THE TUMULTUOUS STORY of present-day Tawang starts with a darbar on the cold, barren heights overlooking the Tawang Monastery. On February 2, 1951, Major Ralengnao (Bob) Kathing, the handsome young Tangkhul Naga officer from Manipur, informed senior Tibetan officials from Tsona and local Monpa chiefs that the Indian government would now administer the area directly. Until then, Tawang was administered by the Lhasa-controlled Tawang Monastery, despite the Shimla conference of 1914 clearly demarcating the regions between India and Tibet with the McMahon Line.
This momentous event apparently went unnoticed in Peking until the Dalai Lama’s surprise escape through the Tawang route. He reached Khinzemane on the McMahon Line on March 31, 1959, where he was received by the Indian political officer in Tawang, T.S. Murty, and then escorted by 5 Assam Rifles till Tezpur. Meanwhile, Lhasa erupted in revolt against the Chinese occupation, and Tawang acquired notoriety in the eyes of the Chinese, even before the 1962 war.
For the 1962 war in Arunachal Pradesh, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) assembled forces in Lhasa and Tsetang. Located north of Tawang on the Tibetan side of the McMahon Line, Tsetang had been the seat of ancient emperors and the cradle of Tibetan civilisation. King Trisong Detsen built Tibet’s first monastery near Tsetang, at Samye, in 779 CE with the assistance of a professor from Nalanda University―Padmasambhava (Tibetan name Rinpoche)―who overcame ‘evil forces’ and subsequently introduced tantric Buddhism in Tibet. From Tsetang, the Forward HQ of Tibet Military Command under Gen Zhang Guohua moved to Lepo near Khinzemane on October 14, 1962, where the Indian Army had staked its claim to the Thagla Ridge and established the now famous Dhola Post.
Major conflicts in the Tawang sector
While the events after the 1962 war are well known, what is perhaps not so well known is that Yangtse (Tibet name: Dongzhang) is the only area in Tawang sector where the Chinese could not initiate operations and where the Indian Army always prevailed. Of five major sub-sectors in Tawang, the PLA initiated operations in all except Yangtse, owing perhaps to the extreme terrain friction and alpine weather conditions. The conditions in the higher reaches of Yangtse―15,000 to 17,000 feet―are similar to Siachen and in the lower reaches―10,000 to 11,000 feet―akin to the Line of Control in the Kashmir valley.
While Namka Chu and Bumla were attacked in 1962, Tulung La and Sumdorong Chu were addressed by the PLA in 1975 and 1987 respectively. After thwarting the Chinese intrusion in Sumdorong Chu in 1987-88, the Indian Army preemptively captured the Yangtse area, thereby foreclosing the avenue of approach for the PLA to Tawang from the east, as also opening up an alternate avenue into Tibet’s historical Tsetang sector for the Indian Army.
Yangtse has very substantially negated the advantageous position gained by the PLA after the 1962 war. Combined with the phenomenal improvement in the capabilities and infrastructure in the other sectors, the Indian Army has now attained a very domineering position in the Tawang sector. In the military history of Tawang region, Yangtse stands as the pillar of strength and glory, and a testimony to the Indian Army’s steadfastness under extreme and trying conditions.
The Lhasa-Tsetang area is the cultural, economic and strategic core of Tibet with immense political significance. Tsetang has also been active in anti-Chinese protests and demonstrations, even in the recent past. A militarily weakened or a politically compromised position in the sector is, therefore, not an acceptable option for China.
The Chinese have accordingly initiated numerous infrastructural and dual-use projects opposite Bumla, Yangtse and Tulung La. Yangtse stands at the centre of Indian capability development efforts in the sector and has the potential to frustrate any misadventure by the PLA in the entire region east of Tawang. The comprehensive ‘rout’ of the PLA soldiers on December 9, 2022, is a testimony to this emerging truism.
As per the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook projections of early 2022, the growth rate of India and China is likely to be above 4 to 5 per cent, not so much for other large economies. The global economic growth is now intrinsically linked to the growth of India and China, which, in turn, necessitates greater amity between the two countries. The scope for cooperation as also competition between these two Asian giants is resultantly high. The issue, however, is whether their growth will be harmonious or acrimonious. Stability in Yangtse and in other recent flashpoints like Galwan and Doklam plays a significant role in ensuring contemporary balance in the geo-strategic space, thereby obviating acrimony and imbalance in the more important economic domain.
So, what will China do in the emerging politico-strategic environment? How significant is the military weakness imposed by the Yangtse rebuff in the security domain vis-à-vis its economic situation, especially when its large state-owned projects are facing debt-servicing problems and returns from external investments, including the Belt and Road Initiative or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, continue to be lethargic? Higher cognisance to security challenges on the Line of Actual Control also has the potential to attenuate China’s potential on its eastern seaboard, especially pertaining to Taiwan and contests with US Inc. The resulting dilemma for China is likely to be high.
In summation, economic exigencies for China are perhaps more important today than security issues. China’s emerging economic challenge and self-imposed security obligation in the east have high probability of restricting the PLA’s misadventures along the LAC. While the LAC may still witness a few face-offs and contests at the tactical level, the frequency and intensity of large intrusion attempts may reduce. On ground, the PLA will perhaps soon realise the futility of attempting intrusions akin to the one in Yangtse or earlier ones in Galwan and Doklam. Contextually, India’s capability in the security domain is likely to improve at a pace faster than that of China as long as the latter’s eastern seaboard and Taiwan challenges persist or till China agrees to resolve the LAC and the border issue.
―The writer is former deputy chief of Army Staff. Before his retirement on October 31, 2022, he commanded the Gajraj Corps in 2020, with responsibility over the Tawang-Yangtse sector, among others.