that led to injuries on both sides and compelled the PLA to return to their posts. A bald and bland statement, avoiding details of the encounter. In their version, the Chinese were even more sparse: troops on regular patrol on the Chinese side of the LAC at Dongzhang were blocked by the Indian personnel, who illegally crossed the LAC. Note, there is no mention of a scuffle or casualties. Because India invariably evades the description of a clash, journalists rely on secondary material or simply conjure up facts.
Commanders in the chain of command in 4 Corps responsible for Arunachal Pradesh say that Yangtse is a disputed area in “reverse occupation of India” — a vital ground the Chinese claim, but under Indian occupation. Every year for the last six years, between September and December, the PLA asserts its right to access the Yangtse area, crossing an Indian-erected wall and momentarily celebrating the transgression.
On December 9, the strength and modus operandi was more provocative than in the past. Around 300 PLA troops (number usually is 50 to 100) were involved. They were carrying weapons, muzzle down and slung on the back, with additional hardware like clubs and sticks.
Indian troops were forewarned. There was no question of the PLA doing a ‘Kailash’, as the Special Frontier Force (SFF) did two years ago in Ladakh or dislodging the occupied post. The scuffles have escalated to assaults with medieval artefacts to break bones and smash skulls, whereas previously, it was only shove, push and jostle. This is a replay of Galwan, with the PLA getting more aggressive and can one day escalate to undo Indian occupation of Yangtse.
The government has promulgated an official gag in Parliament on Ladakh and the China border since the PLA intrusions in 2020. China was virtually exonerated for transgressions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said: “No one has entered Indian territory, nor has anyone occupied it.” On Tuesday, in Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah claimed: “No one can capture an inch of Indian land till Modi is in power.”
A debate in Parliament is disallowed on the plea that it is a sensitive border issue and will question the valour of our soldiers. Instead, the government harks back to the Nehru era or Chinese donations to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation to mask intelligence and operational failures in 2022 and the strategic folly of vacating the Kailash heights.
Tawang has for long been coveted by China as it fortifies Tibet’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls south Tibet) as the sixth Dalai Lama was born here. This, in turn, strengthens their authority and right to select the next Dalai Lama, a highly emotive issue in Tibet and Dharamsala. One of the sticking points during the talks on political parameters and guiding principles for border issues was for Tawang to be included under ‘compromises’ in a proposed deal: ‘concessions in the west for concessions in the east.’
Talks were destined to fail due to a clause on ‘national sentiment’ that trumped the one on ‘settled populations to not be disturbed’, referring to Tawang. The truth is: China will never solve the border row or identify the LAC as it facilitates coercive diplomacy through land grab.
The Yangtse clash does not augur well for the restoration of peace and tranquillity on the disturbed border. When, not if, the Chinese open a second front, the centre of gravity will be Yangtse and Tawang. The construction of new roads and infrastructure along with the development of moderately prosperous dual-use Chinese villages opposite Arunachal Pradesh will enhance the PLA military capacities and operational logistics. This is the area the Chinese had captured in 1962, but withdrew 20 km behind it. During the SCO summit at Samarkand in September, China issued an official map in which Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh were incorporated with the names of places in Mandarin.
The clash at Yangtse, according to commanders on the ground, though the most serious transgression since 2016, has been over-hyped. The Chinese have indicated willingness to escalate, and open a new front. Any military or diplomatic breakthrough despite Modi’s handshake last month with President Xi at Bali should be ruled out. Already under pressure for losing patrolling rights and grazing grounds and accepting DMZs (demilitarised zones) from Depsang to Demchok, Chinese forays across the McMahon Line are like rubbing salt in the wound. For the Modi government to go into the 2024 General Election with scars of Ladakh and attempted salami slicing in Arunachal Pradesh is embarrassing even under the glow of the G20 presidency.
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