The Chinese attempt to seize a post is not a simple face-off as it is being made in some quarters. The implications of the loss of the Yangtse post would have been very costly for India. It is to the credit of the Indian Army that they thwarted this attempt very professionally.
The recent face-off at Tawang is not a simple chance encounter between troops on a routine patrol. It was a deliberate operation by the PLA to dislodge our post and get a foothold on a vantage point on the LAC near Yangtse. It would have given the Chinese a clear view into our area and activities. It would have also permanently altered the status quo of the LAC unilaterally by force. It would have been the first salami slice of things to come later. In this article I will attempt to put across the issues involved and the larger ramifications of this incident.
The Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh is based on the MacMahon Line. It starts from the Bhutan border in the west, runs east along the Himalayan watershed. In the end it turns southwards to terminate at the tri-junction of India-Myanmar-China borders. There are many places/areas which are disputed and where China and India have their own perception of the LAC. There are a number of passes on the watershed along the LAC. Many of these passes are at altitudes ranging from 13,000 to 16,500 feet and have military significance. From Tibet, all the important passes are either connected by a link road from their main highway parallel to the LAC or a roadhead close by. The network of the roads closer to the LAC is comparatively better developed opposite the Kameng Sector/Tawang Tract. The strategic Kameng Sector lies in the western extremity near the India, Tibet and Bhutan trijunction. The important passes in the Kameng Sector are Khenzemane, Bum La and Tulung La. There are other minor passes which can be used in conjunction with these. Yangtse is one such minor pass to the east which can be used in conjunction with Bum La. All these passes were extensively used by the Chinese in 1962 and form the main approaches into India in the Kameng Sector. The approaches lead on to the town of Bomdila through the Sela massif at 14,000 feet and thence on to the lower foothills of Assam. Cross-country movement between valleys is severely restricted by the high intervening ridges. The area has loose subsoil conditions and hence road building and movement along most of these valleys is difficult.
The Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh is based on its distorted version of history. It was published by the Global Times: “In 1681, the 5th Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso ordered the construction of Tawang Monastery and since then, Tawang had been a political, religious, economic and cultural centre of the Menyu area where the Tawang district is located and which was effectively administrated by the local Tibetan governments. The 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso was born in Tawang and thereafter, the region has been considered as a sacred place by Tibetans.” As an extension to this logic the Tawang Tract is considered to be part of Tibet. Since Tawang is also a part of Arunachal Pradesh, the entire state is now claimed as “South Tibet”.
The overall border agreement and management is based on the “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” of 2005. When this agreement was signed, China did not lay claim to any part of Arunachal Pradesh as being part of Tibet. The entity called South Tibet did not exist. All this was manufactured after 2003. The entire claim is expansionist and hegemonistic in nature and plainly illegal. In fact this was their first salami slice carried out in 2003 to set stage for what is happening now.
THE THREAT & OPTIONS
China will explore all avenues—political, diplomatic and military—to annex areas up to its claimed line all along the Tibet border. All Chinese military attempts to annex Arunachal Pradesh will be progressed through Tibet. China will also pressurise Bhutan in order to achieve its objectives. It will also use the LAC as a political and military pressure point to keep India off balance. Overall, China will use direct and indirect approaches to achieve its desired end state. The manifestation of Chinese military moves will span a spectrum commencing from “salami slicing” nibbling actions to outright war. The outcomes sought from each objective will depend upon the overall Sino-Indian strategic situation and the international environment.
In the Kameng sector, the Chinese terminal objective is to capture Tawang. It will develop operations along the Bum La, Khenzemane and Tulung La axes. The base for such any offensive is the Lhasa-Shanan area, which is approximately 125-150 km from the LAC as the crow flies. Capturing Tawang will enable China to coalesce all areas that have a direct connection with Tibetan Buddhism and consolidate its hold over Tibet. In case they are successful in capturing Tawang, they would have also taught India a major lesson. However, capturing Tawang is a major high risk military adventure, since the entire campaign will have to be fought in high altitudes. Its chances of success are poor unless combined with other actions.
