India-China clash: Why Beijing has opened new front in Tawang

Speaking less than a day after the incident of Indian and Chinese troops clashing along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh came to light, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh spoke in Parliament assuring members that no Indian soldier had lost their lives or was injured severely. Accusing China of unilaterally trying to change the status quo on the boundary, the minister also claimed that in a flag meeting soon after, the Indian Army’s local commander warned his counterpart against such incursions.

The problem, however, is that this is not the first time the two countries have clashed in the area. In October 2021, soldiers from the two sides briefly clashed in the area between Bum La and Yangtse, close to the LAC. That incident is believed to have started the same way as the current one — through disputes during patrolling. It led to the temporary detention of some PLA soldiers and was eventually resolved through meetings at the local commanders’ level.

While both incidents have been resolved without any loss of life on either side or major injury, what they indicate in the context of the overall relationship when considered together is far more serious.

For one, this is increasingly a sign that areas of active contestation and attempts at unilaterally altering the status quo along the boundary are no longer going to be limited to the Western Sector. China has traditionally been active in areas close to Ladakh given the significance of the Xinjiang-Tibet region in its domestic narrative. However, with its sights on an ageing Dalai Lama, and the issue of his succession, Beijing will want to bring into focus its claims on Tawang, and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh.

China has invested in infrastructure in the Eastern Sector over many years. This includes rail, road, and air connectivity, better telecommunications, as well as improved capacity to station and supply troops and artillery. While India has begun to catch up, as the Chief of Army Staff himself admitted in September, “there are lots to be desired to be done in the eastern sector”. A particular source of concern would be reports of three additional PLA brigades that have been stationed in the area before China’s 20th Party Congress in October.

The other major factor is the centrality of the boundary issue in the India-China relationship. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has repeatedly asserted that it is no longer possible to separate the boundary question from the overall relationship and that peace and tranquillity on the LAC is the key to restoring relations. However, China is likely to keep up the pressure on the ground along the LAC, even as they continue to suggest that the two countries look beyond the differences, much like Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s comments during his March 2022 visit when he claimed that the two sides need to “inject more positive energy” into the relationship.

This inability to see eye to eye on the issue of a key aspect of the relationship is problematic and indicates further cracks in an already strained system of negotiating the boundary issue.

In the current clash, as in Galwan in June 2020, the two sides did not carry firearms, but, instead, fought with stones, clubs, and sticks with spikes. This effectively keeps to the bilateral agreements that forbid soldiers from using firearms but also cements the idea that the two sides have found ways to fight each other while keeping to the word, if not the spirit of the agreements. It is hard to see an easy way for India and China to find ways to come back to the table to discuss peace along the boundary when the basics worked out over three decades are beginning to fragment.

The article was published in the Indian Express on December 14, 2022.


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