It must also be reiterated that China has laid claim to the Sakteng sanctuary in 2020. Sakteng is 100 km deep into Bhutan. It is contiguous to the Tawang Tract. Though unsaid, China will claim it as part of South Tibet based on manufactured facts. Chinese presence in Sakteng outflanks Tawang defences. If China overwhelms Bhutan and forces its way to Sakteng, then it is knocking at the rear of Tawang defences. This is a mirror of what happened in 1962, when the Chinese infiltrated through Tulung La to bypass Indian defences and laid roadblocks in the rear to unhinge all Indian defences (see maps). A combination of a direct approach to Tawang and an indirect approach through Sakteng poses severe military threats to India.
As a precursor to any major offensive, direct or indirect, China will have to get significant foothold on the LAC and build a base for any major operation. The current attempt at Yangtse is the initial attempt to do so. Beyond the military significance the attempt has to be seen in strategic and geopolitical terms also.
GEOPOLITICAL AND STRATEGIC ISSUES
This deliberate attempt to capture the Yangtse post has taken place in the thick of winter when routine troop turnover was in process. China has pitted 200-300 troops as against 50 troops on our post. The force ratio of 6:1 itself suggests that this operation could have only been conceived at the highest levels in China, given that Xi Jinping has totally consolidated power and has full control over PLA. The justification for this operation is that China is only retaking its claimed areas occupied by India. The Chinese reaction and narrative are based on this fact. If it had been seized, China would have reinforced it and made it impregnable through the winter. China would then have permanently altered the LAC and have had a base from which it would have progressed further operations in depth at a later date. The whole operation would have been publicised as a victory and India would have been shown as a weak nation through typical communist propaganda.
If the operation had succeeded, it would have been a political victory for Xi Jinping. This typical salami slicing tactic would have also externalised and diverted attention from China’s internal economic, social and Zero Covid related turmoil. It would have raised PLA morale and made it look once again as an invincible force. It would have given an opportunity to reignite the dying flames of nationalism in China, which were eroding due to internal issues. Capturing an Indian post in winter gives China a huge geopolitical advantage and teaches India a lesson. On the other hand, any failure can be underplayed as thwarting aggression by the Indian Army into Chinese territory. That is how the Chinese narrative is unfolding.
This initiative also serves as political messaging for the Indo-US military exercises conducted in Auli recently. It could also have been to create a situation on the LAC to enforce postponement of the IAF exercises being conducted in the east. Once India’s attention is fixed on the LAC, China could have enhanced its activities in the Indian Ocean. It is right up China’s alley to start something like this to fix our attention on the LAC. Overall, the LAC is being used as a pressure point by China to impose its will on India as also to send out a larger international message.
There is every indication that annexing Taiwan is China’s priority. However military action against Taiwan is complicated and has a huge risk of failure with an inexperienced PLA. Xi Jinping cannot afford a failure. He needs a victory. On the other hand, military action against India along the LAC can be undertaken at a time and place of China’s choice, with less resources and calibrated for maximum effect. Further, political risks are low with exit options available. Hence, from all points of view, India is the greater priority militarily. This is borne out by the number of incidents along the LAC in the past few years. This incident, though a Chinese failure, portends more attempts by the Chinese in the future. We need to be prepared accordingly.
Overall, the Chinese attempt to seize a post is not a simple face-off as it is being made in some quarters. The implications of the loss of the Yangtse post would have been very costly for India. It is to the credit of the Indian Army that they thwarted this attempt very professionally. The Indian Army jawan has once again proven that he is second to none in the Himalayas, the toughest battlefield in the world. India needs to salute him. In the same there are many lessons for India in this incident. However, we can look at them on a later day.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired) is a retired Director General of Artillery. The General Officer is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. His articles are available at www.gunnersshot.com